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Friday, 12 July, 2002, 22:44 GMT 23:44 UK
Ex-officers call for Saddam's removal
Former Crown Prince Hassan with Sharif Ali Bin Al-Hussein of the INC
Prince Hassan of Jordan, left, attended the conference

More than 200 exiled Iraqi military officers, politicians and religious leaders have pledged themselves to support the removal of Saddam Hussein by any means - including an American led invasion - and to work for a democratic Iraq.

The exiles gathered in London, in the unlikely setting of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall.


I hope that the United States will support the Iraqi people to overthrow the regime

Sheikh Mohammed Mohammed Ali

Arab coffee and baklava were served. And while there was not a military uniform to be seen, everyone knew that military means of one kind or another might have to be used before Saddam Hussein goes.

There was quite a stir just before the meeting began, when Prince Hassan of Jordan, brother of former King Hussein, walked in and moved to the front shaking hands all round.

"I am here to say hello to my friends," he said in a gesture of support. He embraced a cousin of King Faisal, the last king of Iraq.

Army support

One of the officers getting the most attention was a former tank commander in the Republican Guard, Brigadier Najib-al Salihi, who defected in 1995 after Saddam Hussein's secret police discovered a plot to mount a coup.

Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein has been in power for three decades
He told me that the Iraqi Military Alliance, as the grouping of military exiles is called, had supporters in the current Iraqi army.

"They are ready to support an intervention from outside and establish a new democratic government", he said. "I hope that a clear message will reach the Iraqi forces and people from this meeting to clarify what is happening about preparations being made for changing the regime".

That claim of contact with forces inside Iraq was made by others. It is impossible to verify.

But the meeting did have an air of confidence about it which gathering of Iraqi exiles have not had in the past. This time, they think the Americans are serious.

Dictators

Sheikh Mohammed Mohammed Ali, a Shiite Muslim cleric who left Iraq in 1980, openly called for American intervention: "I hope that the United States will support the Iraqi people to overthrow the regime," he said.

He predicted that if there was a military operation against Saddam Hussein the regime would not last "more than a week or two".

George W. Bish
President Bush wants to overthrow Saddam Hussein
There was a big effort at the meeting to try to reassure anyone listening that this was not just one bunch of military men waiting to take over from another.

Sharif Ali bin Al Hussein of the main exiled civilian opposition group the Iraqi National Congress - and cousin of King Faisal - said: "We do not want to replace one dictator with another".

Another INC leader Albert Yelda, who has been in exile since 1975 but who went back briefly during the failed uprising against Saddam in 1991, predicted another popular revolt: "There will be an uprising against the regime if there is a foreign intervention".

Mr Yelda called the meeting "unique and historic". All the officers were committed to a democratic, federal, and constitutional Iraq, he said.

An alliance between military and civilian groups was evident in the obviously close relationship between Ahmed Chalabi, a former banker who heads the INC, and General Tawfiq Al-Yassiri, who chatted smilingly. Mr Al-Yassiri helped lead the Shiite rebellion in 1991 and later escaped.

Past mistakes

One absentee was General Nizar Khazraj which showed that perhaps not all exiles were quite as united as was being claimed.

Mohammed Mohammed Ali
Mohammed Mohammed Ali would welcome US troops
One sceptical observer was Neil Partrick from the Economist Intelligence Unit. He said that he had spotted diplomats from the United States and Britain there briefly and described the meeting as "publicity for the US and UK" as they begin to gather support for military action.

He doubted whether the officers and civilian figures present would be a factor in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Indeed, the United States has tried and failed before to engineer a coup and to foster rebellion.

It is only because such methods have failed that President Bush is now talking of using "all tools" to enforce the "regime change" Washington wants in Iraq.

But some of the figures at the London meeting might well be heard from again before this is all over.


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11 Jul 02 | Politics
09 Jul 02 | Middle East
21 Mar 02 | Middle East
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