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Tuesday, 17 December, 2002, 22:32 GMT
Exile jostling dominates Iraq talks
Delegates at the conference
There was tension, acrimony and dramatic walkouts

Iraqi opposition groups have ended four days - and four long nights - of often heated discussions with the announcement of agreement on a blueprint for Iraq's political future after Saddam Hussein.

While most of the passion and attention were focused on the composition of a follow-up committee, the more significant achievements passed with little controversy.

The Americans are pleased with the results, and support what we have agreed

Ahmad Chalabi
Iraqi National Congress
The 300-plus delegates from about 50 factions - including some 150 independent personalities - approved a political document endorsing the vision of a pluralistic democracy based on a federation between Iraq's two basic nationalities, the Arabs and the Kurds.

Another document proposes interim structures - including a provisional government and parliament - to bridge a two-year gap between the hoped-for downfall of Saddam Hussein and the holding of free elections and a referendum on a new constitution.

Despite their significance, these elements were largely agreed in advance and were not the subject of particular discord.

Place hunt

The haggling, much of it conducted behind closed doors in a central London hotel, was largely reserved for the places on the follow-up and co-ordination committee that was the only tangible outcome of the gathering.

Organisers originally envisaged that it might involve about 20 seats.

Open in new window : Iraqi opposition
Views from the conference

But by the time the conference ended, the number had swollen to 65 to accommodate as many as possible of those trying to clamber aboard - and there were signs that it might even be extended to 75 or more, to make room for disgruntled exclusions.

Many delegates clearly felt that the committee might, in certain circumstances, end up providing the nucleus of the proposed interim government.


Competition for places on the committee, rather than any kind of ideological disputes, was the issue that sparked angry walk-outs at various stages of the proceedings, including a last-minute withdrawal by five Islamic factions - four from the majority Shia community and one from the Kurdish Sunnis.

They angrily accused the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) of monopolising representation of the Shia, who are reckoned to make up more than half of Iraq's population.

Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim (r) of Sciri
Sciri was accused of monopolising the Shia representation
"Everything has been cooked up behind closed doors upstairs," complained Ihsan Abdul Aziz from the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan.

"There is a honeymoon between America and Iran, and they want to leave other parties aside."

The allusion to "upstairs" was a reference to the largely behind-the-scenes presence of President George W Bush's special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, who spent many hours trying to smooth over differences between the fractious Iraqi leaders.

US pressure

Delegates admitted that the conference probably would not have happened at this time were it not for a good deal of prodding from Washington, which wants a display of support from a broad spectrum of Iraqis to supplement UN backing in the event of war.

"The Americans are pleased with the results, and support what we have agreed," said a beaming Ahmad Chalabi, chairman of the Iraqi National Congress, one of six factions which have been granted $92m by Washington to pursue their campaign to topple Saddam Hussein.

The follow-up committee is already scheduled to convene in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq in mid-January to start practical business, such as setting up sub-committees to oversee different aspects of the opposition's activities, such as relations with foreign backers and with opposition forces inside government-controlled Iraq.

It may also decide to set up a smaller, more manageable leadership committee to direct affairs.

Delegates conceded that, if Saddam Hussein should fall, provision would have to be made for leaders currently inside Iraq to join the government process. So the formation of a government-in-exile was never on the agenda.


Bringing so many disparate factions and figures together and getting them to agree on anything was never going to be easy.

Iraq is a complex patchwork society with no real democratic tradition.

In 1991, the Americans drew back from pushing to Baghdad, fearful of the consequences of removing Saddam Hussein's tight central control.

But conference sources said that privately as well as publicly, US envoy Khalilzad committed Washington to bringing democracy to Iraq, not replacing the current regime with "Saddamism without Saddam".

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See also:

17 Dec 02 | Middle East
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