Saddam's enemies seek refuge in the West
Fearing death, the opposition flees to the borde
Patrick Cockburn is an Irish journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and, presently, The Independent. He was awarded Foreign Commentator of the Year at the 2013 Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards.
Monday 16 September 1996
"We expect death is coming," said Ahmed al-Nassari, a leader of the Iraqi National Congress, (INC) the umbrella group which once tried to unite all the opponents of President Saddam Hussein. "There are Iraqi agents everywhere."
There was a mood of fear and exhilaration in the forecourt of the former hotel where the Iraqi opposition had been based for four years. Some 250 young men, many clutching their sub-machine-guns, were loading bags of belongings into 10 blue-and-white buses and two lorries, declaring that they would leave regardless of whether they got permission to go from their former Kurdish allies in Salahudin.
"We cannot abandon our weapons,"Mr Nassari said. Outside, a young Iraqi said: "The KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] is just an arm of Saddam."
The several hundred Iraqi dissidents who have been crammed into their headquarters have every reason to be frightened. When Massoud Barzani, the KDP leader, briefly allied himself with Iraq to capture the Kurdish capital Arbil, some 100 members of the INC were cornered by Iraqi security and shot. Others, captured, are likely to be tortured, then executed.
At the KDP headquarters further up the hill in Salahudin, the former resort where Kurds and Iraqi opposition have tried to co-exist, there was little sympathy for the INC. Sami Abd-al-Rahman, a senior member of the KDP leadership, said its members were exaggerating their danger in order to get political asylum in the US.This is much too harsh. The KDP were members of the INC and by allowing the Iraqi army into Arbil they were directly responsible for the slaughter of their former allies.
But relations between the two were already sour. The INC, led by Ahmed Chalabi, a former Iraqi banker, was part funded by the CIA, but never made up its mind about the sort of organisation it intended to be. This was partly because it united Iraqi Shia and Sunni Muslims, the warring Kurdish parties and a multitude of groups, each with its own foreign backers. Relations with the KDP had never quite recovered from a brief attempt to launch an offensive against the Iraqi army from Kurdistan in March 1995.
Shortly afterwards, all former ambitions of the INC had disappeared in the desire to escape. "If we hear nothing from the Kurds we will simply go," said one Iraqi. Behind him was a large painting showing Saddam Hussein's victory monument in Baghdad, built after the Iran-Iraq war and consisting of two giant hands clutching sabres, collapsing in ruins before the rising star of the INC.
Permission to leave for Zakho on the Iraqi side of the border came at 3am and the Iraqis climbed aboard their buses. By daybreak the headquarters was deserted except for 25 Kurds who had acted as guards and been left behind. "Of course we wanted to go too," said one, called Nikad Salim. "But I think they betrayed us."
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