Putting aside past hatreds, the Iraqi opposition struggled to unite at a conference in London yesterday to create the basis for an interim administration for Iraq to rule the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Opposition leaders said they had no plans for a government in exile, but delegates at the conference saw it as the opening shots in the struggle for power in Baghdad in the aftermath of an American attack.
"Why would they all be here if they did not want a share in a new administration?" asked one of the 350 Iraqi opposition delegates.
Some of the leaders at the conference already hold substantial power. Mustafa Barzani and Jalal Talabani, who already rule four million people in Iraqi Kurdistan, swept into the conference surrounded by aides and guards, with the confidence of men who know that they must be part of a post-President Saddam settlement.
"We need a body which will act fast and be able to form a transition government on the ground once the liberation process begins," said Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, which is well-connected in Washington but without any evidence of support in Iraq itself.
Such talk makes the US officials at the conference nervous. While supporting the meeting to show that a united opposition backs American war plans, they do not want a provisional government that would alienate serving Iraqi generals who might be persuaded to mutiny against President Saddam.
Zalmay Khalilzad, President George Bush's envoy to the Iraqi opposition, said President Saddam, not the Iraqi army, was the target of a war.
The complex differences of the opposition in exile reflect real divisions within Iraq. Most of those gathered in the Hilton Metropole hotel on Edgware Road were Kurds or Shia Muslims, the two communities that make up three-quarters of the Iraqi population but have traditionally been denied power in Baghdad. There were far fewer important Sunni Muslims, the community to which President Saddam belongs and that makes up much of the Iraqi establishment.
The delegates hope for a US attack that will overthrow President Saddam. But they are also worried that long-term opponents of the Iraqi government may be pushed to one side by a US military administration, possibly co-operating with a few local groups dependant on American support. They are also wary of being seen inside Iraq as puppets of the US. A draft final statement "rejects either foreign occupation or military rule either directly or indirectly".
Some have no doubt that this is going to happen. Standing outside the Hilton in the rain, 100 demonstrators carried banners denouncing a war against Iraq. One read: "Bush and Blair will murder thousands for oil." Inside the hotel Mudhar Shawkat of the Iraqi National Movement said: "They are all Pakistanis without an Iraqi among them. I hope the rain gets heavier."
Meanwhile, the conference appeared to have united by late yesterday on a call to try 49 officials of the current Iraqi regime for crimes against the Iraqi people.
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