Iraqi opposition wary of US governing plan
The Jerusalem Post

April 8, 2003

The day after the war could be today. With US forces biting off huge chunks of sprawling Baghdad, Iraqi opposition groups have grown restive as the imposition of an American military governorship for the next six months to a year seems inevitable.

Hamed al-Bayati, spokesman for the Shi'ite-led Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, warned that Iraq's Shi'ites, who constitute 65 percent of the country's population, could rebel should the US overstay its welcome.

"We've told our people to reject a military governorship," said Bayati in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post. "Appointing an American military governor is going to be counterproductive. We're going to see many fundamentalist groups use this as a pretext for attack."

They cite Afghanistan and Kuwait after the last Gulf War as examples of states that were immediately granted their independence. The fear, Bayati added, that the US appetite for oil motivates its impending decision to establish a military governorship haunts both Iraqis and the Arab world.

But the Supreme Council, headed by Iranian-hosted Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, are alone in believing that "Iraqis are fully capable and have the right to control their own country and govern themselves."

For its part, the US contends that it is already setting the stage for the Iraqi opposition. It revealed Monday that it airlifted Iraqi National Council leader Ahmed Chalabi and some 600 Iraqi exiles to Nasiriyah to reduce tensions.

The Kurds of northern Iraq, steeled by centuries of statelessness into pragmatists, are burdened by no illusions that Iraq will be granted immediate autonomy.

The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are the only Iraqi opposition groups to hold territory inside Iraq. Though Iraqi Kurdistan is recognized on no map, the hardscrabble mini-state the two organizations slapped together is possibly one of only two democracies in the Middle East. Internet access is open and it boasts relative freedom of expression, a market economy, and now blossoming relations with the US.

"One cannot expect Iraqis to practice democracy so quickly. There can't be democracy without food, water, or electricity," a KDP official told the Post Monday.

Whereas coalition forces were met in the Shi'ite stronghold of Basra with fierce resistance, and at best neutrality, in Iraqi Kurdistan US Special Forces were literally pelted with flowers and dragged into homes for tea.

The Kurds like to say that they have "no friends but the mountains," but in this war, says the KDP source "it was like a dream. We never had any power, much less a super military power, in our side. Every other army has fought us, from the Turks to the Syrians, the Iranians and Iraq."

As many as 60,000 Kurdish Peshmerga, or fighters, are working under the Special Forces to quell regime strongholds in northern Iraq. In addition, the US is about to airlift 3,000 Iraqis in exile, many of them Kurds, back to Iraq to act as liaisons to the Iraqi people.

Bayati's comment drew the wrath of some opposition members who consider it an attempt to scuttle Iraq's only shot at stability. "The Shi'tes' mentality never changes," said a source from the PUK, "Why did they not rise up against Saddam? His was an irresponsible statement reflecting the position of leaders in Iran. But if [Ayatollah] Hakin arrived in Najaf, I doubt we'd have another similar statement."

"The Shi'ites don't trust Americans as we do," said the PUK source, "they need time, things are changing. They don't trust the foreign armies, but it is our position that the Americans are here not to occupy but to rebuild Iraq."

The concoction of Kurds loyal to the US and Shi'ites itching for immediate autonomy could be explosive, believes Ofra Benjo, an Iraq specialist at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center.

Iraq has a long history of violence, she said. "This might eventually compel the US to utilize the tools of Saddam to enforce its rule. The question is how much power America wants to give the Shi'a."

"The burden to engineer a new society is upon them," Benjo added. She estimates that a bloody decade could pass before the US has transformed a Muslim-Arab society into a Western-style democracy.