How Did the Iraqi Opposition Come into Existence?

History Q & A

Dr. Rabil served with the Red Cross in Lebanon, taught at Suffolk University, and currently is the project manager of Iraq Research and Documentation Project at the Iraq Foundation, Washington, DC. He is the author of the new book, Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel, and Lebanon (Lynne Rienner Publishers).

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Calls for liberating Iraq and bringing democracy to the country have been heralded by members of the Bush administration as part of the policy of regime change. "Iraqis deserve freedom and democracy," the oft-repeated saying goes. Central to this position is the key question whether the Iraqi opposition has reached a higher level of unity and both the determination and ability, with U.S. help, to develop a new democratic regime. Given its history of perennial infighting, the opposition has made strides toward common unity based on deposing Saddam. But its capacity to foster and pursue democratic principles has yet to be proven.

Generally speaking, the opposition went through four phases since the current government took power in 1968. During the first phase, from 1968 to 1980, opposition to the regime was local. Although Iran had supported a Kurdish rebellion, the regime was able to suppress the opposition and solidify its own rule. The regime exploited both the opposition's internal dissent and rivalry and the country's deep structural changes brought about by the post-1973 hike in oil revenues to deal the opposition camp severe blows. During this period, the opposition consisted mainly of the Kurdish movement led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), the Arab nationalists and the Islamic movement, led by the Da'wa party. Following the collapse of the Kurdish rebellion, the KDP split into two main factions, the KDP-Provisional Command and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The eruption of the Iran-Iraq War marked a new phase in the development of the opposition. Iraq's neighbors, mainly Iran and Syria, began to support the opposition on a scale hitherto unseen. But the opposition forces themselves had little success creating a united front. Consequently, the opposition lost the initiative as it ineluctably deferred to the decisions of its regional supporters, who tried not only to control them but also to play off one party against another. In November 1980, Damascus hosted the inauguration of an alliance of opposition forces, the Democratic Patriotic and National Front (DPNF), which included nationalist and Kurdish groups and the ICP. Iran, on the other hand, in a move to close Shi'I ranks, supported the creation of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Throughout the war, Iran and Syria coordinated with the opposition camp, especially the Kurds, to undermine Saddam's regime.

Saddam's reaction to Kurdish collaboration came in the form of one sweeping operation, code-named Termination of Traitors, aiming at destroying the political, economic, social and military foundations of the Kurds. The final phase of the operation culminated in the Anfal (Spoils) campaign, characterized by the use of chemical weapons and lasting from February to September 1988. The tragic consequences of the Anfal campaign pushed the Kurdish opposition to put temporarily aside their differences and to establish the Iraqi Kurdistan Front (IKF) in May 1988.

Of the regional countries, Turkey posed the greatest dilemma for the Kurdish opposition. Given its own large Kurdish minority, Ankara wanted to prevent any situation that might fuel Kurdish sentiments for independence in Turkey. With Iraq's tacit agreement, Turkish forces made several air raids across the border in 1986 and 1987 into Kurdish camps, thereby establishing a pattern of involvement in northern Iraq that has continued since.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and subsequent American-led efforts to build an international, anti-Iraq coalition marked a new phase in the relations among opposition parties as well as between regional countries and the opposition camp. In general, the Kurdish parties adopted a "wait and see" position to find out the outcome of the confrontation. Following the invasion, Damascus tried to bring the opposition together and strategize a unified plan of action. Damascus and Tehran were concerned about a possible transition of power in Iraq and therefore they sought to have a say regarding the composition of any new government. Syria's efforts materialized with the establishment of the Joint Action Committee in December 1990. The Iraqi opposition consisted mainly at the time of the Kurdish parties, the pro-Damascus parties (pro-Syrian Ba'thists, some Nationalists, Iraqi officers and Communists), and the pro-Tehran Islamist parties, mainly Sciri and Da'wa.

While war was raging in the Gulf, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and opposition parties were engaged in shuttle diplomacy to convene the first national Iraqi opposition congress. At the same time, Saudi Arabia supported the creation of the Iraqi National Accord (INA), which included former Ba'thi officials. The congress took place in Beirut in March 1991, coinciding with the spontaneous uprising that engulfed Iraq. The congress succeeded only in bringing opposition groups under one roof. The regional countries' different future visions of Iraq clashed with the opposition's personal rivalries and ideological differences. The failure of the congress marked the gradual shift of the opposition from a regional to an international phenomenon.

In the aftermath of the failed uprising, the opposition was in disarray. However, it tried to break free from the grip of regional countries, which it perceived as harmful to the cause. Toward this end, it convened a congress in Vienna in the summer of 1992 which elected the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an umbrella organization including most opposition parties. In addition, the opposition began to seek international support, mainly from the U.S. Equally significant, opposition groups convened two congresses in Salahuddin, Iraqi Kurdistan, in the fall of 1992, in which they agreed to the principles that a future Iraq would remain geographically united and headed by a democratic, federal government. Many independent democrats participated in these congresses.

As the campaign to topple Saddam has been gathering momentum in Washington, the Iraqi opposition has been attempting to close its ranks and adopt a unified position to present itself as the alternative government for Saddam's regime. In this respect, it succeeded to a large extent in working together as a group united by two principles: Toppling Saddam's regime and calling for a democratic form of government with federalism at its basis. This marked a new phase and a defining moment for the opposition.

However, a closer examination of the oppositions groups' intentions and motives reveals schisms beneath the surface that, if not addressed, could again split the opposition and prove disastrous to possible U.S. intervention in Iraq. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) has shift to supporting U.S. intervention, but it rests largely on SCIRI's apprehension about Iraq's readiness to use non-conventional weapons. It is more interested in U.S. protection than in U.S. intervention or in any future role for America in building a new Iraq. SCIRI has remained vague about the specifics of federalism. Given that the Shi'a are the majority and there exists no secular Shi'a party, this could well mean that SCIRI has ulterior motives not only to acquire a determinative role in a future Iraqi government but also the ability to enhance its Islamist agenda.

Equally significant, the KDP issued a draft constitution in April 2002 that reflects both Kurdish wariness and doubts about power-sharing arrangements and Kurdish aspirations for complete autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan. Subsequently, a joint committee representing the KDP and PUK approved the core of the draft constitution. The amended version outlines the structure of a regional administration in Iraqi Kurdistan, including legislative, judiciary and executive responsibilities. The region would have a flag, presidency, and the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk as capital. This elicited a swift warning of military intervention from Turkey. Importantly, as the U.S. has been preparing for a possible military confrontation with Iraq, the opposition groups failed to convene a congress in Brussels in mid-November. With the help of U.S. mediation that insisted on not discussing the specifics of Iraq's future government, mainly federalism, another congress was convened in London in mid-December in large part to elect a steering committee that could form the nucleus of a future transitional government.

SCIRI, the Kurdish parties, and to lesser extent the INA and INC dominated the congress to the chagrin of all others including the independent democrats. In fact, the predominant groups shared in the hotel where the congress convened a whole floor and blocked access to it. The result was a cabal-like meeting that elected a committee produced by horse-trading and including the disciples of the predominant groups. Prominent independents were not included, let alone consulted. According to a prominent independent democrat the congress "did not even contain a whiff of democracy."

If this is a foretaste in democratic engagement, the Iraqi opposition is in serious trouble indeed. Clearly, the Iraqi opposition may be entering its most challenging era in history, with the potential rewards for success and penalties of failure extremely high.

This article is excerpted from Mr. Rabil's,""The Iraqi Opposition's Evolution: From Conflict To Unity?" Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal (Vol. 6, No. 4, December 2002). For a free subscription to MERIA Journal, write gloria@idc.ac.il. To see all previous issues and MERIA materials visit http://meria.idc.ac.il and http://gloria.idc.ac.il.


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