Iraqi exiles split on post-Saddam
By Anton La Guardia and Adel Darwish
Iraq's opposition groups fell into open disarray yesterday when they abruptly cancelled their announcement of ambitious plans to set up a provisional government to replace Saddam Hussein.
The fiasco is a particular embarrassment to Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), who tried to push the move despite opposition from within his own movement and other Iraqi factions.
Mr Chalabi is a favourite of the US Pentagon to succeed Saddam but his inability to forge a credible consensus raises troubling questions about who will lead Iraq should America move to topple Saddam.
The INC, based in London, issued invitations on Thursday to a press conference in Kensington to announce "plans for a provisional government to be established on Iraqi soil".
It was supposed to be joined by another group, the US-based Iraqi National Movement (INM) led by the exiled general, Hassan al-Naquib.
The plan was for a provisional government to be declared, probably in northern Iraq, once the US begins military action.
"Saddam's regime is about to fall," said Sherif Ali Bin Hussein, the INC spokesman and head of a monarchist group, earlier this week.
"We must move from being exiled opposition into preparing a broad base provisional government representing all Iraqis."
But hours before the meeting was due to be held, the INC announced that it had been indefinitely postponed "to enable further discussion among Iraqi opposition groups".
The failed attempt to present an alternative to Saddam has further divided the fragmented Iraqi opposition.
"It was not a very clever move," said Dilshad Miran, the London representative of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the main components of the INC.
"A provisional government is not something to be taken lightly. It dents the credibility of the opposition and reinforces the impression that it is disunited."
He complained that the announcement had been planned without consulting members of the INC. "We are not happy about what is going on," he said. "The INC is not functioning."
Other exiles were also scathing. "It's a stupid thing," said Saad Saleh Jabr, head of the London-based Free Iraqi Council. "It's too early, too premature. The guys who are not in [the provisional government] will all be against it."
Iraqi opposition sources said objections from the 15-man Military Council, a group of exiled military officers set up at a conference in London earlier this month, convinced the INC to drop the announcement.
Brig Tawfiq Al-Yasiri, spokesman for the council, said: "A provisional government is usually the last card for an opposition in exile to play. If you play it now you burn it prematurely and you create a new target for the enemy to attack and possibly destroy."
Foreign Office officials also advised against the move as "premature". The Government has tried to play down the prospect of imminent military action against Iraq involving British forces.
Faced with opposition to a new war in Iraq from parts of the Labour party and the Church of England, Tony Blair has promised to publish an intelligence dossier on Iraq's attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction to justify any military action.
Washington may be seeking to raise the temperature over Iraq's secret nuclear programme. US officials told the Washington Times that Iraq was trying to buy special stainless-steel tubing of the sort needed to build centrifuges to extract material for nuclear weapons.
"We know they have been trying to obtain this material but so far have not been successful," one official told the newspaper. "This is only one sign that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear-weapons program."
According to Iraqi exile sources, Saddam is concentrating troops in major cities in the hope of drawing American forces into bloody street-to-street fighting. They claimed that the Iraqi government was using civilians as "human shields" by moving anti-aircraft guns and missiles close to schools and hospitals.