WITH THE LAST days of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship apparently at hand, the question of who will replace him moves to the forefront. President George W. Bush and the democracy hawks populating his administration say they believe the Middle Eastern country could — and should — adopt democracy as its new form of governance. "The United States has no intention of determining the precise form of Iraq’s new government," Bush said last month in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute. "That choice belongs to the Iraqi people. Yet, we will ensure that one brutal dictator is not replaced by another. All Iraqis must have a voice in the new government, and all citizens must have their rights protected." Bush likened an Iraq without Hussein to Germany and Japan after World War II. Like them, Bush stated "Iraq — with its proud heritage, abundant resources, and skilled and educated people — is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom."
But who will lead the way? There are a number of opposition groups located within and outside Iraq that could take a leading role in the aftermath of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s ouster (which may very well have occurred by the time you read this). There’s the Kurdistan Democratic Party, headed by Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Jalal Talabani. (Both groups share control of Northern Iraq, which has been made into a de facto safe haven, thanks to US-patrolled no-fly zones.) Then there's the Tehran, Iran–based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which represents the interests of Shia Muslims who constitute the religious majority of Iraq — some 65 percent of the population. Of course, this crew, which would likely impose religious rule, isn’t exactly what the democracy hawks have in mind to lead an enlightened Middle Eastern democracy. There’s also the Iraqi National Accord, otherwise known as Wifaq, consisting of members of the Sunni Muslim ruling class. In 1996, it launched an unsuccessful effort to depose Hussein from within. And then there’s Adnan Pachachi, a 79-year-old former Iraqi-government minister whom the Bush administration has contacted in recent weeks to discuss his possible participation in Iraqi reconstruction. Pachachi, part of the traditional Sunni elite, holds the appeal — to the State Department — of being a secular, patrician figure whose father served under the old Iraqi monarchy.
Perhaps the most ambitious of the opposition groups poised to set up shop in a post-Saddam Iraq, however, is the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Founded in October 1992 by a group of Iraqi exiles, the INC is the only opposition group that represents a broad coalition of all the Iraqi people, rather than narrow religious or ethnic interests. It’s also the only group to have drafted a constitution for a post-Hussein Iraq based on democratic principles. But presidential administrations dating back to the first President Bush have a checkered history with the INC. The question now is, will the current Bush administration redeem past US failures to support INC efforts to oust Hussein?
IN OCTOBER 1992, just months after the end of the Persian Gulf War, the INC was formed when 234 dissidents opposed to Hussein met in the Northern Iraqi city of Salahuddin. In the early and mid 1990s, the group gained military significance with the help of the CIA, the seeming support of the Clinton administration, and the shelter provided by the no-fly zones. By 1995, the INC had built up a small army in Northern Iraq and launched an attack against Hussein. Just as Iraqi troops began to defect and it looked like the INC revolt might gain momentum, according to current US State Department official David Wurmser in Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein (AEI, 1999), the CIA withdrew its support for the INC army. The Clinton White House ordered the agent working with the INC to notify the group that if it moved forward militarily against Hussein, there would be no American assistance.
Still, the INC attacked, and had to face the wrath of Hussein alone. It wasn’t the first time the US had left Iraqi dissidents twisting in the wind. In the waning days of the Persian Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush, speaking at Raytheon in Andover, Massachusetts, called on the Iraqi people to rise up against Hussein. "There’s another way for the bloodshed to stop," Bush declared. "That is for ... the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside." Both the Shia in the South and the Kurds in the North rose up against Hussein. But Bush failed to order support for the rebels when Hussein employed helicopters — which could have been easily shot down by the American air force controlling Iraqi airspace — to defeat them. As a result, millions of Kurdish and other refugees poured into Northern Iraq, where the US continued to enforce a no-fly zone, to escape Hussein’s onslaught.
The INC has continued its attempts to build US support, however. In March 1998, Ahmad Chalabi, the founder and leader of the INC, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was then holding hearings on US Iraq policy. He was born in either 1944 or ’45 (biographies list both years) to a wealthy Baghdad family, which left Iraq a decade later. Chalabi, who describes himself as both "Shia" and "secular," attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received a graduate degree from the University of Chicago in mathematics. His testimony marked a turning point in US policy toward Iraq. Chalabi’s presence in Washington helped prompt Congress to pass and President Clinton to sign the Iraqi Liberation Act, which declared the "policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq" and earmarked $97.5 million for the "democratic opposition organizations" which included, among others, the INC and the organizations named above.
Not everyone, of course, thinks the INC should run a post-Hussein Iraq. For much of the 1990s, many within both the CIA and the State Department viewed the group with a skeptical eye. Chalabi, they whispered, was not reliable; they held legal troubles involving a bank he founded in Jordan against him — he was accused of diverting the bank’s assets. (Chalabi blames his legal difficulties on supporters of Hussein, who, he claimed, pressured Jordan’s king to shut him down). It was also said by some that the group’s fighters were "feckless" and incompetent. In the mid 1990s, some in the CIA backed the idea of an internal coup against Hussein, perpetrated by the Sunni Iraqi National Accord. Whether this represented a sincere belief, an institutional bias against opposition groups with large numbers of exiles (perhaps the exile-friendly INC were too reminiscent of those the US backed in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs insurrection in Cuba), or a preference for stability at any cost, is not really known. But these biases have in the past — and may still in the future — impede the goal of building a democratic Iraq.
There are, to be sure, valid concerns about the INC. While the Kurds technically fall under the auspices of the INC, they are worried about what will happen to their semi-autonomous region in the North when a successor state is established. The Kurds are "governing themselves, and they have a government that’s focused on the interests of the people," said former US ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith to Radio Free Europe last month. "And I think it’s very understandable that they want to retain that." Galbraith, writing for the Boston Globe Magazine in December, suggested that Chalabi had tried to grant the Kurds "a self-governing unit within a federal Iraq" as far back as 1992. How big a unit and with how much power are still unsettled questions.
Others suggest that the INC umbrella may not incorporate the aspirations of the Shia majority in Iraq. "The INC has been an unrepresentative group trying to usurp a disproportionate share of the power," says one Washington-based critic of the INC, a hawk who is independent of the Bush administration and wished to remain anonymous. "They always say we can’t empower the Shia, they’re Shias, they’re fundamentalists." Still, the INC has gone out of its way to make overtures toward the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The INC and other opposition groups, in fact, met with the Supreme Council in Tehran in late January.
"Many of the people needed to build a new Iraq will have to come from among those who live in Iraq currently and have never left," says Cambridge-based Joseph Braude, the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country, For Its People, The Middle East and the World (Basic Books, 2003). "That having been said, you’re going to see lustration in Iraq. That means a purging of the civil service and ministries of apparatchiks who were most closely association with a system of oppression."