The once moribund Iraqi National Congress (INC) has apparently gained a new lease on life. After weeks of intensive talks in Washington, Ahmad Chalabi—leader of the self-appointed Iraqi opposition in exile—visited Iran to establish a base for sending roughly 100 INC operatives into northern Iraq to gather intelligence and distribute “humanitarian aid,” all at US expense. The INC, widely distrusted in the Arab world and known to have seriously mismanaged its funds, has been unable to convert the millions of dollars in US aid granted by the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 into a credible threat to the Iraqi regime. Still, the INC and its Pentagon and Congressional champions clamor for increased aid. Controversy over the INC has overshadowed deep social crises in Iraq that may in time produce the kind of opposition to Saddam Hussein that the INC exiles never can.

Fractious Coterie

The INC, formed in Vienna in 1992, has been the focal point of US-sponsored schemes to overthrow Saddam Hussein ever since. Almost all the major Iraqi opposition parties—old and new—were represented on the INC’s executive committee at the beginning, giving it an air of legitimacy it has never recovered. With CIA backing, the INC maintained a base in the town of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan from 1992-1996, ostensibly to rally a unified military opposition in the north. But the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and its main rival the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—splitting over control of lucrative oil smuggling revenues—began fighting each other in 1993. This intra-Kurdish war culminated in KDP leader Masoud Barzani’s invitation of the Iraqi army’s aid in crushing the PUK. The Iraqi army seized the opportunity to crush the INC’s military aspirations as well. When Saddam Hussein’s forces took Erbil in 1996, the INC’s operations came to a standstill, and many of its members were killed. Even before this defeat, coalition members—the KDP, the Iraqi Communist Party, the Islamist group known as al-Da’wa, Muhammad Baqir Hakim’s Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution—had pulled out one by one as the INC’s inadequacies became self-evident.

The US tried to rejuvenate the INC in 1999, expanding its executive committee and injecting the first installments of the $97 million promised to the “opposition” by the Iraq Liberation Act. Yet the INC remains a far cry from being even a reasonable, let alone a comprehensive, cross-section of the spectrum of opposition forces. It certainly has no measurable constituency on the ground in Iraq. Today, the INC is a fractious group with Ahmad Chalabi’s coterie of liberals at its core. The small Wifaq movement—led by ex-Ba’thists with connections to middle-ranking army dissidents in exile—and the even smaller Constitutional Monarchist movement round out the membership. A few Shiite clerics also sit on the INC’s board. To forestall allegations of financial mismanagement by Chalabi, the US now pays the INC’s rents, salaries and other expenses directly.

Despite being routed in 1996, the INC still aims to mount a military campaign against the Iraqi government. Military experts have long criticized this plan, partly because the KDP and PUK, who still share control of the Kurdish governorates in Iraq, refuse to participate. The INC completely lacks the manpower, training and logistical capacity to shoulder such an undertaking by itself. Realistically, the INC seems confined to providing moral support to whatever opposition effort may emerge inside Iraq in the future. But the regime’s opponents inside Iraq — given the INC’s connections to the CIA and shady financial dealings — are certain to decline the INC’s help.

Supression, Hunger, and Hardship

The Iraqi regime has long been ruthless in its suppression of many types of opposition: communists, Islamists, Kurdish rebels and dissidents inside the ruling Ba’thist party. But the greatest obstacle these historical opposition forces encountered was the Iraq-Iran war, which provided the regime with its most powerful instrument of mass control: Iraqi nationalism. Nationalism far surpassed the previous system of kinship ties as a way of ensuring loyalty to the government. Sunni tribes from provincial towns were made to feel “Iraqi,” and the Ba’thist cadres manufactured a mass political party, eventually peaking at some 1,800,000 members. Oil revenues were instrumental in buying Iraqis’ consent to the protracted war.

While the 1991 uprisings after the Gulf war heralded the end of unity between official and popular nationalisms, US-led sanctions and bombing campaigns have exerted contradictory effects on the Iraqi body politic. Iraq’s international isolation reduced the military and economic power of the regime, but at the same time rendered the people more dependent on the state for their daily provisions. Hunger and hardship, including that caused by the authorities, are easily blamed on foreign powers, particularly the US and UK, whose “holds” on “dual-use” items like water pumps prevent the rebuilding of the Iraqi economy. Recurrent US-UK bombing raids that kill and injure civilians also play directly into regime propaganda, and ignite sympathy for the regime elsewhere in the Arab world. Nonetheless, there is undoubted opposition to the regime inside Iraq.

A Silent Majority?

There is no way of accurately measuring popular discontent in Iraq, in the absence of opinion polls or free elections, but high levels of party defection, army desertion, violent crime and assassinations may indicate a silent majority of opposition simmering beneath the surface. Official crime statistics are treated like military secrets, yet the Iraqi daily press is filled with stories on violent crime. A considerable number of these stories involve acts of dissidence and desertion. Iraqi travelers to Jordan, and defectors to the Kurdish regions, also tell tales of violent behavior on the rampage. If nothing else, the high level of both ordinary and political crimes indicates how far the central state’s power has weakened. Antipathy toward the regime is so widespread that, as one ex-Ba’thist cadre put it, “It is not a matter of who hates the regime, but of who does not.”

The historical opposition, often dismissed by the media, has grown during the last decade. Kurdish nationalists, radical Islamists of every strand, leftists and ex-Ba’thists have formidable clandestine networks, armed wings and wide constituencies. The level of their underground activities may be gauged by various means. Several Ba’thist operatives and security officers have been assassinated in recent years. The apparent abortive coup attempt of Gen. Muhammad Mazloum, which resulted in his execution in 1995, triggered mass demonstrations and turmoil in his home province. There was an attempt on the life of Uday, Saddam Hussein’s elder son, in 1996. Underground Islamist and leftist activists report their sense of a growing opportunity to mobilize and recruit dissidents in both rural and urban areas.

Perhaps the best available measure of opposition to the regime is the staggering growth in pilgrimage to the Shiite holy shrines. According to official figures, more than two million pilgrims (almost 10 percent of the total population, and around 20 percent of the Shiite population) headed to Karbala to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in 1999. These figures should be read against the background of the activities of the late Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, who was assassinated together with his two elder sons in Najaf in 1999. Al-Sadr was a handpicked government appointee, but he grew publicly critical of the Ba’th in his widely attended sermons. For the first time in a generation, a Shiite imam built vast networks of followers among the peasantry and the urban middle classes, and forged an alliance with influential urban merchants and tribal chieftains. Both urban merchants and tribal leaders have gained relative social power from the acute economic polarization that has accompanied ten years of war and sanctions.

Tightly Controlled Liberalization

When radical political change will occur in Iraq is unknown, but it is clear that even the inner circles of the regime are contemplating a change of some sort. The single party system has lost its effectiveness as a means of control, and the economy cannot remain shut off from the global market forever. The regime has made a series of gestures toward a tightly controlled liberalization of the political sphere. A new constitution was drafted and published in 1992, but was publicly debated thereafter, presumably for the appearance of political pluralism, a free press and freedom of association. Contacts with the Kurds have resumed, even, at one point, with Barzani and PUK chairman Jalal Talabani. A shadowy group of unnamed “opposition leaders” were invited to Baghdad in 1999.

Concurrently, the regime has taken steps to coopt the “traditional” political actors who are gaining power as the state declines. In recent general and municipal elections, a greater number of slots have gone to tribal figures who are not members of the Ba’th. The estimated share of party members and cadres in the national assembly dropped from 63 percent in 1984 to less than 25 percent in the 1996 elections, and continued to drop in the last elections in 2000, while tribally endorsed candidates more than doubled during the same period. The grip on power of Hussein’s extended family—the al-Majid house of the Bejat clan —has never been so tight. The military has been divided into elite units—christened as the Army of the Mother of All Battles—under the command of Saddam Hussein’s younger son Qusay, and other units under the defense ministry. As an ex-military commander put it, there are two military establishments, one for the ruling elite, and another for the nation. Qusay was officially announced as the “caretaker” in case the elder Hussein falls fatally ill or is eliminated. This announcement sends a message to the al-Majid house as well as the Ba’th party: Iraq’s most important tribal chieftainship will be transferred vertically (to sons) rather than horizontally (to brothers and cousins). But the moves to consolidate power also aggravate intra-regime tensions. Hussein’s two sons, Uday and Qusay, exchange thinly veiled insults in public. It seems clear that a challenge to the Iraqi regime—when it emerges—will come from either the historical opposition or the internal contradictions of the regime’s ruling strategy. US maneuvers have little to do with either.

Sticking by Failure

Despite—or perhaps because of—these simple realities, the Bush administration is sticking by the INC. The State Department offers progressively meeker defenses for the organization’s failures. A State Department official quoted in a March 19 Los Angeles Times article said his audit of INC expenditures showed “no major problems with embezzlement.” Spokesman Richard Boucher said March 19 that the US had chosen the INC to receive Iraq Liberation Act monies merely because it was “first out of the gate.” Last week State Department emissaries met with Iraqi exiles outside the INC—other “potential grantees” in Boucher’s words—but these groups have no more strength inside Iraq than the INC does. The Pentagon, Republican hawks nesting in Congress and Vice President Dick Cheney’s inner circle support the INC wholeheartedly, and argue for more aggressive US attempts at “regime change.” Wherever the debates within the Bush administration may lead, the planned operations from Iran indicate that US policy toward the INC—like all of US Iraq policy—is stuck in a counterproductive holding pattern. Ten years after the Gulf war, four constants remain: the Iraqi regime’s hold on power, US-sponsored “opposition” blunders, punishing US-led sanctions and the sustained agony of 22 million Iraqis.

How to cite this article:

Faleh A. Jabar "Assessing the Iraqi Opposition," Middle East Report Online, March 23, 2001.

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