The deep differences between enemies of President Saddam Hussein was underlined yesterday when a group of his opponents walked out of a conference in London dedicated to forging opposition unity.
The five Iraqi Shia Muslim groups said the largest Shia party was monopolising representation of their community, to which the majority of Iraqis belong, on a 65-member committee which is seen as the nucleus for a transitional government in Baghdad.
The conference had already gone on for two days longer than expected as its largely Kurdish organisers struggled to ensure that all parts of Iraq’s mosaic of ethnic, religious and political groups were represented. “We have just had four of our members executed by Saddam but they still don’t pay any attention to our opinions,” said one delegate.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the American envoy to the Iraqi opposition, quietly tried to paper over differences so the US could present a united Iraqi opposition to the world. The conference will meet again in Iraqi Kurdistan on 15 January but the imminence of war and American pressure ultimately produced a show of agreement.
The two most powerful parties at the conference – the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan – have already achieved de facto independence for Iraq’s Kurds and fear this will be eroded after the fall of President Saddam.
The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq fought a long and ultimately successful battle to be recognised as the main representative on the council of Shias. They have a small army, backed by Tehran, but their real popularity in Iraq is uncertain.
The Americans and the Kurdish leaders were also keen that the committee would not be wholly dominated by Shia and Kurds. This meant co-opting Sunni exiles who once had seniority in the Baghdad regime.