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Report from Iraq: Examination of the First Iraqi Opposition Meeting - 2003-04-17


Leaders of the Iraqi opposition gathered in Nassiryah to hold their first meeting since the fall of Saddam's government. This first meeting of the Iraqi Opposition occupies the front pages and headlines of all Middle Eastern newspapers and TV news reports. Most of the reports focus on two aspects: that the meeting was attended by the first administrator of post-war Iraq, U.S. retired Lt. General James Garner, but the same meeting was boycotted by an important Shiite group.

Shiite Muslims are protesting in the streets of Nassiryah, yelling "We don't want Saddam. We don't want the U.S.A." Their message is clear. They want Iraqis to rule Iraq. One Iraqi opposition group sent a single non-voting delegate because they doubted that this meeting could immediately lead to establishment of an Iraqi self-rule. Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group widely seen as enjoying the support of the U.S., did not take part in the meeting.

Professor Shamlan Al Easa, from the Political Science Department of Kuwait University, believes that if the Shiites want self-rule, they should participate fully in the meetings. "I think that was the biggest mistake they committed," he says. "I [wish] that all the religious [groups should take part in the meeting]…..they should try to have message telling the Americans we are here, we should have a role. Americans have asked them to come and join us and express yourselves."

The press was not allowed to witness the meeting which was held at an airport in Nassyriah. A second meeting will take place in 10 days. The meeting also issued a declaration, stating that the post-war government of Iraq must implement a democratic system, it must be based on rule of law, and that Iraq would not accept a leader appointed by another country.

Professor Easa feels that ten days is not enough for the different factions to confer and fears that they are succumbing to pressure from the media and the U.S.. "Ten days is not enough [time] to establish, to have a [meaningful] meeting, [it] should be later… When people see the good service and everything else, [I think a lot of people will] come to meeting," he says. "I was surprised that they called it after ten days. May be because of pressure from the Arab media and Arab regimes... for America to do everything quickly. I think the establishment of democracy and rule of law in Iraq will take a long time than the war… The real war started now, not before."

Middle Eastern media from several countries reacted to the meeting by saying that it was not the beginning of the post-war government, so much as an indicator of political troubles to come. Most major newspapers gree that the post-war work will be much more difficult than the 26-day of war.

Professor Abdullah Beshara, the President of the Diplomatic Center of Strategic Studies in Kuwait, is not surprised at the meeting's outcome. He points out that Iraqi politics remain almost as complex as ever... the factions that originally supported Saddam still exist, as do the nationalists; the new factions that support a democratic system; the original opposition factions; and factions who believe in religious rule. But Mr. Beshara predicts that Iraq is going to become the Middle East's first federal democracy.

"Some were driven by Islamic teaching, Islamic sentiment, some were driven by nationalist sentiment, a really big mix, a big bowl, all colors. So, I expect that. I was not surprised. You have to understand that there is a consensus along one major line that Iraq should be federal and democratic...…a good philosophy for a new Iraq," says Professor Beshara. "Iraq will not be like any other developing country… It will be democratic, federal. So, this is a very big departure for the future. And I think that you should not underestimate what was achieved. You should not be shocked by differences. You should not be setback by the divergent views. I understand that."

Professor Easa feels that the choice of General Garner to take charge in the post-war U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq is quite reasonable due to his experience in Northern Iraq. However, Mr. Easa advises General Garner should go slowly on Iraq's problems. Mr. Easa says he fears the U.S. government might be pressuring him too much and that this might cause him to make many hurried decisions.

"I think General Garner is excellent administrator, he was in the north, has experience in northern Iraq during the Kurds independent rule… He established [the ruling there]...put up the law and order… So, [I hope he] just wants to do the same thing in the south, but I think now there is so much pressure on Americans to do things quickly," says Professor Easa. "I think General Garner will succeed slowly he has done everything slowly. [He has to tell the Iraqis that)] we are not occupying [your country]. We came here to free Iraq, and to help you to have the rule of law and democracy… It will take a long time."

Looting seems to be the problem everyone thinks needs to be quickly resolved. Professor Beshara knows what sentiments to expect in the Arab world if fast results are not produced. "I think that the expectation for law and order and basic services to be provided is legitimate and is overdue. They should have established long ago. [They have to] stop the looting, [to resume] the basic services , one of the main needs for tranquility, or beyond that," he says. "Without that there will be no law and order. Now, there should be a forceful decision to bring back sanitation, water, electricity, these are essentials. Without them there will be disappointment and resentment"

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