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Unveiled: The Thugs Bush Wants in Place of Saddam
22 September 2002
Corrupt, feckless and downright dangerous. Some say they make the Butcher of Baghdad himself look good. Who are they? The contenders for Saddam Hussein's throne.
Ever since the September 11 attacks 'regime change' has been the catchphrase coming out of Washington. But if George Bush is as intent on invading Iraq as he seems to be, overthrowing the Iraqi regime and deposing Saddam may well turn out to be the easy bit.
If Afghanistan's nightmarish internal politics proved problematic after the toppling of the Taliban, Bush should be under no illusion that Iraq's would be any less so. The Northern Alliance might not have seemed a very palatable alternative to the Taliban, but it has a certain rough credibility. There is no equivalent in Iraq.
Following any ousting of Saddam, the task will be to prevent anarchy from returning to the streets of Baghdad and the oil facilities throughout the country. To that end the US needs its own strongman to put in Saddam's place.
Saddam, of course, has never had a problem with making enemies. Indeed, the breadth of the Iraqi opposition - from Islamic fundamentalists and communists to monarchists and free-marketeers - demonstrates his ability in this respect. Seemingly every week a new group springs up and issues an identikit statement to the international media. Recently one organization, which nobody seems to have heard of except its own members, even took over the Iraqi embassy in Germany to prove that it existed.
There are, however, some basic patterns to the cacophony of proclamations from new movements, councils and parties that purport to represent the voice of the authentic Iraqi individual.
First, there are the national bodies that were created inside Iraq before 1990, when the bond that had formed between Iraq and the US was shattered by the invasion of Kuwait. These are groups like the Iraqi Communist Party, the largest group in Iraq from the 1950s through to the 1970s, and al-Daawa al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Call), which engineered the biggest demonstrations against the Iraqi regime in the 1970s and had close ties with Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolutionaries in neighboring Iran.
With extensive experience of organization and the political process inside Iraq, many of these groups retain some level of support - or at least respect - among many of the Iraqi people. They have three things in common: they are intensely persecuted by the Iraqi regime, they are wholly unpalatable to the West, and they strongly oppose a US invasion on the grounds of the suffering this will cause the Iraqi people.
Second, there are groups representing sectarian or ethnic interests such as the four million Iraqi Kurds, and the country's Shi'as, which make up 60% of the population.
Although some of these groups are large, and the US has sought their backing for its invasion plans, they remain split within their own ranks, and have no chance of being installed in Saddam's place as they cannot claim to represent all Iraqis.
Third, there are the new groups, often formed under US auspices after 1990. The US has tried to encourage senior members of Iraq's military and civilian establishments to defect to the West, and their prize has often been a budget, some training, lavish offices, frequent meetings with US officials and the prospect of taking a leading political role in a post-Saddam Iraq. It is from these groups that the US will select the new rulers if they succeed in ousting Saddam.
'He may be a son-of-a-bitch,' President Franklin D Roosevelt is said to have commented of the brutal Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, 'but he's our son-of-a-bitch'. Saddam was Washington's SOB throughout most of the Reagan administration, a valuable foil against the US's nemesis, Iran. Somewhere along the line, possibly in 1990, he lost the 'our'.
Judging from the current rogues' gallery of heirs to Saddam, it's anyone's guess which of them will be tagged with Washington's favorite SOB epithet this time around.
General Nizar Al-Khazraji
According to many human rights groups, he is the field commander who led the 48-hour chemical weapons attack which poisoned and burned 5000 Kurdish civilians in the northern town of Halabja in March 1988. He also, alleges one credible eyewitness who testified in video-taped evidence earlier this year, kicked a little Kurdish child to death after his forces entered a village during the height of the Iraqi repression in 1988.
But, says Ambassador David Mack, a senior official in the US State Department who co-ordinates meetings of Iraqi opposition groups in Washington DC, General Nizar al-Khazraji has 'a good military reputation' and 'the right ingredients' as a future leader in Iraq.
The most senior military officer to defect since 1990, al-Khazraji was Saddam's chief of staff from 1980 until 1991, leading the army through the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. He left Iraq in 1996 and was granted political asylum first in Spain and then in Denmark, where he now lives in a quiet suburb of Copenhagen. There are claims he was reluctant to leave Iraq, but that the CIA tempted him with promises of a major political role after the overthrow of Saddam. As a result, he has not been quiet about his plans to lead Iraq: he once described his future leadership as a 'sacred duty'.
Apart from his apparent boastfulness, which has alienated many of his fellow travelers in the exiled opposition, al-Khazraji's role in some of the worst abuses of Saddam's regime poses serious problems in presenting himself as a future leader of Iraq.
A Danish newspaper investigating al-Khazraji's role found he was the field commander during the Halabja operation, choosing the chemicals to be used and the intensity with which to drop them. Although al-Khazraji denies having had this role, the allegations were serious and detailed enough for the Danish ministry of justice to launch an official investigation, with the potential to bring war crimes charges against him. Eighty-nine Kurdish and human rights groups have issued a joint statement to demand his trial. He has been under effective house arrest for almost a year now, guarded by four police officers. Despite this al-Khazraji, 64, says he has no doubt the Iraqi military is ready to rise up against Saddam. All it will take is a lot of American firepower, carefully targeted, and some organizing by military exiles like himself. How can he be so sure? 'I was the chief of my army and I know my men very well,' he says.
Brigadier-General Najib Al-Salihi
In meetings at the British Foreign Office in March this year, Brigadier-General Najib al-Salihi acquired the sobriquet of 'the rapidly rising star' of the Iraqi opposition. When a popular website of Iraqi exiles held an online poll to find who would be their preferred future leader, al-Salihi raced ahead - until the poll had to be suspended amid suspicions it was being rigged. In any case, it wouldn't have been the first Iraqi election to produce a victor with 99.9% of the vote.
Commander of an armored division of Iraq's elite Republican Guard in the Gulf war, Salihi played a significant military role in Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. He was also engaged in putting down the uprising against Saddam 's rule that followed the defeat at the hands of the US-led forces. The repressive way in which this particular episode was handled caused 1.5 million people to flee their homes, while Salihi went on to write a book about his crushing of the popular uprising, entitled Al-Zilzal, 'The Earthquake'.
After commanding Iraqi forces in putting down another rebellion by an opposition group in 1995, Salihi defected to the side of his former enemies and came to co-operate with the US, where he now lives. He has the advantage of youth over many of his rivals, having just turned 50, and strikes a contradictory pose with regard to his future role. On the one hand he states that the military should not be engaged in the politics of Iraq. On the other, he heads the CIA- sponsored Iraqi Free Officers Movement, another collection of dubious military exiles in the Washington suburbs, which he claims can raise 30,000 fighters. He also says he favors a three- pronged infantry assault in Baghdad from Kurdish Iraq, Kuwait and possibly Jordan. He forecasts a scenario in which Saddam would be on the run, suggesting that US aircraft policing the no-fly zones could be used to back an advance on Baghdad by rebel forces from the north.
'Saddam will try to escape, but he will find that he has nowhere to go,' Salihi has said. 'We will not be able to put him on trial. The people will get to him first.' Cleverly, Salihi avoids giving the impression of power-hungriness and speaks of the 'tough work ahead' and the 'bond of trust with the Iraqi people'. The same Iraqi people he so mercilessly crushed when they opposed Saddam.
Ahmad al-Chalabi came to international attention not for his politics, but for fleeing to London from Jordan in 1989 amid allegations he had embezzled millions from the bank he used to own. Although he denies any wrongdoing, the collapse of the Petra Bank left thousands of its customers in penury and earned him comparisons with Robert Maxwell. He didn't return to Jordan to defend himself at his trial in 1992, which took place in his absence, and will begin his 32 years in prison only if he returns to Jordan, which he shows no sign of doing at present.
The long-time face of the Iraqi opposition in Washington, Chalabi took the reins of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an umbrella organization created in 1992 with the assistance of the CIA. Although he was officially demoted in 1999 to be a member of the INC's executive council rather than its leader, he is widely accepted as the first among equals and is spoken of by INC officials as the future president of Iraq. This despite the fact that the US State Department recently found that about half of the $4m it had given to the INC was not properly accounted for. They clearly expected better from a former maths professor and banker, and cut off funding. Chalabi, however, galvanized his US supporters, and the Pentagon and the White House again started picking up the tab.
Chalabi is, if nothing else, an operator. One delegate at a New York meeting of the INC said of him: 'He takes more than his share, much more than his share, and I get nothing. Just look at the way he dresses. They say Saddam has 300 suits; well, this guy has 400.'
Many Chalabi mannerisms that appeal in the West may have been picked up at his Sussex private school, where he was a member of the cadet corps - his sole training for planning an invasion of Iraq.
Just as the US was forgetting him in the wake of more accusations of financial irregularities, he came up with a plan to unseat Saddam in a choreographed 11-week maneuver. The plot, launched at Chalabi's Mayfair home and involving turning untrained volunteers into successful revolutionaries, provided him with the soundbite necessary to capture US policymakers' minds in the wake of September 11. Few stopped to question if it verged on the unrealistic.
Convicted embezzlers, accused war criminals and CIA stooges to a man, few if any of those who would dethrone Saddam match up to the proverbial man on a white horse, a respected military officer who can ride in, take control and unite Iraq's fractious tribes and religious groups. Serious questions remain as to the readiness, willingness and fitness to lead of those in main contention.
As Said K Aburish, the respected Middle Eastern writer and biographer of Saddam Hussein, concluded: 'I examined my notes of the interviews I conducted with 82 Iraqi opposition leaders, and began identifying those on my list whose thinking resembles Saddam's. To my horror, I decided 75 of the people I interviewed were men who would kill to achieve their goal.' One can only wonder whether Washington has come to the same conclusion, or indeed really cares.
David Pratt (with research and additional reporting by Dr Glen Rangwala, Politics Lecturer, Trinity College, Cambridge)