Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi, who spent years fighting for the ouster of Saddam Hussein, yesterday moved into one of the playground palaces of the deposed dictator's brutal son Uday.
Mr. Chalabi, a wealthy Shi'ite businessman who fled Baghdad with his family 45 years ago, returned to the capital, where he settled into the exclusive party house with a contingent of bodyguards and his armed fighters, known as the Free Iraqi Forces.
"I think he wanted to show that he can do many things and that he runs the show in Baghdad," said Mohammed Sabir, Washington-based spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which contributed fighters to Mr. Chalabi's force.
Mr. Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress umbrella opposition group that until recently was based in London, rolled into Baghdad from the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on Tuesday, filling a power vacuum left by the fall of Saddam's Ba'ath Party regime.
"He's a smart man, and he's trying to run the show. Baghdad is important. That's the key," said Mr. Sabir, though he added that any new leader of the country would have to be elected or nominated by the Iraqi people.
Mr. Chalabi, who is favored by the Pentagon as a new leader for Iraq, was airlifted to Nasiriyah by U.S. forces earlier in the month, giving him a clear edge over competing Iraqi opposition representatives.
In Tehran, the exiled leader of the biggest Iraqi opposition group called on Iraqis yesterday to converge on the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala to oppose a U.S.-led interim administration and defend Iraq's independence.
Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI), chose the southern Iraqi city and the date Tuesday because of their connections to Hussein, the grandson of Islam's Prophet Muhammad and one of Shi'ite Islam's most revered heroes.
"I call on Iraqis to converge in Karbala to oppose any sort of foreign domination and support establishment of an Iraqi government that protects freedom, independence and justice for all Iraqis," the ayatollah was quoted by state-run Tehran television as saying.
Another Iraqi exile, Aiham Alsammarae, denounced Mr. Chalabi's decision to set up shop in property formerly controlled by Saddam's family, as well as the apparent U.S. support of his efforts.
"He's going there and taking over in my view it's like a process of stealing, taking things without legitimacy. He's promoting himself, and [the Department of] Defense is promoting him like crazy," Mr. Alsammarae said in a telephone interview from Chicago.
"All this is a mistake. … It's a joke. Who's Chalabi? What authority does he have? I'm sure someone [in the U.S. military] gave them the green light," Mr. Alsammarae said.
Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the Pentagon's choice to run an interim administration in Iraq through the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, has yet to arrive in the capital.
In the interim, top U.S. civilian officials have begun a process of consultation with local tribal and religious leaders, as well as representatives of various exile opposition parties, to restore order and services to the country.
Ayatollah al-Hakim and other religious leaders yesterday arrived in the southern city of Kut in Iraq, staking their claim to participate in a future Iraqi government.
"People are welcoming him and consulting him and are ready to move as he calls them to do," SCIRI's London-based spokesman, Hamid al-Bayati, said in a telephone interview. "We'd like to see the Shi'ites have a similar percentage in government as they do in the population."
The Shi'ites, harshly oppressed by Saddam, make up roughly 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million population.
Ayatollah al-Hakim, Mr. Alsammarae and Mr. Chalabi belong to the 65-member opposition Iraqi Leadership Council established in London by Iraqi opposition groups last year.
But the unity of that council has come under increasing strain as different factions push for a role in a post-Saddam Iraq.
Mr. Chalabi already has announced a meeting of the council in Baghdad within the next few weeks to select a one- to three-person executive council, which would become the core of an Iraqi transitional government until general elections are held.
The council's initiative to form a government is separate from the U.S.-sponsored meeting in Nasiriyah earlier this week.
Mr. Alsammarae, a member of a group called Independent Iraqis for Democracy who owns an international engineering firm in the United States, is seeking a much broader group than the council to help set up a government.
"I propose a meeting in May. We have to put some 400 people in this meeting. We now have 65 [from the council]. We need another 135 from outside parties and 200 from inside Iraq. No one person will control it."
Mr. Alsammarae was studying in the United States when Saddam came to power in 1979.
Saddam executed three men in Mr. Alsammarae's family and fired him from the Ba'ath Party, making it impossible for Mr. Alsammarae to safely return to Iraq.
He has been working for the opposition ever since, backing former Iraqi Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi, who also is endorsed by the State Department, as a replacement for Saddam.
Other exiles also are incensed by self-declared Iraqi National Congress officials throwing their weight around Baghdad, such as Mohammed Mohsen Zubeidi, who has told reporters that he has been chosen to head a provisional council to run the capital.
Mr. Zubeidi, according to one leading London-based exile, "is not a very savory character" and lived in northern Iraq under the pseudonym Abu Hayder Lal Karradi.
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