- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2002

"Next year in Baghdad!" It was with this slogan of hope that the 350-plus delegates to the first-ever conference of Iraqi opposition parties, held in London, parted after three days of intense formal and informal debates.
Most delegates believe that a war to topple Saddam Hussein is now inevitable and most likely to come sometime next spring. Since they also believe that any war would be short some say "just a couple of days" they feel confident that they will be back home within the next few months.
The very fact that the conference was held must be regarded as a success. It brought together the representatives of virtually all shades of opinion in Iraq from the nostalgics of the monarchy to Maoists and Shi'ite fundamentalists, and pro-American liberals.
Also remarkable was the degree of support that the conference received from the international community. The Bush administration sent a special emissary in the person of Zalmay Khalilzad, the man who orchestrated the toppling of the Taliban in Kabul last year. The European Union also sent observers, as did Russia and China. More significantly, Iran and Turkey, two key neighbors of Iraq, sent emissaries to indicate support for the conference.
The Arab states, however, stayed away. But even they are reported to have expressed support "through private channels."
"All the Arab states that count have said they support our initiative," a senior organizer of the conference told us. "Not a single Arab state has indicated it would not work with a new government in Iraq."
The conference also succeeded in establishing such concepts as democracy, federalism, diversity and human rights as major themes in Iraqi politics. This represents a dramatic break with traditional Arab political discourse that has been dominated by concepts such as nationalism Third-Worldism and, in some cases, Islamism for the past four or five decades.
The conference also offered Iraqi women a platform, sending a signal that post-Saddam Iraq will not reproduce the macho-style of Arab politics.
Nevertheless, the conference suffered from a number of contradictions.
It emphasized the theme of separating religion from politics but ended up distributing seats in a coordination council a kind of unofficial "government in exile" on the basis of religious, even sectarian, affiliations. Organizers say they wished to sideline ethnic divisions. But choosing religious divisions as demarcation lines is worse.
A wiser course would have been to distribute the seats in accordance with party affiliations, thus emphasizing the political factor. Since the parties indirectly reflect both ethnic and religious divides, the message would have been that such divisions should only be expressed in a political context.
The conference also missed an opportunity to influence the debate about how to remove Saddam from power. Some delegates made some noise about rejecting direct American military intervention. Others said they would be unhappy if the Americans imposed a military ruler on Iraq.
Nevertheless, the conference assumed that the task of removing Saddam is one for the United States. The focus of the debate was about what happens after Saddam. This was unfortunate. Saddam's regime has become overthrowable, and could be toppled without a full-scale war effort led by the Americans.
Saddam maintains his hold on power thanks to three factors.
The first is his current monopoly of heavy weapons such as tanks, long-range artillery, aircraft and helicopter gunships. If the United States were to knock out these weapons, Saddam would become the leader of just another lightly armed faction in a country where there are many such lightly armed factions.
Saddam also has a monopoly on the oil income. That gives him financial clout in a country where the normal economy has collapsed. Again, if the Iraqi oil fields were to be wrested away from Saddam, he would become one faction leader among many.
Saddam's third lever on power is the pathological fear he has instilled in a majority of Iraqis. That fear could evaporate quickly if and when Saddam suffers his first major defeat at the hands of his domestic opponents.
Thus, a scenario in which the Iraqis themselves defeat Saddam, with the United States providing heavy back-up support, is not excluded. The London conference, however, did not consider it. How a regime falls is the key factor in determining what happens afterward.
The conference did not make it clear that Iraq today is not what Germany and Japan were after their respective defeats in World War II. The Nazi and fascist regimes in Germany and Japan had had virtually no domestic opponents. Thus, the victorious allies had no choice but to impose direct rule. In Iraq, however, virtually all Iraqi political forces oppose Saddam. Thus, there is no need for direct American rule.
Nevertheless, the London conference must be regarded as a piece of bad news for Saddam. He now knows that he cannot play his usual tactic of bribing one Kurdish faction against another, thus splitting the opposition. He also sees the impossible happening in front of his eyes: Tehran and Washington acting as joint sponsors of a unified Iraqi opposition.
The struggle for Iraq is far from over. But the London conference has certainly made it that much more difficult for the present Iraqi regime to cling to power.

Amir Taheri is the author of "The Cauldron: The Middle East Behind the Headlines." E-mail: taheri@benadorassociates.com.

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