Who Are Those Guys? How Intelligence Agents Are Trying to Remake the Iraqi Opposition

Beirut — While Secretary of State James A. Baker III made his official visit to the Middle East, the broadest spectrum ever of Iraqi opposition forces met in the small Bristol Hotel in West Beirut. Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Kurds and other nationalists, Communists and ex-monarchists, and even former members of Saddam’s own ruling Ba’ath party and the Iraqi army were represented. After three days of talks, they — on paper, at least — formally joined forces to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

But already, serious divisions were deepening behind the scenes. A major battle for the future of a post-Saddam Iraq is underway. Although a loose coalition of Shiite, Kurdish, and independent nationalists comprised the majority camp at the Beirut conference, a smaller group, dominated largely by self-described “liberal figures” of the Western-oriented Free Iraqi Council (FIC), is trying to usurp control of the opposition movement, Islamic as well as independent nationalist sources say.

Each side accuses the other of being puppets of foreign backers. The top Shi’ite Islamic leaders from Iraq are currently based in Tehran, while leaders of the FIC admit they enjoy the backing of both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

During the conference in Beirut, an individual who identified himself as a liaison for the U.S. government approached members of existing parties and groups, according to both Islamic and independent nationalist sources. Offering promises of American backing — an offer of some importance, given the more than 100,000 U.S. troops currently occupying 15 percent of Iraqi soil — he encouraged them to form splinter, breakaway organizations and join the FIC. These various sources, who were interviewed separately and without each other’s knowledge, gave nearly identical accounts of these attempts.

The liaison also met directly with Islamic leaders to deliver a message, according to the same sources. “He said, ‘You can do want you want now, but there will be no ayatollahs in power,”‘ one Islamic source said.

The U.S. government’s liaison is an Iraqi exile based in London, according to sources present who know him, including a relative who was also at the Beirut meeting as a member of one of the Islamic opposition groups. “He’s a businessman. He made his money selling oil,” said the relative. “His brother-in-law was involved in a coup [against the regime] in 1970.”

“We know him. He’s trying to organize something here,” said one source.

Other Islamic and independent nationalist sources described the liaison as working for the CIA. But his Islamic cousin said it would be more accurate to say he maintained — a “business relationship” with the agency. “He works along with [several Western intelligence agencies],” he said. When pressed for the liaison’s name, he added, “Stay away from that, man. It could be dangerous for you.”

The liaison had come to the conference from Washington, DC, and his next destination was Riyadh, said several other sources. “He came to this conference without an invitation,” one added.

The liaison delivered his message that the United States would not tolerate Islamic clerics in power last Tuesday in the Bristol Hotel. Just over two years ago, at a smaller meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders in Tehran, the same intelligence liaison now trying to organize support for the FIC against Saddam was advocating a policy of cooperation with the very same regime, according to sources who were present at both meetings. That was shortly after the Iran-Iraq War, at a time when the United States still saw Iraq’s ruling Ba’ath party as a buffer against the fundamentalist Islamic revolution in Iran.

The United States went to war to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. But having done so, the original policy of containing Shiite fundamentalist influence in the region has reasserted itself, and the preferred means appears once again to be the manipulation of internal political disputes by secret intelligence agencies. Whether the United States will succeed in doing so in a country on the verge of insurrection — with a majority Shiite population — remains to be seen. But the same policy carried out by the same means has been tried once before, in Iran under the Shah, with disastrous results. American interests in the region have yet to recover from that effort.

“There has been a miscalculation on the part of the West that they do not trust the Iraqi opposition as a replacement for the Iraqi regime,” said Sheik Mohsen Husseini, a clerical leader from the large Islamic Action organization. “We will respect each other as long as each group shows us the same respect.”

As the liaison’s relative, who has spent the past decade in the West, put it, “This is not the way to deal with us.”

Voodoo Politics

Both Shi’ite Islamic and FIC leaders deny that their respective groups are subject to any form of foreign manipulation. “They are like scorpions,” said Dr. Saad A. Jaber, president of the FIC, of his accusers. “This is the first thing that any one of them would say that we are spies, and traitors.”

The FIC is a hastily assembled coalition formed two months ago in London. Most of its leaders have been living in exile in the West for decades. “Each representative of the Iraqi Free Council has been in opposition to the regime for about 30 years,” explained one. Many previously supported the Iraqi royal family, which was deposed in 1958.

The FIC is nonetheless confident that it stands to form the basis for a new Iraqi government after Saddam falls, even though it has no identifiable rebel forces or zones of control inside Iraq, and no seriously defined constituency among the civilian population.

Kurdish guerrillas in the north and Shiite rebel forces in the south, on the other hand, compose the largest and best-organized wings of the resistance. Having fought for greater autonomy and political rights against both Turkey and Iraq for decades, the Kurdish guerrilla movement has long awaited the opportunity provided by Baghdad’s defeat in Kuwait. But the Kurds are suspicious of the Americans, who abandoned their insurgent guerrilla movement in the 1970s when the Shah made a deal with Iraq. The Shiite lslamic movement in the south of Iraq, with long-standing ties to Iran, already has an extensive political infrastructure and is now actively organizing rebel forces.

To counter Iranian influence, nationalist party sources say that Syria and especially Saudi Arabia are actively involved with the Iraqi opposition. The Saudis in particular support the FIC, they say.

FIC president Jaber confirmed that there is fierce competition for control of the opposition movement. “We represent the most dangerous element for the other parties,” he said, arguing that the FIC is more truly representative of the Iraqi people. “Our major strength is that we are the only organization that is truly Iraqi. Sunni, Shiite. Kurdish, Christian — they are all represented.”

But when pressed to identify their resistance base inside Iraq, FIC leaders said it was a military secret. And when asked to define their political base, they produced only one name, Sheik Sami Azara Al-Majoun of the Beni ljim tribe in the south of the country.

Sheik Al-Majoun later became a major subject of controversy in Beirut. In the conference’s final session, when his tribe’s name was omitted from the final declaration, he became irate and temporarily stormed out. Other leaders said the mistake was unintentional, and that organizers had simply forgotten the Beni Ijim tribe because it is so small. “I never heard of it before today,” explained one delegate shortly after the incident.

FIC president Jaber Freeiv admits that he personally enjoys the support of both the Bush administration and the Saudi royal family. “We think King Faisal [of Saudi Arabia] can play a major role for Iraq. We the people of Iraq are calling on him.”

Jaber’s supporters like to boast that he is close personal friends with many current and former U.S. officials, including House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Lee Hamilton and former Reagan administration chief of staff Donald Regan.

“I did meet many people in the State Department,” Jaber told the Voice. But he was also aware that the association could have its down side. “People say that the State Department would like to cooperate with people like Saad Jaber.”

No Turbans in Riyadh

The formal position of all Iraqi Islamic organizations is that they support the establishment of some form of democratic government after Saddam. However, at the same time they still profess their desire that the new Iraq should be an Islamic state.

“It would be wrong to see the situation in Iraq as an exact copy of another Islamic revolution,” said Mohamed Taki Al-Moudarissi, who sits on the supreme umbrella coalition of Islamic opposition forces. Nevertheless, “the Iraqi people are a Muslim people, and they would therefore act on the basis of their values,” he added.

Both FIC and some nationalist representatives pointed out that Iran is behind Iraq’s Islamic forces. “Their leadership takes direct orders from Iran,” one source said.

FIC leaders said there was too much Islamic influence at the Beirut conference. The FIC is the driving force behind the effort to organize a second opposition conference near the end of this month in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Both the Beirut and the Riyadh events are being paid for by the Saudi government; but most Islamic leaders and even many nationalist leaders in Beirut said they will not go to Riyadh.

“I have received three invitations,” said one nationalist leader, who added that he would only attend if the event in Riyadh promises to be democratic.

“We are not going there,” said one Islamic delegate, reflecting the mood of nearly all Islamic organizations.

Their absence does not deter supporters of the FIC in the least.

“Look around you,” said one FIC delegate, noting the many Shiite clerics wearing long brown robes and while turbans. “The conference in Riyadh will be our conference,” he added, saying the “Iranian-backed mullahs” will not attend.

In fact, many FIC leaders already seemed to be regarding last week’s meeting as a sideshow, saying they came to Beirut on the condition that no major agreements would be reached. “We said we (would) only attend this conference if there are no major decisions voted on,” said one FIC source. If the delegates had formed “a government-in-exile here, you would have 10 turbans in it,” he added. “Right now, the leadership (of the opposition) is unbalanced.”

FIC delegates say a “secret” will be unveiled in, Riyadh. “I can’t tell you because that might destroy it,” said one. Other sources indicated the alleged secret is most likely an attempt by the FIC to form a government-in-exile, which it intends to control.

Islamic and independent nationalist leaders say they are fearful of how a Riyadh conference will be presented to the outside world. “This conference [in Beirut] definitely is more representative,” said nationalist party delegate Dr. Farka Ramadini.

“Here you have some press. There you will have a thousand reporters and [in Riyadh] they will say that everybody [of the opposition] is here,” feared one source from the large Islamic Action organization.

On Monday, opposition leaders — without the FIC — held a press conference in Damascus and said there would be no conference in Riyadh, and that a second conference would take place only when the entire opposition deems it appropriate.

The Once and Future Dictatorship

For now, the FIC’s offers of alliance do not appear to have fallen entirely on deaf ears in Beirut. “Our offer is really spreading,” the FIC’s Jaber said. “They are all coming to us.” The FIC did pick up a few new additions in Beirut. A small group of individuals associated with the powerful Islamic Dawa party are now cooperating with the FIC, according to Islamic and nationalist sources. And a small, previously unassociated liberal party is also negotiating a relationship, they said. These sources added that the liaison from Washington met directly with both before their switch.

But who will ultimately dominate the opposition remains to be seen. Independent nationalist leaders said that it would difficult for the FIC to succeed. “Even within [these breakaway] groups there are good people. We are talking to them now,” said Dr. Ramadini. “If they find out that the man in charge is with the CIA, I don’t think they will go with them.

“You can isolate him. People know,” he added.

And it remains unclear how the FIC expects to someday govern Iraq without a concrete internal base. Instead, foreign interference threatens to permanently rupture the opposition, and thereby delay the ultimate ouster of Saddam. In addition, at least 55 percent of Iraq’s population identify themselves as Shi’ite Muslims. Any attempt to exclude Islamic representation is likely to trigger a backlash, which might result in the very same radicalization of Iraq along fundamentalist and anti-Western lines that such meddling is designed to avoid.

“There is no chance [the intelligence agency meddling will work],” said the nationalist Ramadini. “I think the overwhelming majority have a consensus in trying to avoid the pitfalls of being backed by foreign powers. You can buy people. You can pay them dollars, houses — all that. But all you gain is people in whom no one believes.”

Hassan Al-Alowi, a major independent leader within the opposition said, “This is the first phase of a new dictatorship.”