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IRAQ: Iraqi Opposition Groups

Author: Sharon Otterman
April 29, 2003

What were the main Iraqi opposition groups on the eve of the 2003 war?

There were six main organizations that represented a mix of ethnic, religious, and political sentiments. All of them were designated by the U.S. government as official opposition parties, which meant they were eligible for U.S. financial assistance under the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. There were dozens of other, smaller groups opposed to Saddam Hussein.

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  • Iraqi National Congress (INC): An umbrella group led by Ahmad Chalabi. Founded in 1992, the INC was expelled from Iraq in 1996 and was based in London until its leadership returned to Baghdad in April. Though thought to have little or no political support inside Iraq, the INC reportedly won backing from some in the Bush administration who see it as the best vehicle to promote Iraqi democracy.
  • Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI): The major Iraqi Shiite opposition faction, SCIRI was made up mostly of Shiite exiles living in Iran. (Iraq's population is majority Shiite.) Led by Ayatollah Mohamed Baqir al-Hakim, the group has thousands of men under arms. Parts of this militia, trained by the Iranian government and known as the Badr Brigade, reportedly crossed into Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, despite U.S. warnings to stay out.
  • Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP): One of two main Kurdopposition parties, the KDP is led by Massoud Barzani and is based in the northwestern part of Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region bordering Turkey. The KDP is reported to have as many as 25,000 fighters. (Iraq's prewar armed forces totaled about 380,000.) Before the 2003 war, the KDP was estimated to collect $500,000 a day in custom duties on goods smuggled across the Turkish border.
  • Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK): The other main Kurdish party, the PUK has long clashed with the KDP over political leadership and the division of smuggling revenue. This year, the two made peace. Led by Jalal Talabani, the PUK is based in the southeastern part of the Kurdish autonomous region, which borders Iran. It has about 15,000 armed fighters.
  • Iraqi National Accord (INA): The INA is made up primarily of former military and security officials drawn from Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The group, based for years in Amman, Jordan, has ties to the Central Intelligence Agency and is led by Ayad Alawi.
  • Constitutional Monarchy Movement: Based in London, the Iraqi royalist movement is led by Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, a descendent of the British-backed Hashemite monarchs who ruled Iraq until a 1958 revolution.
Do the groups share the same goals?

They all wanted to oust Saddam Hussein. But they have a long history of disagreement over a range of issues, including the ethnic composition of a post-Saddam government and whether the country should be a secular or an Islamist state. With the fall of Saddam, the infighting is continuing.

The opposition groups, at the urging of the Bush administration, have attempted to get along. In August 2002, the "Group of Six" convened in Washington and pledged to work together to establish a democratic government in Iraq. That agreement led to a December 2002 meeting in London, where more than 300 anti-Saddam activists approved a call for a democratic, federal, parliamentary government. At the end of the four-day conference, they formed a 65-member committee that included representatives of all the major groups and some of the smaller organizations.

A similar meeting was convened in the Kurdish-controlled northern Iraqi town of Salahuddin in 1992, when some 200 delegates from about 30 parties pledged to oust Saddam and establish a democratic, unified state based on a federal structure. How much influence these agreements will have in the new Iraq is not yet known.

Which groups does Washington support?

No individual group can claim to be Washington's unquestioned favorite, and experts say different government agencies favor different groups. The Pentagon has traditionally supported the INC, which hoped to create an Iraqi government in exile. Some White House staffers also backed the INC. The Department of State hasn't backed one opposition party over the others and instead appears to have broadly advocated creation of a new government based on grassroots democracy and elections in a post-Saddam Iraq. The CIA has backed the Iraqi National Accord; its failed 1996 coup attempt was reportedly funded by the agency.

Are all the groups pro-U.S.?

Though all of the groups have agreed to work with the United States, it's difficult to gauge the depth of their allegiance. The New York Times reported on December 13 that key opposition figures, including Barzani of the KDP and Chalabi of the INC, were forging ties to Iran, Iraq's neighbor and a longtime foe of the United States. SCIRI is known to have close ties with Iran's ruling elite. Iran's population, like Iraq's, is majority Shiite.

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