Iraqi opposition pushing for quick setup of new administration
KUWAIT CITY — Facing the swift collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the U.S.-led interim administration for Iraq needs to check out of its Kuwait City hotel and speed on to Baghdad, an Iraqi opposition leader said Wednesday.
Already, events are developing so quickly that retired U.S. Gen. Jay Garner — the head of the interim team — plans to have his operation in the Iraqi capital within seven to 10 days, a U.S. official familiar with Garner’s operation said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Garner’s group plans to coordinate humanitarian assistance, rebuild infrastructure shattered by years of war and economic sanctions, and start setting up a democratic government.
Details of how he will assert his authority — and the future role of the Iraqi opposition — remain elusive, though. The interim team had been hashing out plans in the Hilton Resort and moving slowly into southern Iraq.
But Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the exile Iraqi National Congress, told CNN in a phone interview that Garner’s group needed to get inside quickly to help restore law and order and bring humanitarian aid to suffering people.
“Where is General Garner now?” asked Chalabi, who was mobbed Wednesday in the southern city of Nasiriyah by thousands of people cheering the collapse of Saddam’s government.
“The U.S. troops have defeated Saddam militarily. That was never a problem,” the opposition leader told CNN. “The issue is the Baath party and the remnants of the Baath party who will continue to pose a threat. And those people will continue to have some influence as long as there is no electricity, no security and no water.”
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Garner’s whereabouts were unimportant and that his team was working on rebuilding the country and helping to bring in aid and restore electricity in the southern province of Basra.
“The United States is not going to stay in that country and occupy it,” Rumsfeld said.
With an eye on taking power, several prominent Iraqis — including Chalabi — are planning a meeting of political factions in Nasiriyah to lay the foundation of what could become a provisional government. Garner plans to attend that meeting, according to aides to Vice President Dick Cheney. The meeting date has yet to be settled.
The challenge for the exiles is to build power bases fast, before local leaders inside the country emerge. Already, British forces in Basra have selected a local tribal leader to form a committee representing local interests.
Chalabi has been at the U.S.-controlled Tallil Air Base near Nasiriyah for three days. He and other Pentagon-backed exile leaders — brought gradually into Iraq — will clearly become part of a U.S.-picked group expected advise Americans on running the country.
It was not clear what members of the fractured opposition would attend the Nasiriyah meeting. Salah al-Sheikly, a London-based member of the U.S.-backed Iraqi National Accord, said representatives of his group would attend. Other guests would include “tribal leaders, religious clerics and Iraqi dignitaries who were not involved” in Saddam’s regime, he said.
Previously, Chalabi’s party said the meeting would expand on a “roadmap” decided last month, which calls for a provisional government to work with coalition forces. Those U.S.-led forces would eventually withdraw and be replaced by a democratically elected government.
Officials in Chalabi’s group, however, suggested Wednesday that the idea of an immediate provisional government had been overtaken by the U.S.-proposed consultative group.
Voices within the exiled Iraqi opposition have called in recent weeks for having Iraq administered by the United Nations — an idea pushed by France, Germany and Russia, which opposed the war.
But Faisal Chalabi, Chalabi’s nephew and spokesman in Kuwait City, said the U.N. role should be limited to providing aid and technical expertise. Several Security Council countries had “vested interests” in the fallen Baath regime, he said.
Ahmed al-Haboubi, a former minister in the government toppled by the Baath Party’s 1968 coup, said celebrations like those in Baghdad should wait until a democratic government replaces Saddam’s regime.
Al-Haboubi, elected Tuesday to the leadership of a new Iraqi opposition group, and many liberal-minded Iraqi exiles say they share a common worry: that their long struggle against Saddam will be in vain if his regime is replaced by opportunists who would only do America’s bidding.