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COLUMN ONE : A Rallying Point for Iraqi Exiles : In the aftermath of war, their world is alive with possibilities. Many are trying to overcome rivalries--even hatred--to oust Hussein and shape their homeland’s future.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

For more than twenty years, the world ignored Iraq’s exiles.

In Beirut, Shiite historians added names to a registry of 7,000 martyrs killed by Iraqi secret police. There were always new names. In Paris, Kurds solicited donations for their guerrilla force fighting along the Iran-Iraq border. In Los Angeles, expatriates mailed bi-monthly newsletters called the “Iraqi Timebomb” to American media and politicians.

In enclaves from Damascus to London, opposition figures set up new lives and tried in vain to get the world to renounce Saddam Hussein. The response to the American newsletter told all: After two years of publication, the only inquiry came from a Hollywood radio show interested in gossip about Hussein’s mistress.

Now, the exiles’ world suddenly seems alive with both pain and possibilities--that they might return permanently to a shattered Iraq, that they might yet play a role in their nation’s rebuilding, that they might even establish a form of government that their homeland has never seen before: a true democracy.

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In these chaotic days after war and before peace, intrigue mounts and scenarios multiply. In Riyadh, Saudi officials are attempting to set up an Iraqi government in exile, reportedly to be based in the southern city of Basra. In Washington, a Kurdish front group says its guerrilla force could seize control of northern Iraq with the help of army deserters as early as Sunday. In Tehran, in London, in Damascus, exiles are openly calling for military coups.

“One should not be overtaken by euphoria that Saddam will be toppled so soon,” warned Dr. Sayyid Mohammed Bahr Ulum, an influential Islamic leader based in London. Then he proceeded to ignore his own advice: “There are so many people working together and separately. Everything indicates there will be a quick finish of Saddam.”

Telephones are ringing in cramped exiles’ offices. Fax machines--the refugee lifeline of the 1990s--are spitting out drafts of manifestoes. Invitations are arriving from government officials and think tanks in Washington, Riyadh and London as diplomats make last-minute attempts to get to know Iraqi exiles who have lived in their countries for years.

“To show you how far we’ve come,” said one London-based activist, “last year I was stapling flyers to telephone posts with a Swastika over Saddam’s face calling him ‘Hitler.’ And now the President of the United States agrees with me.”

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An estimated 600,000 to 1 million of the world’s 18 million Iraqis live in exile, refracted into dozens of shards by religious, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. The country is about 95% Islamic, 55% Shiite (a heavily fundamentalist sect with roots in Iran) and 40% Sunni (a somewhat more moderate sect.)

The exiles are represented by at least 27 international political organizations, and new groups are springing up almost daily. Many of the exiles left Iraq for economic, not political, reasons.

The broadest-based exile group is the Democratic Reform Movement, a fragile coalition that formed last December in Damascus with backing from the Syrian and Iranian governments. Its signatories include the Dawa Party, a long-standing Shiite fundamentalist group whose agents have made several attempts to assassinate Hussein; five established ethnic Kurdish parties with guerrilla troops active inside Iraq’s northern border; and smaller groups of centrists, Communists, pro-Syrian Baathists and Shiites who seek a genuine democracy.

Hussein “has pushed all the opposition groups to work together inside and outside Iraq, to work toward his downfall,” said Ulum. “The war has precipitated the Iraqi opposition to come together, which is unprecedented.”

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Exiles have scheduled a conference in Beirut for a week from Sunday, hoping for a unanimous agreement to overthrow Hussein and his nationalist Baath regime, followed by a transition government to set up democratic elections.

Hussein may not last until then.

On Friday, the Iraqi Kurdistan Front, a coalition of one Assyrian and five Kurdish political parties, announced that it could take control of the largely Kurdish northern portion of Iraq “within 48 hours” and work “right away” to create a federal system of democratic states in Iraq.

“I’m sure a backlash against him might occur,” said Sami Abdulrahman, a Kurdish former Iraqi minister. “A large number of Iraqi army deserters have fled into the Kurdish region and are being looked after and supported by us. They now comprise a substantial force.”

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Abdulrahman said that nearly 80,000 have fled the Iraqi army, and that a significant portion of them are hiding out in the Kurdish region.

Meanwhile to the south, the Saudi government is attempting to play the role of power broker, meeting with opposition groups to discuss the formation of an Iraqi government that would be palatable to King Fahd’s conservative Sunni Muslim monarchy.

Two weeks ago, the Saudis invited two dozen exile leaders for an expenses-paid stay in Riyadh. Among those who met with Saudis are some members of the Damascus Coalition and leaders of the Free Iraq Council, a smaller faction of exiled generals and former government ministers.

Among them are Saad Jabr, the son of a former prime minister, who recently has been invited to meet both State Department and British Foreign Office officials. While palatable to the West, Jabr is said to have no popular following. Another is Gen. Hasan Mustafa Naqib, a former deputy chief of staff of Iraq’s armed forces who has a bloodthirsty reputation that rivals Hussein’s among emigres.

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On Friday, Egypt’s leading newspaper, Al Ahram, reported that a plan had emerged from the Saudi discussions with the Free Iraq Council to establish a shadow government in the Iraqi port city of Basra--a report the Saudis have not commented on directly. Earlier in the week, Fahd pledged to support any government that replaced Hussein.

The Saudis are clearly in a position to offer exiles not only arms, but men; the Saudi army is the designated guardian of more than 175,000 Iraqi prisoners of war--men that some exile leaders would like to attempt to convert into a liberation army. Confined inside Saudi Arabia--tantalizingly near the Riyadh Sheraton and Inter-Continental hotels, where the exiles have gathered--are a handful of Iraqi POW generals and colonels, exile sources said.

“The Saudis have been very hospitable,” said Taleb Shabib, a former Iraqi foreign minister, from his room at the Sala Din Hotel in Riyadh. “We are hoping to swing around some of the units that managed to withdraw from Kuwait . . . to form part of the internal military opposition and thus make an Iraqi attempt to overthrow the regime.”

Asked to specify the aid that the Saudis were offering, Shabib laughed and replied, “I won’t tell you.”

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The Saudis are not telling, either. At war’s end, they are in a delicate position. Until two years ago, Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy was an ally of Hussein (also a Sunni Muslim) in his eight-year war against Iran’s Shiite fundamentalist regime. Then the Saudis did an about-face and joined the U.S.-led coalition against neighboring Iraq after Hussein’s August invasion of Kuwait.

The Saudi monarchy is wary of allowing a Shiite fundamentalist group such as the exiled Dawa Party to ascend to power in Baghdad, Mideast experts say. A Western-style democracy that could accelerate growing demands by Saudi citizens to democratize would also be unpalatable. In the past, the Saudi monarchy has gone so far as to pressure Kuwait into abolishing its own Parliament.

But by limiting its support to the Free Iraq Council, the Saudi effort has a potential fatal flaw.

“The Shiites and the Kurds ultimately will need to be brought very much into a future democratic order in Iraq,” said Graham Fuller, a Rand Corp. Middle East expert who formerly was in charge of long-range Mideast forecasts for the CIA. “The Shiite organizations have the most potential in the long run because they are in the majority in the country.”

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Fuller stressed that it would be a mistake to assume that a Shiite rule--even one dominated by a Shiite faction based in Tehran--would be as fundamentalist as Iran’s.

In the murky days following the cease-fire, it was not clear which scenario had the best chance of succeeding, or which, if any, had American backing.

“We’re not in the business of trying to slip an exile government into Iraq,” said one State Department official. “We have certainly called for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but we have never called for the overthrow of the Iraqi government itself.”

Both a senior U.S. State Department official and a source familiar with the thinking of the royal Saudi family raised the possibility of CIA participation in the Saudi talks. The U.S. intelligence community is “fully knowledgeable--more involved than they are admitting to,” said the source familiar with Saudi views. "(But) some of the intelligence community is dumping on this, and others are supporting it.”

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The CIA declined comment.

The Bush Administration has concluded it might not be a bad thing if Hussein survives in a weakened condition, the senior U.S. official said. If he falls a few months down the line, the official said, Washington’s fingerprints would not be so visible on a new government. Moreover, he added, Hussein’s continuing presence would make it easier to keep the allied coalition together in the postwar phase.

“If he (Hussein) survives, and is defanged, so what, why worry about it?” said Richard Murphy, assistant secretary of state for the Middle East in the Ronald Reagan Administration. “A weakened Saddam with a weakened army and a weakened political reputation is maybe better for us if he is in power than if he is martyred.”

Middle East experts worry that Bush may already have tainted any future Iraqi government by merely suggesting Hussein should be overthrown. Exile groups, for their part, are equally leery of being seen as tools of either the Saudis or the Americans.

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“Any group that is seen as working for American interests would be immediately suspect,” said Sabah Jawad, an Iraqi exile and human rights activist in London. “The Iraqi people will long remember your bombers.”

There remains profound anger among Iraqi expatriates that Western governments ignored their pleas to stop supporting Hussein and when they finally acted, devastated the country. As anxious as exile groups were to eliminate Hussein, none wanted to go as far as an all-out war that would subject their countrymen to widespread misery. Their anger was bound to intensify with Bush’s announcement Friday that “not one dime” of U.S. taxpayer money would go for reconstruction of Iraq.

State Department officials find drawbacks to all exile groups. Kurds, for example, are seeking an independent homeland, and carving up Iraq is an option that Secretary of State James A. Baker III has made clear the Bush Administration does not support.

“We support the maintenance of the territorial integrity of Iraq,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 6.

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The Dawa group carries even more baggage. It has a history of anti-Americanism that makes U.S. officials very wary.

“That’s the bunch that blew up my embassy in Kuwait (in 1983)” said one State Department official who previously served in Kuwait. “They’ve done some pretty awful things.”

One of the reasons for the Dawa Party’s violent record is the fact that because of its own strength, Baathists have targeted its members for assassination and torture at home and abroad. More than 7,000 Dawa members reportedly have been killed.

Dr. Mowaffak Rubaie, spokesman for the Dawa Party in Europe and America, sought to downplay the group’s past by pledging that his group would abide by any government that comes to power through a democratic election.

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“I believe the people, left to their own choice, will elect a Shiite government,” he said. “If not, we will try to enlighten them.”

But Rubaie, who once used the alias “Abu Ali” and changed his London address 16 times to protect himself from Hussein’s assassination squads, also gave a darker hint of the bloody turmoil that might occur if the Baathists are unseated by leaders bent on revenge for years of purges and assassination.

Baathist “war criminals” should be tried and executed for human rights abuses committed under Hussein’s rule, he said.

Undeniably, however, exile forces are coming together around a single elusive goal: democracy. But exile alliances are not forming easily. Many factions have a long history of enmity.

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Seventeen groups met in Damascus in December in an attempt to hammer out a common platform for a transition government in a post-Hussein Iraq. Among them were the two most powerful factions, the Kurds and the Shiites.

“It was absolutely damn difficult to get that manifesto signed,” said Rubaie. “How do you get Baathists to join with Kurds and Islamists?”

For seven days, they argued about how to begin speeches. Dawa members wanted to start all speeches and communications with the Islamic preamble, “In the name of God the Merciful and Compassionate.” Communists wanted to begin with invectives against imperialism. Syrian Baathists wanted pan-Arabic slogans.

In the end, the groups compromised on a platform of 12 points including the toppling of Iraq’s current dictatorship, restoration of human rights, an end to the brutal ethnic discrimination practiced by Hussein, opposition to Zionism, and a call for elections “within a period of not more than two years and not less than one year.”

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Highly unlikely, experts say, is the sort of sudden upwelling of democratic forces Americans saw in Eastern Europe and even the Soviet Union over the past few years. Even if Hussein were overthrown, they add, the most likely scenario may be that generals in his nationalist Baath Party would take over. The resulting instability could heave the ethnically diverse country into prolonged civil war.

Democracy, if it comes, won’t come easily.

One Iraqi citizen accompanied his British wife to the polls when he first arrived in London and asked election officials if he could step inside. “I’m 40 years old and I’d just like to see what an election looks like,” he said.

Even in the United States, many Iraqi-Americans have realized since the outbreak of war that they have never participated actively in democratic politics. Across the country, engineers, doctors and other professionals--many of whom voted for Bush--are creating grass-roots groups for the first time to lobby congress, meet media and develop a more charitable future U.S. policy toward Iraq.

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“We’ve never done this before,” said one Orange County doctor. “We never knew what it was to vote. We never had democracy. We survived by staying out of politics. Now we’re trying to help Iraq survive by getting into politics.”

Many Iraqis may harbor deep resentment against virtually all exiles who have lived safely outside the country while their own sons died in the war, their homes were bombed, and their children went without medicine as a result of economic sanctions.

As a result, even a well-intentioned democratic transition government could quickly collapse.

“Democracy may have to come and go for a while, exist and be overthrown repeatedly,” said Fuller. “But each time the feeling of democracy gets deeper.”

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Contributing to this story were Norman Kempster and intern Rena Miller in Washington, and George White in Los Angeles.


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