By L.F. Brown
26 October 2004
The results of a poll conducted in Iraq by the International Republican Institute on voter preferences for the upcoming election in January 2005 have been released. The most popular politician amongst Iraqis, as reported by the Washington Post, was Abdel Aziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). He had 80% name recognition, with around 51% of Iraqis wanting him to be in the National Assembly (which will pick a new government.) The opinion poll did, however, exclude Ibrahim Jafari, the current Iraqi vice president, head of the Dawa Party and in previous polls the recipient of the highest popularity ratings.
The Washington Post noted the Islamist SCIRI's past and current connections with Iran, who sponsored and housed the anti-Saddam opposition group since its founding in 1982. Less known, however, is the history of SCIRI's collaborative relationship with another country in the region, Syria. Some details of these contacts can be found in a paper written by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's Middle East adviser, David Wurmser, in December 1996 for the Israeli think-tank The Institute for Advanced Strategic & Political Studies, titled "Coping with Crumbling States: A Western and Israeli Balance of Power Strategy for the Levant." It was a follow up paper to the now infamous "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm" report, summarising a group discussion by a handful of so-called neoconservatives, including Mr. Wurmser, Douglas Feith and Richard Perle. "A Clean Break" was an open pitch to then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a new strategy for his time in office, essentially calling for measures to bring about a more self-reliant, strong and economically sound country. One of the proposed strategies contained in the report was to support efforts to eliminate Saddam from the scene. The report was rejected by Mr. Netanyahu.
A key point of "Crumbling States" was that Syria, in the 1990s, had identified "the emerging power vacuum in Iraq" and wanted to fill it, with Mr. Wurmser noting that:
* Syria hoped to achieve this through opposition groups that it controlled, countering the Iraqi National Congress (INC).
* Jordan had signalled that it was interested in a post-Saddam Iraq.
* Jordan had begun to work with the INC to enable them to overthrow Saddam.
* If Jordan and the INC were not supported by Israel in their endeavour, Syria would succeed, eventually gaining control over Iraq and having the balance of power over Jordan and Israel, Jordan having started to cooperate more with Israel in 1994 after their peace deal.
* If Jordan were able to win in the anti-Saddam opposition stakes, Israel would also win, with Syria being isolated, a friendly Turkey flanking them on the other side.
One of the main opposition groups that worked closely with Syria during the first half of the 90s, their relationship recorded in great detail by Mr. Wurmser in "Crumbling States," was SCIRI.
When the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act was passed unanimously by the Senate in October 1998, SCIRI was a likely recipient of potential funding. In January 1999 it was duly named by President Clinton as one of the "Iraqi democratic opposition organizations" being eligible for assistance, as required by the Act.
As events unfolded, they gained much legitimacy. Although they declined funding from the U.S. – they had been receiving funding from Iran anyway – they did reap other benefits, including being invited to Washington and meeting with the likes of President Bush and Mr. Feith as preparations for the war unfolded.
In February 1999, a book by Mr. Wurmser called "Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein" [pdf file] was published by the American Enterprise Institute, containing a foreword by Mr. Perle.
It elaborated on many aspects of "Crumbling States," but this time focusing on past U.S. attitudes and efforts towards Saddam and the region, which included:
* A mistaken view that through appeasement of Pan-Arabic nationalism and Ba’thism, and the strong centralised state that is integral to their natures, stability in the Middle East region could be maintained.
* Not seeing that Pan-Arabic nationalism and Ba’thism was a primary cause of violence and anti-Americanism in the Middle East.
* Engaging in insufficiently serious efforts towards getting rid of Saddam, with a preference for ineffectual "silver bullet" coups as against insurgency operations.
* Building up the INC from 1992, then abandoning support for the INC’s early 1995 quest to launch a military operation against Saddam from the safe haven of northern Iraq, which set the stage for Saddam to prevail, as well as let Syria and Iran take the initiative with the Kurdish opposition groups.
He advised that the U.S. should, among other things:
* Stop the appeasement of Ba’thism and instead follow the INC’s view that "managed chaos" rather than "centralized control" will bring stability to the Middle East.
* Support a Jordan-Israel-Turkey alliance, through the INC, to successfully counter Syrian, as well as Iranian, efforts at deposing Saddam.
* See U.S. military involvement as a last resort and an occupation of Iraq as undesirable.
Completely missing from "Tyranny’s Ally," however, were the Syrian connections with SCIRI. In fact, SCIRI (in "Crumbling States" he refers to them by their alternative acronym, SAIRI) only got one mention, having received 20 in "Crumbling States," and that a reference to Iran moving their military wing, the Badr forces, into northern Iraq by late 1995.
Then leader of SCIRI, the late Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, killed last August along with over 100 others by a car bomb at Iraq’s holiest Shi’ite shrine site in Najaf, and who received over 40 mentions in "Crumbling States," got only one and that in the footnotes related to the Badr forces story. He was the late Ayatollah Khomeini's choice to be head of an Islamic Republic of Iraq.
Syria’s courting of opposition groups was reduced to Kurdish groups. Yet a few years before in "Crumbling States," a substantial amount of the courting was for SCIRI; this reaching out to Iraqi opposition groups being one of the main bases for him calling for urgent support for Jordan and the INC.
But that's not all.
In "Crumbling States," Mr. Wurmser described the roots of Syria’s role in recruiting opposition groups after the Gulf War, excluding the INC, which it "never had close relations with." In fact, in "October 1992, when a major INC conference convened in Salaheddin in northern Iraq, not only did Damascus and Tehran-based groups refuse to attend, but the meeting was pilloried."
The INC was a threat to Syria’s aims in the region. Thus, "Syria has attempted ever since the Gulf War to topple Saddam under the banner of an alternative, Damascene/Tehran-based opposition. Such attempts date back as far as late December 1991. At that time, Syria’s President Asad met with Iran’s powerful agent in southern Iraq, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim of the Shiite Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), who came to Damascus at Asad’s invitation, to coordinate a coup attempt against Saddam."
But in reality, not only did SCIRI attend the October 1992 meeting; they also had three members elected on to the INC’s 26-member council executive council, whose president was Mr. Chalabi. One such member, Dr. Hamid Al-Bayati, who was also Ayatollah al-Hakim’s representative in London, served on the executive council from 1992 to 1998, according to the website of the recently defunct Coalition Provisional Authority.
However, there is nothing at all about this from Mr. Wurmser. That an experienced and well-connected man like Mr. Wurmser wasn’t aware of this seems inconceivable, especially considering that he could have just picked up the phone to the executive council’s president, Mr. Chalabi. When it came to the writing of "Tyranny’s Ally" a couple of years later, his account of the October 1992 conference noted the presence of ‘Shi’ites from southern Iraq’ but had no explicit inclusion of SCIRI.
The irony of it all is that Mr. Wurmser is seen as a hawk on Syria. And it could possibly turn bitter in the future. In October of last year their leader and then member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the brother of the slain Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, proclaimed during a visit to Syria that an attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Iraq.