Iraqi opposition's hidden divisions set path to war in London

Anniversary of crucial gathering that launched countdown to Saddam Hussein's overthrow

The opening of the Iraqi opposition conference in London, on December 14, 2002. More than 300 delegates attended.
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After years of burgeoning support in exile, the disparate parts of Iraq’s opposition could be forgiven for some scepticism when Washington began actively working for regime change there in 2002.

A decision to call a meeting of those forces on a cold, drizzly December day just after Ramadan in London was the first manifestation that the project to oust Saddam Hussein, a decade after the First Gulf War, was moving off the planning table into reality.

Kamran Karadaghi, then covering the meeting as a Europe-based journalist and later chief of staff to Iraq’s president Jalal Talabani, recalls the make-up of the meeting, which grew to more than 330 delegates, took weeks to organise.

Kurdish rebel leader Jalal Talabani, centre, and his delegation arrive for a meeting of Iraqi opposition groups in London in December 2002. AFP

In the run-up, the focus had been the Washington turf war between the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA. At the meeting there was a roster of Iraqi faces that were becoming familiar, the Kurds Talabani and Masoud Barzani, Ayad Allawi, later Iraq's interim prime minister, Ahmed Chalabi, who founded the Iraqi National Congress, and the frontmen of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri).

“All the groups came from the Kurds and Shias — only Dawa party boycotted but even it was not united and they had an understanding that Ibrahim Al Jafari [later an Iraqi prime minister] would be a kind of spokesman there, and of course he spoke a lot,” Mr Karadaghi told The National.

There was a notable omission. Only a smattering of those attending were from the Sunni community, of whom the most notable was the cerebral Adnan Pachachi.

London’s Hilton Metropole is a vast hotel that casts a foreboding gloom across the surrounding streets at the top of the Edgware Road.

Not much has changed inside the building or outside since its sprawling set of conference rooms hosted the representatives of Iraq’s opposition that was convened by Zalmay Khalilzad, president George W Bush's envoy for free Iraqis, on December 14 and December 15, 2002.

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad at the 2002 conference of Iraqi opposition groups. AFP

Twenty years to the day that the delegates assembled, with 150 mostly Sudanese protesting in support of Saddam noisily outside, public messaging from Mr Khalilzad stands out for historical scrutiny. “We don't want war with Iraq,” the Afghan-born American diplomat told broadcasters. “We want Saddam to comply with UN resolutions and we want freedom and liberty for the Iraqi people.”

Mr Karadaghi recalls the meeting agenda was, however, taken up with how to make a final declaration that would set the principles for governing a new Iraq, which included a rejection of occupation by foreign troop. Talks on a second-round meeting of a power-sharing council saw the numbers grow from the handful proposed by the Americans to 40 or so, and finally 65.

This broad collection belied the fact the balance of power of the meeting lay with the Kurdish parties and Sciri, led by Abdul Aziz Al Hakim.

Delegates attending the Iraqi opposition conference in London, on December 15, 2002. Getty

On the second day, Mr Khalilzad tried to put his stamp on the conference. “He had a meeting with leaders of the groups, Abdul Aziz and others and he said Washington and the president had already took the decision that we would invade Iraq and topple Saddam, whether you would be with us or we are without you. Make your choice to become part of the new situation,” said Mr Karadaghi.

The US officials skated over the lack of voice from the community that had dominated Iraq since its independence in the 1920s. It was also blind to what the Iraqis knew, the Kurds and Shia were not as united as it appeared.

“The Kurds, the Shias and the Americans as well said if the Sunnis don't want to be part it doesn't matter because they would be sidelining themselves, of course [the Americans] didn't know as well that the Kurds and Shias were only in a marriage of convenience,” he said.

“When the Kurds talked to Dawa or Sciri in Syria or Iran they would always say ‘we want democracy, we want civic rights, how ready are you to support it and they always would say we are brothers, we like each other, everything will be fine. Just let us first topple Saddam and then you will see everything would be fine.

“At the conference was the same but what they realised is that the Americans are committed and determined to go into Iraq and so that was the important thing.”

Mr Khalilzad told the leaders that when Saddam was toppled, Washington would immediately want the opposition groups to form a temporary government.

“They will run Iraq but we are we will be liberators” said Mr Karadaghi. “In the beginning, it wasn't Washington’s idea that they would be occupier but the liberator.”

Washington turf wars soon saw President George W Bush side with the Pentagon team in setting the terms for postwar Iraq, something that eventually resulted in the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority taking the post-Saddam reins.

Three months after the Hilton gathering, the US and its allies, notably the UK, had launched the invasion to overthrow Saddam, and by April 9, 2003 had occupied Baghdad after the ruler fled underground.

Fires burn in Baghdad during the first wave of attacks by the US-led coalition on March 21, 2003. Getty

Asked about his recollections of the build-up to war, Sir Simon McDonald, the former head of the British Foreign Office, told The National that London had decided on Saddam’s removal well in advance of March invasion.

Mr McDonald was private secretary to Jack Straw, the foreign secretary in 2002, and then served as prime minister Gordon Brown’s foreign affairs adviser in 2009, when UK forces withdrew from the combat mission in Basra.

“I was working for the foreign secretary Jack Straw at the beginning,” he told The National. “And I was working for the prime minister Gordon Brown at the end.

“What really lingers is at the beginning we committed really very early in the process and I don't think that was visible outside the system. But it sure was visible in Washington. We committed before we had all the facts for sure and we committed because we were relying, I would now say over-relying, on intelligence.”

At the end of the decade while serving Mr Brown, and with the full range of information available, McDonald saw the need for outright Iraqi control of their own affairs. “It was clear we had gone in under a false prospectus and it was clear that we had achieved as much as we could ever achieve and that the Iraqis needed their country back,” he said.

Mr Karadaghi recalls how the decision to override the Iraqi conclusions in London were still a point of contention years later when former prime minister Tony Blair met Iraq’s then president, Mr Talabani, who served between 2006 and 2014.

“President Talabani was explaining to him the problems in Iraq in a very frank way and Tony Blair said: ‘What problems? What are the issues in Iraq?’ And Mr Talabani could only say to him: 'This is the country you created.'”

Updated: December 14, 2022, 2:12 PM