The Iraqi National Conference Explained

A look at the major political groups jockeying for power at the INC.

| Fri Aug. 20, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

The Iraqi National Conference in Baghdad descended into a frenzy of bickering, backbiting, and feuding on Wednesday. While various independent parties tried to get on the slate for the 100-seat National Council, in the end the major parties managed to dominate the process and win an overwhelming majority for themselves.

The Council will serve as Iraq's legislature to the U.S. appointed interim government until elections in January of 2005.

The parties that came out the big winners were: al-Daawa, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Iraqi National Accord (INA), the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. But who are these parties? Where did they come from? Who do they speak for? What do they want? A quick round-up below.

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Al-Daawa (Islamic Call): This is the oldest and perhaps the largest Shiite political group in Iraq, established in 1957 by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr. During Saddam Hussein's regime, the group operated as covert organization, with cells across Iraq. The current spokesman of the party is interim vice-president Ibrahim al-Jaaferi, who is one of the most popular leaders in Iraq and a frontrunner for the prime minister position if elections are held. Before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Jaaferi operated out of London, maintaining contact with secular opposition groups and Western governments. The group's religious leader is Sheikh Muhammad Baqr al-Nasri, who returned from exile in Iran in 2003.

Not much is known about the organization, or how much influence it really has over Iraq's Shia population. Al-Daawa was the first group to organize demonstrations against the United States, in Nasiriyah in April 2003. The organization draws its strongest support from Shiites in Najaf and Karbala. Although al-Daawa leaders formally opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the imminent military mobilization prompted Jaaferi to meet with U.S. leaders in early 2003, and in June of that year, a member told al-Hayat that the group "does not see any interest in a US withdrawal from Iraq at this moment." Since then, it has been accused of cooperating with the U.S. military.

Al-Dawa generally follows Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr's vision of an Islamic state governed according to Islamic law, but tends not to agree with the Iranian idea of vilyat al-faqih, or clerical intervention in political affairs. Officials have reportedly expressed concern that the organizaton will cede influence to armed groups like SCIRI's Badr Corps and Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI): SCIRI was founded in 1982 in Iran by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and other exiled members of al-Dawaa. The group is supported and funded by Iran, although al-Hakim defied Iran's leaders in supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. After al-Hakim's assassination in August 2003, Abdul al-Aziz al-Hakim became the group's new leader, and served on the Iraqi Governing Council until the handover on July 28. SCIRI is represented in the interim government by finance minister Adel Abdel Mehldi.

SCIRI's support may be relatively weak among Shiites in Iraq, especially secular or moderate Shiites. The group rose to prominence during the early, lawless days of the occupation -- in the absence of organized civil society, many clerics issued fatwas against looting and other forms of violence. SCIRI tried to install a mayor in Kut after the fall of Saddam Hussein, prompting a confrontation with the U.S. Marines.

SCIRI's leaders largely believe in clerical rule, a point which led to its split with al-Daawa. It is unclear how far the party would push for Iranian-style clerical rule in Iraq. One of the council's scholars, Hamid al-Bayati, said in May 2003 that a Shiite-led theocracy was inappropriate for Iraq. But this Februrary, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim publicly praised the vilyat al-faqih, or clerical rule. The clerics generally follow Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim's stance of opposing the U.S. occupation but disavowing the use of force.

SCIRI has an armed wing, the Badr Corps, a militia of around 10,000 men, withas infantry and armored divisions. In the spring of 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) ordered the Badr Corps to disband and join the Iraqi army, but by all accounts, the group has remained intact. The militia, led by Hadi al-Amiri, is reportedly at odds with Shi'a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Iraqi National Accord: This group, headed by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, was founded in 1990. INA received U.S. funding before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

In February 2004, the INA published a statement of principles in its newspaper, Baghdad. The group called for transfer of sovereignty, reparations for those Iraqis dismissed from the army by the coalition, and a bolstering of Iraq's defense capabilities. Most of all, the party supports a strong constitution that would include rights for all Iraqis. The INA also called for strong relations with its neighbors, although Allawi, a secular Shiite, has generally fostered relations with Sunni Arab countries -- including Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- and has acted coldly towards Iran.

Allawi himself is a former Baathist who left Iraq in the 1970s, survived an axe-attack by Saddam Hussein's henchmen in London, and has worked with the CIA and U.S. State Department over the years. Since becoming prime minister, he has not shown particular inclination towards democracy in Iraq -- having instituted martial law and largely sidelined the religious Shiites in government.

Iraqi National Congress (INC): Another exile group, established in 1992 and composed of various Kurdish, religious, and Arab nationalist groups. The group was first funded by the CIA and later the Pentagon. Ahmed Chalabi served as chair of the INC's executive council, working closely with the Pentagon and other neoconservatives to help overthrow Saddam Hussein. (Indeed, Chalabi supplied the U.S. much of its faulty information about Iraq's weapons capabilities.) Since then, however, Chalabi has fallen out of favor with the U.S. -- Paul Bremer ordered a raid on Chalabi's offices in May 2004 after discovering that the INC leader had slipped military secrets to the Iranian government. In August, Iyad Allawi has called for Chalabi's arrest on charges of counterfeiting.

Although Chalabi has been barred from attending the conference, he has party delegates in attendance, according to INC spokesman Entifadh Qanbar. Of late, Chalabi, a Shiite himself, has reportedly tried to organize Shiite support, including ties with Moqtada al-Sadr. Still, Chalabi remains one of the least popular figures in Iraq.

Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP): This Kurdish group, founded in 1945, is led by Masud Barzani. The group controls the western half of Kurdistan, and has traditionally formed alliances with regional neighbors, including Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, relations with Turkey have soured, primarily over control of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in Northern Iraq (both the KDP and Turkey lay claim to the city).

The KDP controls some of the armed Kurdish peshmerga forces, which participated in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and are estimated to have as many as 100,000 fighters. Barzani and other leaders have called for a federal system in Iraq that would grant autonomy to the Kurds.

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK): The other Kurdish group, headed by Jalal Talabani, was formed in 1975 as an offshoot of the KDP. The PUK controls the eastern half of northern Iraq, and receives support from Syria, Libya, and possibly Iran. The group has set up an independent parliament, and its prime minister, Barham Salih, serves as deputy prime minster for national security in the interim Iraqi government.

The PUK is generally in favor of reuniting the northern Kurdish regions, but its wary relationship with the KDP has prevented this from happening. Both groups, however, support a federal government that would grant autonomy to the Kurdish regions. As with the KDP, the PUK controls a large peshmerga force.

Iraqi Islamic Party: This group, established in the 1950s, has affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood, a popular Sunni group based across the Middle East. The group is led by Dr. Muhsin Abdul Hamid, a Koranic scholar and fundamentalist Sunni who served in the IGC. The group's leaders are generally concerned about a government filled with Shiite hardliners, and have expressed support for a federalist system that would grant the Kurds some measure of autonomy. The IIP has announced its supported for the interim government, though it is not represented in it.

Muslim Clerics Association: This group was formed in the wake of the U.S. invasion, as an organization of Sunni clerics, including influential leaders such as Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi and Abdul Satar Abd al-Jabar. The association opposed the U.S. occupation, and refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the interim government. Hence, it has boycotted the Iraqi National Conference. The group's stated goals are to unite Iraq against the occupiers, and it has sought to cultivate good relations with Shiite clerics.

Al-Sadr movement: Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's movement. Sadr has denounced both the U.S. occupation in Iraq and Iyad Allawi's interim government, rising up against the coalition forces on several occasions. Sadr refused to attend the Iraqi National Conference, though he sent a delegate on the second day. Although Allawi has offered Sadr a chance to participate in politics on several occasions, the young cleric has yet to disarm his militia and join the political process.

Sadr opposes any sort of federalist government in Iraq, preferring instead to impose both Islamic law and clerical rule, a philosophy supported by his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. Although reports indicate that he has received funding and support from Iran, some Shiite scholars believe he is too much of a nationalist to ever serve as an Iranian puppet.

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