Armed US guards lay down law for Iraqi exiles
By Patrick Cockburn in Salahudin, northern Iraq
27 February 2003
The first meeting of the Iraqi opposition in the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan was overshadowed yesterday by the presence of heavily armed Americans.
The occasion was meant to be a momentous one for the combined Iraqi opposition factions launching a democratic future for the post-Saddam era. However, the Americans dominated the meeting, loudly demonstrating their views on the process of nation building.
US special forces are known to have entered the country covertly but those who were waving their weapons yesterday were members of the Diplomatic Security Service, according to tags on their body armour.
"Stop filming and friggin' listen to me," one of them shouted as Zalmay Khalilzad, an American envoy, told the heavily guarded meeting that the US wanted the Iraqi people to determine their future.
The bodyguard, wearing black Aviator sunglasses, held a machine-gun in one hand and had a pistol strapped to his thigh. "This is non-negotiable and anybody who doesn't like it can leave," he yelled as he explained the stringent search procedures for anybody entering the building in the hilltop town of Salahudin.
Kurdish officials looked a little embarrassed at the swift takeover of their headquarters by Mr Khalilzad's burly and heavily armed guards. Half a dozen Kurdish soldiers peered with expressionless eyes at the Americans as a sudden blizzard of snow covered journalists and bodyguards alike with a coating of white.
Inside the building, Mr Khalilzad sought to reassure 54 Iraqi opposition delegates that Saddam Hussein's dictatorship would not be replaced by the complete control of Iraq by the United States.
The envoy denied that "the US wanted Saddamism without Saddam". He told the delegates, many of them privately sceptical of American intentions, that "the US has no desire to govern Iraq. The Iraqis should govern their own country as soon as possible". Inside the hall, veteran opponents of President Saddam waited to see what role the Americans envisaged for them in a post-Saddam Iraq.
At a meeting in London in December, they believed that the US had agreed to an Iraqi interim civilian government headed by a council of three from Iraq's three main communities of Kurds, Shia and Sunni Muslims and a temporary legislative body.
Earlier this month, American officials had appalled the Kurds by saying that, instead, there would be a US military government supported by a US-nominated advisory council with limited powers.
Mr Khalilzad did not spell out what was going except to say that the Americans didn't want "Saddamism". The Iraqi opposition is dominated by the two Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union Kurdistan of Jalal Talabani. Both are alarmed at a Turkish plan to invade Iraqi Kurdistan, ostensibly to prevent an exodus of Kurdish refugees, but in practice to make Turkey an important player in northern Iraq. The Kurds have said that they will fight any Turkish invasion.
Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, who is close to hawks in Washington, spoke in laudatory terms of the US yesterday but he risks being sidelined because he has no support within Iraq.
The fear of Turkish attack has terrified ordinary Kurds. Karim Sinjari, the powerful Kurdish Interior Minister, told The Independent yesterday: "Only a week ago the main topic in the streets among Kurds was Saddam and the fear of chemical attack. Now the only thing people talk about is Turkey and the Turkish advance."
Yesterday, Turkey closed the road from Iraqi Kurdistan into Turkey to oil tankers in what may be another sign of its deteriorating relations with the Iraqi Kurds.