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Iraq's Splintered Opposition

THE latest agreement between the Kurdish wing of the Iraqi opposition and the central government in Baghdad should be encouraged, not viewed with cynicism. A look at the fragmented internal makeup of the Iraqi opposition, as evidenced at recent gatherings in Saudi Arabia and in Beirut, explains why. The problem is not that the opposition consists of Kurdish separatists and Shiite fundamentalists. Indeed, if these were the only opposition elements, they could conceivably form a coalition capable of running a government.

The problem is that there are so many different opposition elements, most at deadly odds with one another, that they would find it difficult to form a government even under the most ideal circumstances. They could certainly never effectively deal with Iraq's current devastated economy and infrastructure.

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It is crucial that policymakers in the United States should not be so blinded by hatred of Saddam that they risk future stability in the region. A careful and rational look at the makeup of the Iraqi opposition might illustrate the gravity of the situation and the amount of destruction yet to fall upon the unfortunate people of that country if the existing regime falls apart.

The 200 representatives of the Iraqi opposition who met in Beirut on March 11 represented 20 factions loosely subsumed under four ideological orientations: the Islamists, who had 80 representatives; the Kurdish separatist movement; the communists; and the Pan-Arabists.

In reality, these movements have as many differences among themselves as they do with the regime of Saddam Hussein.

First, within the Islamic movement there are multiple factions, three of which fall under the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution. This council is led by Hujatalislam Mohamed Baker al Hakeem, a revered Arab Shiite figure with headquarters in Tehran.

Two other more radical Islamic factions are those of the Dawa Party, a transnational organization currently led by Sheikh Al Utaifi that has earned the support of radical groups since its establishment in 1958. The Dawa Party, since its creation, has been committed to the idea of Islamic Jihad. In many instances, it has displayed a strong capability to harm Western interests in Lebanon. This group is more likely to show tolerance to Saddam than it would to a Saudi or Syrian backed government. Both Syria and Saudi Arabia have slaughtered Dawa members in their countries.

Another faction, called Islamic Action, is inspired by the teachings of sheik Taqi Modarrisi, leader of the broad-based "Islamic Amal" movement. The Islamic Amal movement has differences with both the Dawa and the council led by al Hekeem. This conflict manifested itself in the Hizbullah/Amal clashes in Lebanon. In a 1984 interview in the French magazine "Jeune Afrique," Modarrisi said that at any time he can assemble 500 faithfuls ready to throw themselves into suicide missions.

The Kurdish Front, established in 1985, divides along both tribal and ideological lines. Within it are six factions: the Kurdish Democratic Party led by Al Barazani; the Kurdistan Patriotic Union formed in 1970 and led by Galal Al Talabani; the Kurdish Socialist Party led by Rasoul Mamind; the People's Democratic Union of Kurdistan led by Sami Abdella; the Party of the Nation of Kurdistan led by Said Kareem; and the Kurdish Proletariat Party led by Sami Abdelrahman.

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Both the Barazanis and Talabanis (the surnames are tribal) were partners in the Kurdish Democratic Party. When Iran under the Shah stopped assisting Mulla Mostafa Barazani in the early '70s, Talabani moved from Syria to Iraq to rally support against Mulla Mostafa. Talabani's attempt failed. He therefore decided to divide the party along tribal lines and form what is now known as the Kurdistan Patriotic Union.

In addition, the Talabanis decided to carry the party to the left, moving away from the Barazani religious Mulla whom Talabani portrayed as a traitor to the Kurdish cause.

The other four factions represent a revolt against the Talabani and the Barazani tribal dominance of Kurdish politics.

A third orientation of some of the Iraqi opposition who assembled in Beirut is communism. Among the communists are two factions: the progressive Iraqi Movement led by Aziz Mohammed and the Democratic coalition led by Saleh Dakla. These two parties represent the far left of Saddam Hussein's own Baath party. Though they are weak, they still enjoy the backing of Arab communist parties, particularly in Lebanon.

Finally, the fourth orientation, considered the weakest opposition element, is Pan-Arabism. This movement, too, has divided loyalties. One wing is backed by Syria, while the other splintered away from the now-governing Baath party. The Pan-Arabists only strength is that they are Sunni Arabs who will be favored by Arab allies of the US.

In addition to the four major orientation mentioned above, two Iraqi groups were established during the Gulf crisis. The Free Iraq movement, headquartered in London, is led by Saad Jaber, a businessman who once lived in the US. Mr. Jaber began his political career early in the crisis by telling CBS's "60 Minutes" a tale about Iraq's alleged purchase of the Persian crown jewels. The second recently formed group is the Iraqi Salvation Front, based in Saudi Arabia. It is led by the former information minis ter, Salah al Ali.

The meeting places of these groups are indicative of their backing. Those who meet in Beirut and Damascus are under the Tehran-Damascus axis, while those convening in Saudi Arabia and London are combating a Shiite dominance over the grand coalition opposing Saddam.

It is important to note that all the Arab countries that joined the US-led military campaign against Saddam are Sunni Muslim and would not be pleased by a Shiite government in Iraq.

In Kuwait, we have seen the friction between those who fought the media war outside the country and those who stayed to fight the Iraqi occupiers. The Iraqi opposition could be in the same boat. If Kuwait, with only two factions contending for power, has had so much difficulty restoring even basic services and a semblance of law, how could an opposition government in Iraq deal with that country's more widespread difficulties.

Even within the agreement evolving between the Kurds and Baghdad, a civil war may be difficult to prevent simply because other groups feel a sense of betrayal that the Kurds negotiated a deal of their own. And if civil war resumed, fed by disagreement between various factions, it could easily spill over. Turkey, Iran, and Syria could be drawn in, occupying parts of Iraq to contain the war inside Iraq, similar to what Israel and Syria did in Lebanon. Furthermore, such a spillover could destabilize the pr edominantly Shiite eastern province of Saudi Arabia. It could also extend to the Zaidi Shiites of Yemen, who represent a majority in that country.

Which faction would get its hands on Iraq's stockpiles of chemical weapons? Will they be in the hands of Shiites, or of the Kurds? The chances that such weaponry might be used could be heightened. These concerns should be given priority in any rational agenda that attempts to address the Iraqi situation.

It is a cruel irony that the people of Iraq should continue to suffer under the tyranny of Saddam. However, the alternative, a Lebanon-style, multifactional civil war in a country already rendered totally dysfunctional would be even more cruel, as well as more dangerous.

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