Iraqis urge US to give diplomacy more time
September 2 2002
By Guy Dinmore in Tehran and Roula Khalaf in London
A leader of Iraq's Shia opposition warned on Monday the time was not right for the US to attack the Baghdad regime and that he had evidence of plans by President Saddam Hussein to use chemical weapons in the event of a US-backed uprising.
Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), said Iraqi opposition groups had handed the US documents about Baghdad's intention to use poison gas to senior administration officials at meetings in Washington last month.
The ayatollah, who was represented by his brother Abdelaziz al-Hakim in Washington, did not give details but pointed out that Baghdad had used chemical weapons before, notably against Iranian-backed Kurds in 1988.
Speaking to the Financial Times in his Tehran headquarters, Ayatollah Hakim did not explicitly oppose a US attack on Iraq but said more time was needed for diplomatic efforts to reach an international consensus and to isolate Mr Hussein's regime.
He singled out the support of Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia as being crucial.
"If these diplomatic efforts are not fruitful, then there can be military ways, like in Kosovo," he said, claiming that Shia and Kurdish forces could remove the Iraqi president if he was unable to use heavy weapons.
The Iraqi people should then elect their own government, a position that had been accepted by the US, he added.
Ayatollah Hakim's statements came as Iraqi exiles prepared to launch a campaign in London today for a free vote in Iraq, ahead of the October referendum on Mr Hussein's presidency.
The campaign, spearheaded by exiles not tied to the main opposition groups, aims to tell Mr Hussein that the only alternative to military action is for him to relinquish power. At the same time, the Iraqi exiles want to win a firm US and European commitment to free elections if the regime is overthrown.
Ghassan al-Atiyyah, a former Iraqi diplomat and a backer of the campaign, said the move was also an attempt to counter Mr Hussein's claims that a possible US war would be waged against the nation rather than the regime.
"We're saying there's a third alternative - elections with international monitoring. Saddam would have to step aside and allow for an interim government that calls for free elections," he said.
"This is an opportunity to give an Iraqi argument that takes the moral high ground from Saddam who says he's fighting for the country. It puts the burden on Saddam and it says we are not calling for war."
Ayatollah Hakim's call for more diplomacy reflects unease at being too closely associated with a unilateral US military campaign. He also has to be sensitive to Iran's opposition to US military action.
Iran's stated policy is effectively one of neutrality in the event of a US attack on Iraq. However, there appear to be differences over how to deal with the various opposition groups, such as Sciri and Kurdish groups, through which Tehran would hope to exert influence in any future Iraqi government.
Major General Rahim Safavi, commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, caused a stir at the weekend by saying that Iran "would stay on the side of the Iraqi nation".
A foreign ministry spokesman on Monday said this was the general's personal view and was not official policy.
Gen Safavi also criticised Jalal Talabani, leader of Iraq's opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, for comments he is reported to have made encouraging the US to intervene.
Some analysts understood the general to be warning that Iran would not tolerate any attempt by Iraq's Kurds to establish an independent state.