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There was no seat at the table for the Assyrians last August, when Iraqi opposition groups met to discuss how to govern their homeland should Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein be toppled. The Assyrians, like the better-known Kurds, are an oppressed ethnic minority in Iraq with a significant diaspora in the United States, but unlike the Kurds, the Assyrians had no name recognition in Washington — until the Assyrian American League turned to lobbyist Michael Flanagan, a former Republican congressman from Illinois. Flanagan, who has known the head of the Chicago-based AAL since they were kids, called on his former Capitol Hill colleague, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), and asked for help getting the attention of the State Department. Hyde, in turn, wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell, urging him to include leaders of the Assyrian and other minority communities in future meetings. It worked. Representatives from the Assyrian community have been included in the opposition meetings ever since. As President George W. Bush presses the case for a U.S. invasion of oil-rich Iraq and United Nations weapons inspectors resume their investigations, the endgame for ousting Hussein and his governing Arab Bath Socialist Party is fast approaching. And scores of opposition groups are arguing for a prominent role in any new government. “It is the people holding the guns in Baghdad when the regime changes who will determine what the next regime will look like,” says Michael Amitay, executive director of the Washington Kurdish Institute, a nonprofit humanitarian assistance organization. Most likely, the United States will hold a few of those guns, hence political groups of all sorts have been lining up at the State Department, Congress, the Pentagon — wherever someone will listen — to make their cases for prominence and support. “They’re playing for all the marbles now,” Flanagan says. The majority of Iraqi opposition groups don’t have much contact with the U.S. government, but those that do are working hard to be among the anointed — those the United States will support as leaders in a post-Hussein Iraq. The Assyrians aren’t the only ones to hire D.C. pros to improve their standing in the pool of potential power players. The Iraqi National Congress, a group whose de facto head is charismatic Shiite businessman Ahmed Chalabi, has former Central Intelligence Director James Woolsey on its payroll. And the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq has local lobby shop O’Connor & Hannan. Many groups, dissidents, and exiles rely on their own contacts to work the U.S. political angles. Representatives of the Assyrian community had participated in larger Iraqi opposition conferences, but the August meeting was different. It was the first U.S.-sponsored meeting of opposition groups the U.S. government believes will play a major role in a post-Hussein Iraq. The Big Six, as the select group was called before the addition of the Assyrians, included the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, led by a cousin of the last Iraqi king of the Hashemite dynasty; the Iraqi National Accord, with a core of former Iraqi officers and Arab Bath Socialist Party officials; the Kurdistan Democratic Party; the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite group based in Iran with an underground fighting force in southern Iraq; and the London-based Iraqi National Congress. The Big Six, even with the Assyrians, is in no way representative of the Iraqi opposition as a whole, however. “The Iraqi opposition is a broad-based social force,” says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank in Washington. “The U.S. government works with a tiny sector of that force, those it has identified as supporting a war. Many others who oppose the regime are also opposed to war and opposed to sanctions. They know the Iraqi people are going to suffer in a war.” Indeed, many Iraqis in the United States and in Iraq identify themselves as independent of any political or opposition party. According to Iraqi expatriates and other Iraq-watchers, widespread distrust of the United States exists among these independents. Nevertheless, many independent opposition groups have been trying to cozy up to the United States as talk of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has intensified. “There’s a recognition among Iraqis that if the U.S. plays the role of toppling the government, having influence in Washington will play a role in determining the outcome and the position of yourself or your party in a new government. But it doesn’t work well in terms of one’s credibility inside Iraq,” says Erik Gustafson, a Gulf War veteran and executive director of the D.C.-based Education for Peace in Iraq Center. “There is the paradox the groups deal with,” he says. “You don’t want to place yourself too close to Washington, but because the U.S. is going to play such a major role, you want to have some influence in Washington.” The State Department has been trying to facilitate dialogue between the various groups and has organized the Future of Iraq Project, a series of meetings bringing together U.S. government representatives and Iraqi opposition leaders to discuss transitional justice, agriculture, democratic principles, and other issues under a new Iraqi government. Iraqi opposition organizations invited to participate in the working groups include the Iraq Turkoman Front, a Turkish-government-sponsored group working on behalf of the Turkoman ethnic minority in Iraq; the Iraqi National Movement; and the Alliance of Iraqi Tribes. After surviving more than two decades of Hussein’s dictatorship, the Iraqi opposition can still be a jumble of rivalrous factions jockeying for position. If Hussein’s regime were to fall today, there would be no coherent plan to replace him. Still, one of the few opinions shared among these groups is that the sooner Hussein is out of power, the better. But some participants have voiced concerns about what they perceive as pressure to support a U.S. war in Iraq. Many leaders resent the seeming omnipresence of U.S. officials in Iraqi opposition discussions. To a certain extent, “we think the meddling of American diplomacy is causing division in the Iraqi opposition,” says Nabil Roumayah, a prominent member of the Iraqi Democratic Union, a Michigan-based opposition group that claims supporters from all segments of Iraqi society. “We see the U.S. supporting this today and that tomorrow, one group now and another group later. They don’t have a clear policy and that has created a bad situation for the Iraqi opposition. Sometimes, we wish we were left alone to work out our differences ourselves.” The State Department did not respond to requests for comment. The opposition groups tend to fall into two broad categories: those with a presence of some sort within Iraq and those composed primarily of exiles with few associates on the ground in Iraq, but strong ties to the U.S. military. The Iraqi National Congress, which has a long history in Iraq but is now rather small relative to other opposition organizations, is one of the latter. It’s also one of the best-connected, with former CIA director Woolsey pressing its case. The Iraqi National Congress is reported by many Iraq watchers to have found favor with Vice President Dick Cheney and the Pentagon, if not the State Department. Woolsey was in Prague at a NATO conference last week and could not be reached. But the Iraqi National Congress, as a policy matter, shares the administration’s view that an armed invasion of Iraq is the right approach. This year Congress allocated $25 million for the group, $17 million of which is for use within Iraq. The Kurdish and Shiite groups, says the Education for Peace in Iraq Center’s Gustafson, seem to have the support of the State Department as dependable players in a post-Hussein Iraq. O’Connor & Hannon principal Thomas Corcoran, who represents the Kurdistan Democratic Party, did not return calls. Representatives of other opposition groups claim the Iraqi National Congress tried to pack a conference scheduled for Nov. 22 in Brussels with its supporters. The U.S.-backed conference, at which at least 300 delegates were expected, was where plans for a post-Hussein regime were to take shape, Flanagan says. That meeting was postponed until mid-December, in London. “The meeting will not be successful,” Roumayah says. “It will be postponed for good unless it represents the whole spectrum of the Iraqi opposition.” The Bush administration has begun requesting contributions of military personnel and support from U.S. allies in the event of a war with Iraq. The vast majority of Iraqis, the Institute for Policy Studies’ Bennis says, “are going to spend the war not fighting for or against the U.S. or Iraq, but hiding from the bombs.”

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