A Leadership Vacuum

If Saddam Hussein is ousted, what happens next? Is there an opposition capable of governing Iraq?

A three-day meeting of opposition leaders in northern Iraq ended last week in confusion. With no opposition leader or group able to demonstrate broad legitimacy, experts fear that Iraq may split into warring factions. Many groups have scores to settle with Saddam's Baath Party.

The truth is, no one knows what will happen once Saddam is gone. There are, however, reasons to be hopeful. Political scientist Laith Kubba leads the Iraq National Group, an organization of Iraqi-Americans and Iraqi exiles that met in Washington last month. The group's purpose is to ensure that a post-Saddam Iraq succeeds.

The group's members insist that Iraq is neither Afghanistan nor Lebanon. "Iraq has not seen any communal conflicts or violence, neither between Shiite and Sunni Muslims nor between Arabs and Kurds," Kubba said in an interview. The violence in Iraq has come from Saddam, who has persecuted and killed hundreds of thousands of minorities and dissidents. His most recent murderous rampages—in 1991 after the Persian Gulf War—were against the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south.

Both groups now live under the protection of the American and British no-fly zones. The two groups, however, harbor different ambitions. The Kurds are Sunnis, but they're not Arabs. They want as much autonomy as possible from Iraq. Iraqi Shiites are Arabs, but they're not Sunnis. They want to claim their rightful place in Iraq.

Many Kurds dream of separation from Iraq. But separation seems unlikely. A Kurdish state would be immensely threatening to Turkey, which has a rebellious Kurdish minority of its own. And the United States is determined to prevent the division of Iraq. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has said repeatedly, "We are opposed to a separate state in northern Iraq."

Rubar Sandi, a Kurdish-American member of the Iraq National Group who recently visited northern Iraq, says the Kurds have accepted that reality, at least for now. He described the prevailing Kurdish view as, "We want to be part of Iraq. We feel we are Iraqi. We are not strangers."

What concerns the Kurds is the prospect of a Turkish army presence in northern Iraq. Columnist Trudy Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer visited Iraq recently. In her view, "People of northern Iraq are terrified that Turkish troops are going to come in and repress the democratic institutions that the Kurds have built" under the protection of the no-fly zone.

The United States has indicated its willingness to allow tens of thousands of Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq as a concession to secure Turkey's support for the war. But the Turkish parliament narrowly rejected a measure to allow U.S. deployment from Turkish bases. That reduces the likelihood of a Turkish incursion, at least for now.

In Rubin's view, "If the Turks move in, they will inspire the kind of Kurdish nationalism in Iraq that is now dormant." So a reduced role for Turkey could mean a reduced threat of Kurdish separatism. Still, the Turkish military is unlikely to stand by and allow another refugee crisis like the one during the Gulf War, when half a million Kurdish refugees fled over the border.

What can the United States do to keep its allies from fighting? "The Americans," Rubin says, "somehow have to get the Turks and Kurds together to understand that both sides are interested in one Iraq, and the Turks do not have to fear that the Kurds will break out into independence. The Americans will assure that."

Shiites fought for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. But their loyalty was always suspect. Could Iraqi Shiites be longing to join with the much larger Shiite population of neighboring Iran?

"The [Iraqi] Shiites don't have much in common with Iran," Kubba says. "They come from a different culture. They are Arabs, not Persians. They see their roots and identity in Iraq."

Some Shiites dream of an Islamic revolution in Iraq. But Iraq is too diverse and too secular. The Shiites appear to have accepted that reality. "Their agenda is very simple," Kubba says. "Just give us a fair and open system where we can participate and have our normal and natural share of power."

If the two most dangerous threats to Iraq after Saddam, Kurdish separatism and Islamic revolution, don't seem very likely, there is still a serious problem, namely, a leadership vacuum. In Kubba's view, "Iraqis share the same dream, but at the moment they don't have a leadership. And they don't have a group with an agenda showing them how to get there."

That's why the United States doesn't want to turn power over to a provisional government too quickly. Sandi argues, "Give Iraqis a chance to think about their future, to come to some kind of consensus, rather than impose it on them ahead of time and then have the whole thing unravel." The plan is for the United States to run Iraq for a while, just as it ran Germany and Japan after World War II.

And then what? How can a national consensus be built in Iraq after Saddam? Possibly it could be built on the desire to stop foreign influence in Iraq—influence by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and by the United States as well.