With war still raging, the State Department is planning to hold a “Baghdad Conference” a mere six weeks after the conflict ends to determine an interim leadership and to establish a framework for its new government—something that many inside the administration fear could give the House of Saud undue influence in a post-Saddam Iraq. The plan is modeled after the Bonn Conference, which Zalmay Khalilzad, now U.S. special envoy to Iraq, oversaw to prepare a transitional government that eventually succeeded the Taliban.
Administration officials and various outside experts agree that a Baghdad Conference, if it happens, would be simply the latest attempt by State to undermine the umbrella organization of democratic Iraqi opposition groups, the Iraqi National Congress (INC).
State is already placing—or attempting to place—pro-Saudi individuals in important positions in a post-Saddam Iraq:
· Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty recently tapped Beth Payne—who one senior State official says “enjoys a cozy relationship with the Saudis,” even though her job has been to recover abducted American children trapped in the desert prison—to take over the consular section at the new Baghdad embassy.
· State last month forced the Pentagon to appoint longtime diplomat Barbara Bodine—who temporarily refused the FBI entry into Yemen to investigate the U.S.S. Cole—to be civilian administrator in Baghdad. Bodine has extensive ties to Iraqis—but not the right ones. Notes a senior administration official, “She only knows the Ba’athists, because that’s who she dealt with, and she’s never bothered getting to know the democratic opposition very well.” With a long career centered mostly in the Middle East, administration officials describe Bodine as an Arabist who favors traditional, “stable” Arab regimes—the kind where democracy does not flourish.
· State’s top pick for ambassador to the post-Saddam Iraq is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ryan Crocker, who shares Bodine’s worldview.
But State may not get Bodine into Baghdad; the Pentagon is pushing back to get someone else in that position. And Crocker will undoubtedly run into opposition from the White House, where the President’s vision of a democratic Iraq is diametrically opposed to Crocker’s view of the Arab world.
The greatest friend the House of Saud might have in the post-Saddam Iraq, though, is Adnan Pachachi, the octogenarian former foreign minister, who is openly backed by the House of Saud. State sees Pachachi as the most viable alternative to the INC, and even gave its tacit approval to a conference he organized in London on Sunday as part of a campaign to undermine the staunchly pro-democracy INC. One administration official says that Khalilzad is "so obsessed with Pachachi that he forced Jalal Talibani [leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, an INC member organization] to put Pachachi on the Iraqi opposition leadership council." But Pachachi was not interested, at least not in being part of the same leadership committee as Dr. Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the INC—and he said as much in a Financial Times column last month. Yet State persists in wooing Pachachi.
But perhaps the greatest threat to the INC and democracy—and the greatest boon for the House of Saud—is the proposed Baghdad Conference. If held soon after the smoke clears, only the Ba’athists would be likely to come forward. Since anyone of significance in Iraqi society is a Ba’ath Party member, some party members will necessarily be in the new government—but weeding out Ba’athists will take longer than six weeks. Likely the only people willing to come forward from within Iraq right after the fall of Saddam’s regime are people who were part of it because, as one administration official notes, “It takes time for the fear to wear off.”
State’s attempts to thwart the INC have gotten so bad that a group of five Senators—Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Sam Brownback (R-KS), Rick Santorum (R-PA), John McCain (R-AZ), and Norm Coleman (R-MN)—sent a letter Monday to President Bush, calling on him to “personally clear the bureaucratic road blocks from within the State Department” and get funding and other support to the INC. As they note in the letter, “American lives are at stake.”