As regime falls, Iraqis rush to fill power vacuum

A key opposition leader returned to Iraq this week.

Inside a ramshackle building on a former Iraqi Army base, a motley group of soldiers bang out rhythms on shoe boxes and dance on top of old military cots. They are singing in Arabic and wearing newly issued fatigues bearing the initials FIF, or Free Iraqi Fighters.

The man with the most to celebrate here, Ahmed Chalabi, is clad in a black T-shirt and surrounded by a small entourage of bodyguards. The US airlift that brought the leader of the Iraqi National Congress and nearly 700 FIFs to this base on Sunday was a political rescue of sorts, making him the first major Iraqi opposition leader on the ground in US-controlled southern Iraq.

Mr. Chalabi, who has not lived in Iraq since 1958, is at the forefront of the fractured Iraqi opposition; his Pentagon and congressional connections mean he is well-positioned to capitalize on Saddam Hussein's collapse. But while Chalabi stakes out territory in Iraq's emerging new order, his colleagues - and rivals - will be doing the same, scrambling to act as power brokers between local interests and the United States.

Two Kurdish parties enjoy a working relationship with the US government, strengthened in recent weeks by military cooperation with American forces. The Amman and London-based Iraqi National Accord has CIA connections and a membership largely made up of defectors from Mr. Hussein's military and security services.

The Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) boasts considerable support among the Shiites of the south, and claims 10,000 fighters within the ranks of its Badr Brigade.

Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, SCIRI's leader, has decided to return to Iraq from his exile in Iran. His spokesman said this week that Mr. Hakim had not yet decided when he would go.

Local support will be one key to consolidating influence. On his first day here, Chalabi threw a big tent lunch with leaders of the Algeezi tribe, followed by private talks with the elders.

"One of the things they said is that they were very happy to see Iraqis with the US forces," says Zaab Sethna, a member of the INC and Chalabi's spokesman.

Some of the FIF have been deployed as interpreters and liaisons with US civil affairs forces. These units look out for the needs of local leaders and attempt to build a climate of trust for the coming aid agencies and transitional government.

Chalabi has also been taking requests for assistance from locals. His spokesman explains the practice as "a traditional Iraqi thing," a mark of leadership and prestige. Chalabi has been passing the requests on to the US civil affairs forces.

The FIF may soon put Chalabi in a better position to wield some clout in the region. Public relations will be a big aspect of their mission, as they will be deployed to man checkpoints and ferret out lingering Baath leaders.

The FIF are mostly expatriates with relatives and strong roots still in Iraq. The leader of the Chalabi's bodyguards gave three guards the day off to go into Nasiriyah and meet with family they haven't seen in 10 years. Connections like these will help the FIF assess the local situation. For this reason, FIFs are grouped together into battalions by regions of origin.

Green Berets are assessing and equipping the group. Before guns get handed out, the fighters must sit through a presentation on the international rules of war. They will also receive training on how to protect themselves against weapons of mass destruction.

"We're trying to get them into the fight as soon as we can," says a Special Forces commander. The fighters could deploy within the next few days, especially since there is high-level military support for this operation, according to commanders on the ground.

The FIF commanders are generally veterans from the 1991 uprisings or have fought up north with the Kurds, and are responsible for training their men.

Commanders march their companies around the dirt roads of the base. When they stop and form lines, some take a little extra time to fall in. Boot laces trail untied in the sand. Some fighters are wearing two different camouflage colors because of supply shortages. New shipments are coming.

But Special Forces officers are optimistic about these fighters. "I've seen the leaders discipline their guys. When they talk, they all shut up," says one detachment commander. "I was impressed to see them doing physical fitness this morning."

This fledging force could be developed later into a police force. Asked whether FIFs could form a new Iraqi Army, Chalabi's spokesman said, "They could or they could be integrated into a reformed Iraqi Army. What is clear is that the Iraqi Army needs significant reform. It's a professional force but it has been debased by Saddam over the last 30 years."

If the FIF matures, it's unclear if Chalabi could ride the coattails of this force. One Special Forces officer says, "Dr. Chalabi claims them to be his. But you talk to commanders and they don't mention any link."

Chalabi also suffered renewed criticism after he incorrectly predicted a southern uprising in response to the US invasion, and voices within the CIA and State Department have attacked the former exile's credibility among Iraqis who have suffered under Hussein's regime.

In 1989, Chalabi was sentenced in absentia to 22 years at hard labor by the Jordanian authorities for embezzling millions of dollars from a bank he established.

As for the common troops, some were puzzling over what the FIF patch on their uniforms meant. But they had a good sense of how the power structure works right now.

"Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair are now fathers of Iraq," says one fighter as the crowd around him nodded. Another chimed in, "Chalabi is our brother."

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