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Close behind U.S. troops, Iraqi exiles enter power vacuum

By Associated Press
Published April 8, 2003

CAIRO - As Saddam Hussein's regime crumbles, former exiles are already back in Iraq trying to rebuild a devastated country - and build power bases for themselves.

The Iraqi opposition is divided along ethnic, political and religious lines - rivalries that kept the factions from forming a united front that might have had more influence with the United States. Now there are fears returned exiles will spend more time carving out fiefdoms than reforming Iraq.

Iraqi dissidents said several men who had been Hussein's top army officers also are back and helping coalition forces. Some exiled journalists have returned to southern Iraq with the aim of launching a radio service to replace official Iraqi radio. Others said they are planning to publish a newspaper that will pioneer a free press.

Prominent among the returned exiles are politician Ahmad Chalabi, Shiite leader Abdel Majid al-Khoei, and Youssef al- Khairallah, a tribal chief.

Al-Khairallah, who returned to his hometown of Rifaee in Nasiriyah province 180 miles south of Baghdad, said he and his tribe were able to restore the town and other adjacent villages to normal.

Al-Khoei, a son of the late spiritual leader of millions of Iraqi Shiites, said by telephone Monday that he and a group of exiled Iraqis have helped persuade locals in the southern city of Najaf to cooperate with U.S. troops. Other Shiite clerics have ruled against such cooperation.

Al-Khoei said he had returned to Najaf shortly after it was liberated by U.S. troops last week to try help calm the Shiite holy city and restore order. By getting in early, he also may get a jump on other Shiite leaders in building popularity.

Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, whose Shiite Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq is the largest Iraqi opposition group, has decided to return to Iraq from his exile in Iran. His spokesman, Haj Abu Zeid, said al-Hakim had not yet decided when he would go.

[Last modified April 8, 2003, 01:31:46]