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Iraqi opposition ill-prepared for power as US signals renewed war on Saddam Hussain

Abul Fadl

In the decade since the US’s high-tech destruction of Iraq in 1991, the US has consistently talked of overthrowing Saddam Hussain while being happy to leave him in place as a useful enemy to have. Now there are signs that they may actually be preparing to replace him. KHALIL OSMAN reports.

As more and stronger hints came from Washington that Iraq was to be the target of another American military strike, Baghdad launched a diplomatic push to mend fences with its neighbours and start a discussion with the UN on weapons-inspections. In his recent State of the Union address, US president George W Bush called Iraq, along with Iran and North Korea, an “axis of evil,” accusing them of trying to obtain weapons of mass-destruction. Bush had earlier warned Iraq of unspecified consequences if it did not resume cooperation with the United Nations on weapons inspections.

Iraq’s diplomatic efforts included sending emissaries to Iran to discuss the easing of border tensions and the return of prisoners of war remaining from the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, as well as presenting proposals to Kuwait for rebuilding relations between them. Although the Iranians were receptive to the overture, the Kuwaitis rejected the Iraqi proposals, which were relayed through Amr Musa, the secretary-general of the Arab League.

Most notably the Iraqi initiative included an offer, relayed on February 4 by Musa to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, to discuss “without preconditions” weapons inspections and related economic sanctions. The offer signalled a significant softening in Baghdad’s position on the return of the inspectors – something that, since the inspectors left their country for the last time in December 1998, Iraqi officials had insisted they will never accept.

But the immediate reaction from Washington has been far from welcoming. Secretary of state Colin L Powell told a hearing of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “There is reporting this morning that the Iraqi regime has asked the UN to have a discussion. It should be a very short discussion.” He added, in language combining arrogance and disregard for the elementary principle of innocent until proven guilty: “The inspectors have to go back under our terms, under no one else’s terms, under the terms of the Security Council resolution. The burden is on this evil regime to demonstrate to the world that they are not doing the kinds of things we suspect them of.”

Taking his cue from Powell, Annan said that he was willing to talk, most particularly about how Iraq would allow the inspectors to return. However, in the light of Washington’s obduracy, there seems to be little chance of a breakthrough at a forthcoming meeting between Iraqi officials and Annan. Even if a deal is reached and Iraq re-admits the arms inspectors, it will always be possible for the US to claim that Baghdad has not complied fully, and therefore decide to take military action after all.

Iraq’s diplomatic push comes at a potentially critical point in a debate within the White House on how to deal with Iraq. The debate pits the so-called “doves,” led by secretary of state Powell, who argue for tightening the sanctions to hurt the regime, against the so-called “hawks,” led by secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy, who call for a military campaign aimed at overthrowing the regime. The reluctance of the “doves” to undertake a military campaign against Iraq stems from their calculation that such a move could result in substantial American casualties, as Saddam is a more formidable military foe than were the Taliban, and that he would risk fracturing the country into Kurdish, Shi’ite and Sunni Arab enclaves, provoking unrest across the crucial oil-producing Persian Gulf and Turkey.

There are indications that the “hawks” are winning the debate. Powell gave one such indication at a recent US House of Representatives hearing, saying: “We believe strongly in regime change in Iraq and look forward to the day when a democratic, representative government leads Iraq to rejoin the family of nations.” In order to achieve this purpose, Powell said, the Bush administration was considering “the most serious set of options one might imagine”, including that “the United States might have to do it alone.”

Telltale signs of US preparations for a military assault on Iraq go well beyond this rhetoric. Preparations were under way last month to move the US 3rd Army headquarters, commanded by Lt-Gen Paul Mikolashek, from its usual location at Fort McPherson in Georgia to an operating base in Kuwait. Pentagon briefings describe the headquarters as the “forward-deployable element” of the US Army’s Central Command, under General Tommy Franks, now commanding US military operations in Afghanistan. During the second Gulf war (1991) the 3rd Army was assigned the mission of engaging and destroying contingents of Iraq’s elite Republican Guards.

Proposals put forward by the “hawks” include Afghanistan-style air strikes combined with an armed opposition uprising backed by US ground forces. The “hawks” argue that such a strategy could have an even more devastating effect in Iraq than it has had in Afghanistan, encouraging the Iraqi population and the Iraqi army to rise up against Saddam and his ruling clique. In the words of former US Air Force Lt-Gen Tom McInerney, a US military campaign would engender “a cascading effect of resistance among the general people and his [Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s] military” (New York Post, January 21, 2002). The “hawks” also argue that the terrain and weather in Iraq, which are not as harsh as those in Afghanistan, facilitate the use of ground forces and thus make likelier an easier campaign against Saddam.

The lynchpin of this scenario is the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a motley array of opposition groups. The INC was formed at a meeting in Vienna in June 1992 of nearly 200 delegates from dozens of opposition groups. Among the participants were some of the largest Iraqi opposition groups, including the largest two Kurdish militias, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Mas’ud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headed by Jalal Talbani. In October 1992 the INC held a meeting in Salah al-Din, Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, and chose a three-man Leadership Council, composed of Shi’ite Muslim cleric Sayyid Muhammad Bahr al-’Ulum, ex-Iraqi general Hassan al-Naqib and KDP leader Barzani, and a 26-member executive council. Selected to chair the executive council was Ahmad Chalabi, a mathematician by academic training and former chairman of the Petra Bank in Jordan.

But the INC has since then been plagued by internal dissension: the incessant dissociation of constituent groups and high-ranking personalities from the INC umbrella; lack of regional and international credibility and grassroots support; and continued infiltration by the Iraqi intelligence services. Hints of corruption and malpractice have added to the debilitating mixture of difficulties besetting the INC. On January 30 the state department reached a stopgap agreement with the INC to provide the Iraqi opposition groups with $2.4 million over three months. State department spokeswoman Brenda Greenberg said that the agreement was based on “a good-faith effort” on the part of the INC to deal with weaknesses that the department’s inspector general had found in an audit of the group’s accounting system, which had been set up to deal with the moneys it had received from Washington.

The US aid programme to the INC was suspended in early January in a dispute about a system to account for an initial $25-million tranche in US aid. At the time, state department official Gregg Sullivan said that the London-based group did not have sufficient financial controls and was unable to account for money it had been given. Until the stopgap agreement temporarily resolved the issue, the aid was reduced from $800,000 a month to $500,000 to cover operational costs. The INC reacted angrily to the suspension, calling it politically motivated. INC spokesman Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein stated that the cut-off resulted from “pre-emptive efforts by the Near East Bureau of the state department to discredit the INC [that] served no purpose other than to undermine the US president’s declared policy of regime change in Iraq.”

The INC’s Washington office responded with equal indignation, maintaining in a press release on January 17 that the group “is well on its way to instituting all the recommendations of the Inspector General.” It also claimed that “INC accounting staff have attended courses in US Government grant management. The INC has implemented a centralized accounting system, instituted adequate controls over cash management, ensured full documentation for all cash payments, developed accounting policies and procedures, revised and updated budget documents, submitted required tax documents, and is well on the way to maintaining personnel and travel records in accordance with stringent US government regulations.” However, the INC said that it was reluctant to provide names of secret operatives working in countries bordering Iraq as well as locations and descriptions of INC offices in Iran, Syria and Britain, arguing that such information might become public through the Freedom of Information Act. This reluctance suggests that the INC will continue to spend US taxpayers’ money without filling out full expense receipts.

A seven-man leadership council now heads the INC, with Chalabi as the most prominent member. He enjoys considerable support among Bush’s hawkish supporters and in Congress. This results from a meeting of minds of sorts. Chalabi has spent several years lobbying the US government to assist the INC in launching an armed insurgency to topple Saddam. “What happened in Afghanistan is basically what we want to do in Iraq,” he was recently quoted as saying (New York Post, January 21, 2002). But Chalabi’s reputation is far from clean. In 1989 he fled from Jordan, where he was found guilty in absentia of 31 charges of embezzlement, theft, misuse of funds and other crimes. No wonder that his presence at the helm of the INC makes accusations of wasting money all the more credible.

Chalabi and his aides have been urging the US government to allow the use of US funds to recruit, train and deploy militant opponents of the government inside Iraq. They have been arguing that the INC can readily muster thousands of men under arms and already controls 25 percent of Iraqi territory. The latter claim is at best flimsy: it refers to the areas in northern Iraq controlled by the two major Kurdish factions, the KDP and PUK, which are rivals and no more than nominal members of the INC. But several senior American officials are taking Chalabi’s pretentious claims with a large pinch of salt. They argue that the INC, which is still several groups in uneasy harness, rather than several groups united on a common agenda or set of aims, needs first to give priority to forming a solid and well-trained organizational structure, with a wider following in Iraq and among the sizeable Iraqi refugee communities in neighbouring countries. Several anti-Saddam coup attempts, including a CIA-backed INC armed insurrection in 1996, failed, causing great losses in the ranks during the 1990s.

Many in Washington deride the INC as a group of armchair rebels who have grown accustomed to luxury hotels and first-class air-travel. In testimony to Congress last year, US Middle East envoy General Anthony Zinni, former leader of US Central Command, described the INC leaders as “some silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London” whose plans for overthrowing Saddam would lead to a “Bay of Goats.” However, the fact that a rag-tag force like the Northern Alliance was able to march on Kabul with massive US air strikes seems to have blunted some of these misgivings and made the “hawks” flush with optimism over the prospect of employing the INC as an effective proxy fighting force.

But resolving the internal policy debate does not remove all the hurdles facing a US military campaign against Iraq. One serious hurdle is that of lack of international and regional support. The possibility of a US campaign against Iraq could undermine the coalition assembled by Bush since September 11 last year. French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine has openly poured scorn on Bush’s notion of an “axis of evil” and criticised Washington’s “simplistic” approach to foreign policy. Russia and China have long disagreed with Washington’s approach to Iraq. Arab leaders are increasingly reluctant to join such a military campaign, particularly since public opinion has focused on the impact of the economic sanctions on the Iraqi people, as well as on the US’s blind support for Israel and its consequences for the Palestinians. Even Saudi Arabia, whose bases would be essential for a ground invasion of Iraq, has expressed its opposition. Iran is openly opposed. It is not even clear that Ankara will allow the US to use bases in Turkey in operations against Iraq.

It remains to be seen whether the US will be able to make the compromises needed to surmount these obstacles and put together an anti-Iraq international coalition, and whether or not it will be able to achieve Powell’s “do-it-alone” flight of fancy.

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