Toppling Hussein poses no easy task; Splintered opposition, widespread mistrust complicate U.S. goal; Bold words, little action


WASHINGTON -- Two months after President Clinton pledged greater support for efforts to topple Saddam Hussein, U.S. officials have failed to persuade the disparate and divided Iraqi opposition to hold a meeting, let alone organize a revolt.

"There's no strategy" among the Iraqi opposition groups, said a frustrated State Department official, one of several who have held a series of meetings with them in recent weeks. "There's no political strategy, no military strategy, no philosophical strategy, no press strategy."

But American supporters and congressional staff members say the Clinton administration has dragged its feet on guaranteeing protection to the Iraqi opposition, leaving its leaders uncertain about the U.S. commitment. And several countries in the region are waiting to see whether the Clinton administration is serious about its calls for a new government in Iraq.

The drive to oust the Iraqi leadership has assumed heightened importance as the United States' effort at "containment" of the Baghdad regime runs into obstacles on two fronts:

United Nations weapons inspectors are barred from Iraq. Even if they eventually return, the inspectors are unlikely to resume their intrusive search for the hidden secrets of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Opposition is building to the tight U.N. economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. The United States and Britain are increasingly isolated in their determination to maintain the sanctions.

Even so, U.S. officials are encouraged by Hussein's increasing isolation from Arab leaders, as reflected in his recent vitriolic speeches.

In the wake of the four-day U.S.-British bombing campaign in December, there are signs of Hussein's nervousness at home, including his replacement of military leaders and reported executions of opponents.

Deepened U.S. engagement

In October, Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which authorizes $97 million in aid to the opposition in the form of military equipment, education and training. A month before the attacks, Clinton signaled a new enthusiasm for congressional efforts to oust the Iraqi leadership.

"Over the past year, we have deepened our engagement with the forces of change in Iraq," Clinton said, "reconciling the two large Kurdish opposition groups, beginning broadcasts of a Radio Free Iraq through the country.

"We will intensify that effort, working with Congress to implement the Iraq Liberation Act, strengthening our political support to do what we can to make the opposition a more effective voice for the aspirations of the Iraqi people."

Clinton made that promise Nov. 15 as he announced that he was holding off on military action against Baghdad after an Iraqi pledge of cooperation with the United Nations. That cooperation lasted only a few weeks. On Dec. 16, Clinton ordered airstrikes.

With the president's backing, the State Department's Middle East point man, Martin Indyk, and other officials have met in London and Washington with Iraqi opposition figures. By the end of this month, the Clinton administration is to determine which Iraqi opposition group -- or groups -- should receive the $97 million approved by Congress under the Iraq Liberation Act.

Disappointing results

Most prominent among the leaders is Ahmad Chalabi, who heads a London-based umbrella organization of opposition groups, the Iraqi National Congress, and has won support among Republicans on Capitol Hill. The administration plans to designate the organization as eligible for a share of the federal aid.

A State Department official says the results of the Iraqi opposition meetings have been disappointing. Rather than impose a strategy, the Clinton administration has tried to persuade the groups to develop one. But the opposition groups have been weakened by distrust and ethnic divisions.

The idea is to have a meeting in London of the 22-member executive council of the Iraqi National Congress, followed by a meeting of the congress' 400-strong General Assembly in Washington. The United States would pick up the tab.

"We're disappointed [Chalabi has] not called it," the State Department official said. "The reasons are completely unclear."

"Why would we call a meeting? Who's promised us anything?" said Francis Brooke, a Washington-based adviser to the INC. "These people got killed before. Where is the [U.S.] commitment?" He strongly disputed any assertion of a lack of a strategy.

Kathryn Porter, president of the Human Rights Alliance, who has worked closely with Iraqi Kurds, says Chalabi wants to line up support among members of the Iraqi National Congress before calling the meeting but has been unable to do so.

'A level of mistrust'

One group that has been particularly reluctant is the Kurdish leadership, which sees itself as a key target of Hussein's. The Kurds suffered attacks by Hussein's forces in 1996, and the United States failed to help.

"There's a level of mistrust between the Kurds, between the Kurds and other opposition parties, and between the Kurds and us," said one congressional staff member.

When U.S. officials brokered a deal between two rival Kurdish factions last fall, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said the United States would retaliate if Hussein again attacked the Kurds in northern Iraq. She said Washington would decide "when and how" to respond.

But the Kurds and their congressional supporters want a security guarantee, which the Clinton administration has not provided.

Besides providing military aid to the Iraqi opposition, Congress has set aside $3 million for the Iraqi National Congress, $3 million for the campaign to prosecute Hussein for war crimes and $2 million for opposition groups inside Iraq.

The State Department and Chalabi disagree on how the Iraqi National Congress' share should be spent. Chalabi wants it all to go to his London office, and prefers cash over support for specific programs, a U.S. official said.

A question of commitment

While acknowledging the difficulty of uniting the disparate opposition groups, some members of Congress are increasingly raising questions about whether the Clinton administration is committed to the Iraq Liberation Act and its vision of a new Iraqi regime. Besides providing military training, the act allows -- but does not require -- the administration to provide surplus military equipment.

Despite Clinton's professed support for a new regime, there are divisions within the administration about the wisdom of a U.S.-armed opposition group squaring off against Hussein's formidable military.

Some within the State Department, CIA and Pentagon say the opposition will never be a match for Hussein without significant U.S. air power and ground troops. Some U.S. military officers foresee a repeat of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Fidel Castro's Cuba in 1961.

Congressional staff members say the administration can show Iraqi opposition groups and Middle East allies that the United States means business by designating groups to receive aid and starting military training.

"The question is, will [the Clinton administration] do something serious or do something cosmetic?" said one House staff member. "I think the jury's still out."

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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