WASHINGTON - Buoyed by President Bush's new resolve to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, an organization of Iraqi opposition groups has stepped up its campaign to join Americans in any future military action in their homeland.
But the Iraqi National Congress has a problem. While popular with many in Congress, it is viewed skeptically by the State Department and the CIA, dismissed by America's allies in the Arab world and derided as ineffective by influential Washington analysts.
The role the Bush administration assigns the INC, if any, could influence not only the course of possible U.S. action against Iraq, but also the development of a post-Hussein government and the long-term stability of a volatile region that is the source of much of the industrialized world's oil.
Labeling Iraq part of an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address last month, Bush gave new momentum to a policy of "regime change" in Iraq that long has been a U.S. goal.
Bush has given no hint of how he wants to accomplish the goal. But the administration appears to be gearing up for a showdown later this year over Iraq's refusal to allow United Nations inspectors to carry out their mission of searching for weapons of mass destruction - a showdown that could set the stage for war.
Since the president's speech, INC officials have detected a greater interest in their cause.
"We're encouraged," said Ahmad Chalabi, a key member of the INC leadership and its point man with officials in Washington.
Wide array of members
Founded by Iraqi exiles in 1992, the London-based INC marked the first major effort to unite Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Kurds and backers of a constitutional monarchy in a single organization devoted to replacing Hussein's regime with a pluralistic democratic government.
INC membership ranges from Islamic fundamentalists to relatives of Iraq's last king, Faisal II, who was deposed and killed in 1958. But how much active support the INC has among the dozens of opposition groups around the world is unclear. The Kurds, for instance, are known to be reluctant to fight against Hussein unless guaranteed future autonomy.
The INC maintained a stronghold inside northern Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region until 1996, when Hussein, taking advantage of fighting between Kurdish factions, moved his forces into the area, killing 200 members of the INC and another opposition group, the Iraqi National Accord.
So far, the U.S. government has confined its financial support for the INC to nonlethal aid for radio and satellite-TV broadcasts into Iraq, a newspaper and meetings to organize regime opponents and publicize the plight of the Iraqi people under Hussein.
If Bush pursues a military solution, the INC wants to assume a role similar to the one played by Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, America's partner in defeating the Taliban: providing troops on the ground and fighting alongside U.S. special operations forces while U.S. bombers attack strategic sites and armored columns.
Chalabi laid out a "hypothetical scenario" for how the war would unfold. A U.S. bombing campaign would target Hussein's communications and control apparatus, tanks and the elite Special Republican Guard. Simultaneously, the INC ground troops would attack Hussein's forces in northern and southern Iraq, pressuring units of the Iraqi army to "come over to us or go home."
Inserting thousands of trained INC forces into Iraq is a 4-year-old plan developed by retired U.S. Army Gen. Wayne Downing, now the president's chief counter-terrorism adviser, and former CIA operative Duane R. "Dewey" Clarridge, an architect of the Contra insurgency in Nicaragua (who was indicted for lying to Congress in the ensuing Iran-Contra affair and pardoned before trial) who also worked in the Middle East.
Paul Wolfowitz, then dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and now deputy secretary of defense, also contributed to the plan.
"In a way, the Afghan plan is a copy of the Iraq plan," Clarridge said.
In Congress, the INC draws strong support from Republicans in both houses, who for years have been pressing both the Clinton administration and now the Bush administration to provide more support.
"I think the INC can play a very useful role," said Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican. "You've got to make a transition to democratic rule in Iraq. Chalabi and his guys are committed to doing that."
But there are just as many doubters. Within the administration, some officials fear the INC plan could turn into a Bay of Pigs-style disaster. Part of the skepticism stems from the INC's record in building an opposition movement among the various opponents of Hussein inside and outside Iraq.
In a 2000 report by the RAND Corp., an influential think tank that does analysis for the Pentagon, Daniel Byman wrote that opposition forces were so fragmented and had so little support in the region that making them the centerpiece of a drive to oust Hussein "would almost certainly fail."
Worse, he wrote, it could cause the collapse of efforts to keep Hussein contained.
Critics describe Chalabi as a divisive figure, better suited to lobbying in Washington than building a movement. A trained mathematician, Chalabi, 57, was convicted in absentia on charges of embezzling millions of dollars from the Petra Bank in Jordan in the 1980s. Chalabi says he left the bank in viable shape and that it subsequently was looted by corrupt officials.
The INC's financial management was faulted last September by the State Department's inspector general when the group failed to properly account for about $2 million in grants from the department. Chalabi says the INC is close to satisfying the inspector general's concerns, which led to a temporary cutoff of funds in January.
"The INC has very little support inside Iraq, and they have never demonstrated the ability to do what they claim to be able to do. They have never been able to entice large numbers of defectors, including senior officers, and never started a popular revolution," said Kenneth Pollack of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Chalabi retorted that he organized opponents to Hussein from inside Iraq from 1992 to 1996 and has run a series of assemblies of Iraqi exiles.
Acknowledging a lack of support in the Arab world, he said the region's autocratic leaders are threatened by the INC's democratic ideals.
He said the INC's critics, who include retired U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, now a State Department adviser, lack an understanding of Iraqi politics and of the Arab world.
So far, the United States has provided nonlethal military training - for example, communications and logistics - for 164 INC members.
More training wanted
Chalabi and his supporters, however, are pressing for lethal training, saying this would show potential Iraqi defectors that the United States is serious about toppling Hussein. Down the line the INC foresees the newly trained troops training others.
Although even people close to Chalabi doubt this will happen soon, the Bush administration is expected to continue supporting the INC's nonmilitary efforts if for no other reason than there is no alternative organization with as diverse a membership.
The Iraqi National Accord, a group favored by the CIA that is led by exiled military officers, has been wracked by penetration by Iraqi intelligence and the killing of a number of its members.
Amatzia Baram, an analyst of Iraq at the University of Haifa in Israel, says the INC can serve a useful role in spreading propaganda, building support at the United Nations, organizing expatriates and gathering intelligence.
If Hussein is overthrown, the INC can help in the transition to a new government and encourage Iraqis to participate in the democratic process, Baram said. The INC proposes allowing the Iraqi people to approve a constitution by referendum and then holding elections.
Chalabi said he doesn't want any leadership role in Iraq. But one of his colleagues at the INC, Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, a cousin of the late king, said he was interested. Sharif Ali said in an interview from London he could serve as a symbolic leader and a rallying point for diverse groups of Iraqis.
"I've always tried to be a consensus builder," he said.