Iraqi Opposition Unable to Mount Viable Challenge
By John Burgess and David B. Ottaway
"There's nothing in place inside Iraq at this time to take advantage of any weakening of Saddam," said Rend Rahim, executive director of the Iraq Foundation, a democracy group based in Washington. "There is nothing prepared to present an alternative to him."
George Jaffe, deputy director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, gave a similar view: "They lack credibility. . . . None has shown the ability to organize effectively, maintain popularity inside Iraq or create a viable alternative."
Whose fault that is is open to debate. Dissidents contend that the United States and other foreign countries helped marginalize them by reducing support. "What we lack now is resources," said Ahmed Chalabi, a London businessman who heads the Iraqi National Congress, which received most of the $100 million in covert assistance that the United States funneled to the Iraqi opposition after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
National Congress forces, along with supporters of another group receiving covert U.S. aid, the Iraqi National Accord, were routed in a crackdown on the opposition by Iraqi security forces in northern Iraq in August 1996. Two hundred opposition figures were executed and more than 2,000 placed under arrest. The United States spirited more than 7,000 others out of northern Iraq to Guam and then moved them to the United States.
The bloodbath embittered both opposition groups, which charged that the United States had abandoned them to Iraqi forces. Critics of both groups, however, talk of endless infighting and corruption within the dissidents' ranks.
The groups now are watching from the sidelines as the United States and Britain prepare for possible military strikes against Iraq with a limited stated objective -- destroying any capability Saddam Hussein has to make nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
U.S. and British officials continue to meet with dissident leaders. About 16 Iraqis representing a range of organizations attended a 90-minute meeting at the British Foreign Office in London on Monday. But the goal, according to both sides, was to exchange views, not plan a larger role for the groups.
U.S. and British policy envisions Iraq as a pluralistic democratic society. But the dominant view in both capitals is that Saddam Hussein is unlikely to fall to a popular uprising. "We think the most likely way that change [Saddam Hussein's departure] will come about is from the inside, from the circle around Saddam," said one U.S. official. "That's the nature of the system."
Dissidents say that even that goal will not be served by current U.S. policy. "What is the probable outcome of these airstrikes? Just death and destruction," said Chalabi. "Saddam will make sure thousands of people will die. . . . The U.S. will be branded as baby killers."
Hamid Bayati, London representative of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is headquartered in Tehran, said: "The right policy is to get rid of the cause of all these problems, all this misery . . . which is Saddam Hussein."
In Washington, similar calls are coming from some Republican quarters. Richard Perle, an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, wrote in Sunday's Washington Post that the United States needs an "overall strategy to destroy [Saddam Hussein's] regime by helping the nascent democratic opposition in Iraq to transform itself into Iraq's new government."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and other Republicans also have backed a broader campaign aimed at ousting Saddam Hussein, including creating a Radio Free Iraq, expanding the "no-fly" zones in which Iraqi aircraft are not allowed off the ground and helping dissident groups. Zalmay Khalilzad and Paul Wolfowitz, who both served in the Pentagon during the Bush administration, have advocated supporting an Iraqi government-in-exile as part of a coordinated policy to force a change of leadership in Baghdad.
London is where Iraqi opposition groups are found in large supply, hosting as many as 60 real or supposed organizations. Many represent sizable ethnic and religious groups, Iraq specialists in London say, while others speak mainly for the individuals who set them up, who might be recent defectors or emigres who have not lived in Iraq in decades.
Some groups maintain a presence in nations bordering Iraq, such as Jordan. The Iraqi National Accord continues to operate a radio transmitter in Jordan, Iraq specialists say. Others reportedly have agents in Iraq. The only reports of fighting against the Baghdad government involve dissident Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq who receive support from Iran.
The opposition groups and the United States have been at odds often since the end of the Gulf War, when U.S. and allied forces opted not to advance on Baghdad to try to oust Saddam Hussein. U.S. troops set up a safe haven for Kurds in the north but stood aside as Iraqi forces crushed an uprising of Shiite Muslims in the south.
Some pro-Western Iraqi groups have pressed the United States and other foreign powers to "finish the job." Others, such as pro-Iranian organizations, are wary of U.S. influence in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. In general, the United States has opted for a policy of keeping up pressure through the U.N. economic embargo and periodic airstrikes, while trying to encourage a coup against Saddam Hussein.
U.S. planners also backed the two main Kurdish factions in northern Iraq to mount an armed challenge to Saddam Hussein's army. But in the summer of 1996, one of them, Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, joined hands with the Iraqi president to further a long-standing feud with the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Jalal Talabani. That enabled Saddam Hussein's troops to move into the Kurdish zone and shut down the National Congress's operations there.
Recently, the Patriotic Union has been sending envoys to Baghdad to talk peace. Two weeks ago, Saddam Hussein sent his security chief to see Talabani in his fiefdom in the north, according to Arab press reports.
The factions no longer use Turkish or U.S. mediation in trying to settle their feud, according to Iraqi opposition sources and analysts in Washington. "Baghdad will be the place the Kurds turn to to solve their final status in Iraq," said Michel Amitay, director of the Washington Kurdish Institute, a nonprofit research group. "They don't trust the United States any longer to provide protection."
Burgess reported from London, Ottaway from Washington.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company