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      Saddam's Iraqi Foes Heartened By Clinton

    By Vernon Loeb
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, November 16, 1998; Page A17

    President Clinton's first explicit call for a "new government" in Baghdad and his pledge to implement a new plan for arming opponents of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein heartened opposition leaders yesterday. But Clinton's comments appeared to signal more of a heightened political effort to destabilize the Iraqi regime over time than any immediate military strategy for overthrowing it.

    Senior administration officials said Clinton's words were intended to signal an "intensification" of support for a broad array of Iraqi opposition groups and in that sense represented a change in policy.

    A British diplomat closely monitoring the Iraq crisis called Clinton's expression of support for Iraqi opposition groups in an effort to help create a new regime in Baghdad "one policy change we've seen out of this weekend." The diplomat called the shift "a more forward-leaning American move to go beyond containment."

    But Defense Secretary William S. Cohen made it clear that Clinton's vow of support for the Iraqi Liberation Act -- a congressional initiative that makes $97 million in military support available to the Iraqi opposition -- did not mean that such aid would be provided to opposition groups any time soon.

    "He was not calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein," Cohen told reporters at the White House. "What he was saying is that we are prepared and will work with opposition forces or groups to try to bring about in some future time a more democratic type of regime."

    Congressional supporters of the bill, led by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), envision U.S. military aid going to train and arm an opposition army that as early as next year would invade Iraq, capture lightly defended areas in the southern and western parts of the country, encourage mass defections from the Iraqi military and ultimately bring down the government.

    Lott and other Senate Republicans have made it clear that they favor channeling most or all of the military aid through the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a coalition of opposition groups headed by Ahmed Chalabi. Chalabi, a Shiite Muslim from Baghdad educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been a leading figure in efforts to generate support for a U.S.-backed insurgency to bring down the Iraqi regime.

    But administration officials said yesterday that they do not place Chalabi and the INC at the center of their interest in developing opposition groups capable of bringing about a change of government. "We know Chalabi," one National Security Council official said. "We've worked very closely with him [in the past]. But our goal is to work with as broad a spectrum of opposition groups as possible."

    The official added that the administration has "no current plans" to begin providing military assistance to opposition groups under the Iraq Liberation Act. "But we don't rule it out at some point in the future," he said

    Francis J. Brooke, Chalabi's representative in Washington, said that regardless of the administration's views of Chalabi, Clinton's public expression of support for the Iraq Liberation Act would have a large impact.

    Clinton foreshadowed yesterday's comments in a statement he made while signing the legislation on Oct. 31.

    On both occasions, Clinton spoke of the Iraq Liberation Act as but one in a series of steps the administration is pursuing to support political opposition to Saddam Hussein's regime over the long term. The other initiatives include Radio Free Iraq broadcasts into the country, a recent $8 million appropriation supporting development of opposition groups, and a political truce brokered in September by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright between the two largest Kurdish opposition groups in northern Iraq.

    "There's been an intensifying relationship with the opposition over the past year, particularly now that we have gained some traction with the Kurds," one senior White House official said.

    Clinton's call for a new government in Baghdad yesterday, the official said, represents an explicit change in emphasis that dates back to a speech Albright made in March 1997 about U.S. policy toward Saddam Hussein. The president's words, the official said, "draws on that, but it's now in a more active voice. I would not say there's no change in policy, but we're moving prudently."

    Part of what makes Clinton's vow to "implement" the Iraq Liberation Act so ambiguous is the act itself, which authorizes the president to provide $97 million in training, weapons, supplies and other materiel to Iraqi opposition groups -- but does not require him to do so.

    Previous administration efforts at mobilizing the Iraqi opposition using covert assistance from the CIA have been dismal failures. With CIA support, Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, allied with two Kurdish militias, carried out paramilitary operations in northern Iraq. But the administration and the CIA ultimately abandoned Chalabi in favor of a group of ex-Iraqi military officers called the Iraqi National Accord who claimed that they could orchestrate a military coup to topple Saddam Hussein.

    The Iraqi National Accord, however, proved to be deeply penetrated by Iraqi intelligence, which foiled its coup strategy in June 1996. Two months later, Saddam Hussein's forces rolled into northern Iraq and devastated opposition camps controlled by the Popular Union of Kurdistan and the Iraqi National Congress.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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