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Iraqi Leaders Invited to Meet with State, Defense Departments
The Bush administration has invited key leaders of the Iraqi opposition for a meeting next month with senior officials from the State and Defense Departments in a bid to end sniping between rival Iraqi opposition groups and within the administration over the campaign to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, officials said Friday.
While administration officials in various agencies have met individually with Iraqi opposition leaders, this is the first time so many figures in the opposition movement will meet jointly with officials from State and Defense. In recent months, the two departments have sparred over which factions in the Iraqi opposition are the most reliable allies and offer the best hope for a post-Hussein era.
"It is different and more significant than past meetings," said Lt. Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.
The invitation, by Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, was sent to Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, Sherif Ali Bin AlHussein of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani of the Kurdish Democratic Party, Ayad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord and Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Iranian-based Shiite group.
The meeting is expected to take place in Washington on Aug. 9, with Aug. 16 as the backup date, Lapan said.
Sources within the Iraqi opposition and outside experts said the invitation was significant because it suggested the administration had realized that the battle for influence within the opposition and the administration was hampering plans to overthrow the Iraqi government.
"The administration has needed to do this for a long time," said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign policy at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on the Iraqi opposition. The different groups, she said, have constantly competed over who is the "biggest stud" in Iraq.
"What the administration has decided to do is get them in the same room, and say, 'I don't want to hear anymore of this. Here's your sheet of music, don't sing from anything else,"' Pletka said.
One Iraqi opposition source, outlining expectations for the session, said: "We're going to hear that the United States is dead serious about getting rid of Saddam and you have a role but you have to work together." Administration officials did not dispute that assessment. "This is an attempt to coordinate and to adopt a cooperative approach," a State Department official said.
The State Department and the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based opposition umbrella group, have squabbled over funding for the group, especially its use of U.S. funds to lure defectors and gather intelligence from Iraq. State has frozen about $8 million in INC funds over alleged accounting irregularities and recently flirted with other Iraqi opposition groups made up of former military officials.
But Pletka and opposition sources noted that the military officials were not invited. "Until recently, they were the big hope of the State Department," she said, though she added that she did not think the invitation was a sign that the funding dispute would be resolved soon. The INC has insisted that it be permitted to use the money for its covert operations, or else it will refuse the money.
The State Department official said the accounting investigation into the INC's funds has not been completed but he acknowledged the use of funds was a key issue. "If you want to fund a covert operation, you don't go through Foggy Bottom," he said.
He added that it was fair to assume that State and Defense were trying to forge a united front in dealing with the Iraqi opposition.
"There has been a tendency to play both of us off against each other," he said. "We are going to try to reform that temptation."