U.S. leaders boost work with Iraq's enemies

Saturday, August 17, 2002

WASHINGTON -- As talk of war against Saddam Hussein escalates, the U.S. partnership with enemies of the Iraqi leader has reached its highest point in a decade.

American diplomats, CIA officers and Pentagon officials more frequently slip into northern Iraq to consult groups there. A coalition of opposition groups is getting long-delayed money to run anti-Saddam newspaper and television campaigns inside Iraq.

And a heavy schedule of meetings around the world is increasingly pulling together those who have long hoped for Saddam's demise.

"The Bush administration has given the opposition more hope than they've had at any time in the past 10 years," said Phebe Marr of the Middle East Policy Council. "It has generated a lot of activity, there's no question about it."

President Bush has vowed to change the regime in Iraq, arguing for pre-emptive action against the man he says continues chemical and biological weapons programs -- and pursues a nuclear one -- in defiance of a disarmament pledge after the 1991 Gulf War.

Though Bush says he hasn't decided exactly how to get rid of Saddam, his administration is working away at the task.

The Pentagon is developing war plans; the State Department is working diplomatically; and the Central Intelligence Agency is working on a covert plan, which could include capturing or killing Saddam.

Much of what the administration and opposition groups are talking about and planning is secret.

But officials have said Bush signed an order early this year directing the CIA to increase support to opposition groups. The CIA has declined to comment, but such aid could include money, weapons, intelligence, training and equipment.

For example, Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party in the north of Iraq, was brought in April to a CIA training ground in southern Virginia, where he was asked for permission to set up CIA stations in northern Iraq in exchange for a couple of armored vehicles and some militia training, according to an opposition source.

He rejected the offer, reportedly because it was from CIA operatives rather than Bush.

But Americans from various government agencies have been quietly working for years in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, autonomous zones protected since 1992 by the U.S. and British-patrolled no-fly zones.

The KDP and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan each have militias as well as bases and airfields there that could be useful if U.S. forces attack Iraq.

Outside Iraq, leaders of those two Kurdish parties met with U.S. officials for three days in April in Germany to talk about how to get rid of Saddam and what kind of government would follow, officials said.

Five opposition groups came to meetings in Washington in June. Several dozen former Iraqi military officers who defected met in London in July.

And six opposition groups visited the White House complex a week ago for a video conference with Vice President Dick Cheney and face-to-face meetings with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers.

Meanwhile, the State Department said Thursday it will spend $8 million for various opposition activities, including resumption of broadcasts to viewers inside Iraq -- a campaign suspended in early May because of disagreements between the State Department and the London-based Iraqi National Congress.

Despite improved relations with the INC, its leader, Ahmed Chalabi, said there have been no talks this past week on something the group has long wanted -- training for its fighters. So far 164 Iraqi dissidents have been trained by a contractor hired by the Pentagon.

The INC is an umbrella group formed in 1992 to bring together a number of disparate groups, including Kurds, Shiites and exiles. It has received millions of dollars in aid -- but since diplomats and intelligence officials have been wary about the group, it has gotten only a small percentage of the $97 million approved by Congress five years ago.

Still, moving toward Bush's goal of regime change has "forced different points of view in the administration to be molded into one," said Charles Duelfer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He said both sides -- the administration and the opposition -- are more unified than in previous years.

Despite the progress, opposition figures still don't have a firm coalition "that could withstand the pressure of war and government," said former ambassador Edward Walker of the Middle East Institute.

Much of the discussion in meetings with the opposition still is aimed at getting the fractious groups to pull together.

"These people all have different constituencies, they have different interests," Walker said, questioning whether they would cooperate in a post-Saddam government.

He said the thrust of the State Department effort has been in trying to turn their attention to how the country will be run and who will replace Saddam.

"I would say there has been some progress," Walker said. "But there's still a long way to go."

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