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Iraq: Arming Opposition Remains Uncertain

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 22 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States this week designated which Iraqi opposition groups are eligible for U.S. military aid. But whether Washington will actually proceed in helping arm them remains an open question.

The White House sent a report to Congress two days ago certifying seven Iraqi opposition groups as committed to creating a democratic alternative to the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. It also affirmed the groups' endorsement of human rights, Iraq's territorial integrity, and peaceful relations with Iraq's neighbors. The U.S. State Department said other groups may still be named in the future.

In choosing which opposition groups meet the test for receiving U.S. aid, the administration of President Bill Clinton fulfilled a requirement placed on it by Congress last year under the Iraqi Liberation Act. The legislation provides the administration the authority, but does not compel it, to provide up to $97 million for training and equipment, including U.S. military surplus, to approved Iraqi opposition groups.

Two of the seven groups welcomed their designation yesterday. They are the London-based Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization of Kurdish, Shiite and leftist groups, and the Amman-based Iraqi National Accord.

But one group refused eligibility in an initial reaction. A spokesman for the Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIR), an umbrella for several Shiite Muslim groups, said that receiving U.S. support would harm opposition groups' reputation inside Iraq.

The remaining four eligible groups have yet to formally reply. They include three Kurdish factions based in northern Iraq: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Islamic Movement of Iraqi Kurdistan. Also selected was the London-based Movement for a Constitutional Monarchy.

Analysts say that there is widespread sentiment in the U.S. Congress and within the Clinton administration that Saddam must be replaced to enable Iraq to return to the international community. But while the Congress stated its support for military aid to the opposition in the Iraqi Liberation Act, the administration has shown a more cautious approach.

Patrick Clawson, an expert on U.S. Iraqi strategy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that many officials within the administration would prefer to see Saddam toppled in a political coup rather than through an opposition-led military campaign. Clawson spoke by phone yesterday with RFE/RL. He said:

"The administration is interested in exploring how can they more vigorously support the replacement of Saddam's government by another government but I don't think by any means that the administration has decided on a major push to support opposition organizations. There certainly are many people in the administration who seem to be much more interested or think that it is much more practical to promote a coup than it would be to promote a popular uprising or a guerilla campaign."

Clawson says that among reasons for such thinking are doubts about how the mostly exiled opposition would launch a military campaign in Iraq and how some of Iraq's neighbors might react. He added:

"Only three of the groups, namely the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution and the two Kurdish groups (KDP and PUK) are in a position to receive military assistance immediately and put it immediately to use and it is by no means clear that the U.S. government would be able to deliver them supplies. I don't think that the Iranian government would look kindly on that and for that matter I don't think that the Turkish government necessarily would look kindly on that."

The White House signaled its desire to proceed cautiously in its report to Congress, certifying which opposition groups were eligible for aid. The report said that change in Iraq will take time and, to quote, "we must approach this problem prudently so as to achieve our goal and not to imperil needlessly the lives of those committed to opposing the regime."

So far, the administration has focused on non-military assistance to Iraqi opposition groups in an effort to improve their organizational skills and abilities to work together.

U.S. and British officials met in London with 16 of the largest Iraqi opposition groups in November. The meeting discussed, among other issues, ways to rally public opinion within Iraq against the regime by indicting Saddam for war crimes.

Clawson says that in now designating some of opposition groups as eligible for military aid, the administration has two motives:

"One, and probably the most important for the administration, was that there was a requirement in the [Iraqi Liberation] Act that they certify which organizations were eligible and that it would have been a problem for the administration's relations with Congress if they had not fulfilled that requirement. It also has importance as a signaling device to remind the world and especially to remind Saddam Hussein that the United States does have the option of going down the route of providing significant military support to the opposition."

Since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the United States and its allies have had repeated clashes with Saddam, mainly over UN attempts to eliminate Iraqi programs aimed at developing weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. administration has said repeatedly it sees Saddam as the root of the confrontations and that it favors a democratic alternative to his regime.

Clinton reiterated that goal as recently as Tuesday in his annual State of the Union address to the American people. Clinton said that the United States will continue to contain Saddam and, in his words, "work for the day when Iraq has a government worthy of its people."