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Iraq: Bush Team Weighs Role For Opposition

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. President George W. Bush's election campaign strongly criticized the Clinton administration as being too soft on Iraq, and several top Bush advisers have called for arming the Iraqi opposition in exile to overthrow the Baghdad regime. Now, as the Bush team takes office, a debate is beginning in Washington over whether to support the Iraqi opposition as a military option or leave those calls as campaign rhetoric. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the Bush administration's attitudes toward the Iraqi opposition.

Washington, 2 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of the Iraqi opposition in exile are in Washington this week in hopes the Bush administration will strongly back their goal of toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

And they have several good reasons to think it may.

Their visit comes close on the heels of Bush's election campaign, during which Vice President Richard Cheney said the new U.S. administration might have to take military action to remove Saddam from power.

And the new Bush administration includes several noted hawks on Iraq, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his likely deputy Paul Wolfowitz. The latter has previously called for creating an enclave in southern Iraq which the exiled opposition could use to arm and challenge Saddam.

Even Bush's new national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, has said before that the U.S. must mobilize whatever resources it can, including support from the opposition, to remove him. And she, like Secretary of State Colin Powell, are considered moderates hesitant to use U.S. forces to intervene abroad.

Now, the Iraqi opposition -- like Washington's policy community -- will be closely watching to see how much farther the Bush team is ready to go in backing it than was the administration of former President Bill Clinton. During the last eight years, the Clinton White House proved highly reluctant to give the opposition more than a fraction of some $97 million in funds authorized by the U.S. Congress. And what it did give was mainly only to help the opposition organize politically.

Many in Washington say now that the campaign is over, the Bush administration will have to go through an internal policy debate to decide for itself just how much it can, or wants, to rely on the Iraqi opposition to help solve the Saddam crisis. In that debate, hawks and moderates will jockey for influence as they try to hammer out a unified position -- to ready perhaps within six to nine months.

Our correspondent spoke to several analysts who closely follow U.S. policy on Iraq to gauge where the administration's internal debate is likely to lead. Most felt the Bush team will be more supportive of the opposition than was the last administration but that it, too, will stop well short of arming the opposition in hopes it could overthrow Saddam.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that at the moment the administration is sharply divided into hawks and skeptics regarding the opposition. Anthony Cordesman:

"There are some people who really believe that the Iraq National Congress [the Iraqi opposition umbrella group] can be strengthened, built up to overthrow Saddam's government, even become a military option. And that you can have sanctuaries, perhaps in the Kurdish security zone, in Kuwait, somewhere that it could really arm and develop capabilities."

But, he continues, a very large number of people in the administration don't believe that, regardless of what went on during the campaign.

"They feel this is a very weak movement whose only strength really lies in lobbying the U.S. Congress and that anything that gave it military capability would be a recipe for disaster, that it either would become a target of the Iraqis and be overrun, or that it would try an adventure which would collapse in defeat, or the U.S. would be forced into trying to intervene under the worst possible conditions."

Policy experts say the administration's internal debate is likely to pit the more hawkish Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz in the Defense Department against the more cautious Powell and his likely policy planning director Richard Haass in the State Department. The moderates favor re-energizing international sanctions as the principal way to limit Saddam's power, a position also favored by national security adviser Rice.

If the moderates carry the day, the Iraqi opposition would not be likely to receive much military aid. But they could still see substantial financial support from the Bush team.

Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, says that is because the Bush team regards the opposition as an important symbol of resistance to the Baghdad regime.

"The Bush administration is going to try to be as supportive as it can be of the Iraqi opposition. [But] the limitations holding back the Iraqi opposition will remain profound. They are not particularly well organized, they don't have a network that is very well developed inside Iraq, except in the Kurdish-controlled areas in the north where the opposition does control the country, so there will be a lot of positive atmospherics coming out of Washington and probably a considerable amount of cash support."

He continues:

"That will help the Iraqi opposition be part of this policy of containing Saddam, of preoccupying Saddam by making him more worried about these sort of people. Is this going to bring the Iraqi opposition to power in Baghdad? That's very unlikely."

In one sign of how the Bush team might regard the opposition as a way to preoccupy Saddam, the new administration this week gave Iraqi opposition groups permission to resume their activities inside Iraq with U.S. funding.

The decision allows the Iraqi National Congress to draw from $4 million set aside by Congress in September for gathering information relating to Iraqi war crimes, military operations and other internal developments. The United States cut off similar financial support five years ago.

The opposition groups also hope for permission from the Bush administration to tap another $12 million in U.S. funding to distribute food, medicine and other forms of humanitarian relief inside Baghdad-controlled areas of Iraq. The Clinton administration approved that funding during its final weeks in office.

The Iraqi-opposition umbrella group includes two Kurdish factions which control northern Iraq, providing a possible base for such forays there. And Washington last year committed itself to funding the group's opening an office in Tehran. An Iranian-supported opposition group regularly crosses from Iran into southern Iraq to carry out guerrilla attacks on Iraqi troops.

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