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Iraq: Iran-Based Opposition Groups Explore Cooperation

  • Charles Recknagel

Washington is reviewing its Iraq policy, including giving new consideration to Iraqi opposition hopes of bringing about a regime change in Baghdad. In recent weeks the United States has encouraged contacts between the Western-based Iraqi opposition umbrella organization and the main armed Iraqi Shiite group operating from Iran. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the initiative.

Prague, 12 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President George Bush is currently carrying out a detailed review of the Iraq strategy it inherited from former President Bill Clinton.

So far that review has concentrated on three areas.

One is ways to tighten the international sanctions regime on Iraq by gaining greater cooperation from neighboring countries -- where today the smuggling of Iraqi oil is widespread.

The second is how to assure Iraq does not continue weapons-of-mass-destruction programs.

And the third is to explore ways that Iraq's exiled opposition groups might increase pressure on Baghdad that could precipitate a regime change.

Usually, developments on the last front are the slowest and quietest, reflecting the greater sensitivity and -- perhaps -- difficulty of the task. But over the last few weeks, there have been signs that the effort to build a more united opposition is continuing amid several new initiatives.

Part of the effort is Washington's encouraging London-based opposition groups to build closer working ties with their Tehran-based counterparts, despite the often tense relations between the United States and Iran itself.

Last month the head of the London-based opposition umbrella organization, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), met in Iran with the largest Iraqi Shiite opposition group. The group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), is a member of the INC but has differed with it over accepting U.S. funds to build up the opposition's political capabilities.

During the meeting between Ahmad Chalabi, the INC leader responsible for relations with the U.S., and top SCIRI officials, the Iran-based group is reported to have rejected any plan to set up a U.S.-established safe haven for the opposition in southern Iraq. The SCIRI and Iranian officials are also reported to have rejected any INC distribution of humanitarian aid across the Iranian border to the Iraqi population, saying any such deliveries should be through SCIRI-established organizations instead.

At the same time, the Iranian government is reported to have refused to let the INC open an office in Tehran. But Tehran did say it would study an INC request to open a media center in the Iranian capital.

The INC's official spokesman, Sharif Ali Bin Al-Hussein, told Radio Free Iraq correspondent Ahmad Al-Rikaby recently that the INC is continuing to speak with Iranian officials about opening an office in Tehran.

"We are talking with Iran about opening the office, particularly the nature of an INC representation in Iran, and this depends on the way the INC would like to conduct its activities on Iranian soil. We are still continuing discussions regarding opening a permanent office in Tehran."

Sharif Ali said the INC also sought during its meetings with the SCIRI in Tehran to persuade it that the new administration in Washington is serious about regime change in Baghdad.

"The INC, of course, has contacts with the U.S., but the SCIRI as an INC member has hesitated to participate in our activities with the U.S. because they still do not trust the policies of the new administration toward Iraq. So the INC tried in the Iran meetings to tell the SCIRI about the new U.S. administration's approach to Iraq and say that it is serious and we also relayed to the Iranian government our optimism over this."

Opposition leaders have said privately that conservative officials in Iran are hesitant because they perceive the INC initiative as a cover for U.S. security interests in the Gulf region, where Tehran has repeatedly called for the removal of all U.S. forces.

Since the talks, SCIRI representatives have indicated they may be interested in a further dialogue. SCIRI leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim told Reuters on 10 April that his group is waiting for the U.S. administration to formulate its policy on Iraq before it decides what final position to take. He said that "U.S. policy on Iraq under the new administration is not yet clear for us to intensify or reduce our contacts with them."

SCIRI's representative in London, Hamid Al-Bayaty, told Radio Free Iraq last week that the group sees signs the U.S. is becoming more serious about wanting regime change in Baghdad. Al-Bayaty:

"We must say that the new U.S. administration has a new thinking regarding Iraq and is trying to show its seriousness in dealing with the issue of the Iraqi people and there also are clear signals about protecting the Iraqi people. We call upon the U.S. to demonstrate this position by extending [no fly-zone] protection to the entire Iraqi people against Baghdad's brutality. The brutality goes on now in the south and center of Iraq. There is protection for the north but we demand that protection be expanded and on this basis there could be direct dialogue with the U.S."

He also confirmed that routine contacts have continued with Washington since they were initiated under the Clinton administration. Those contacts previously have seen the SCIRI closely follow Washington's dialogue with the INC while publicly refusing involvement in U.S. initiatives.

Washington in 1999 designated seven Iraqi opposition groups, including the SCIRI, as eligible for U.S. financial aid. But the Tehran-based group rejected the aid and said it opposed foreign intervention over Baghdad.

The SCIRI could be an essential component for any concerted opposition effort to replace Saddam because it is among the few opposition groups with trained fighters. The group claims to field some 4,000 to 8,000 fighters in southern Iraq where they carry out guerrilla attacks on Baghdad's security forces. The fighters are reported to take advantage of the marshy and difficult-to-patrol southern Iraq-Iran border to regularly move back and forth between the countries as they carry out their missions.

The Tehran-based group espouses an Islamic revolution for Iraq along the lines of that in Iran and is seeking to build a popular base among Iraq's Shiite majority. Most Iraqi Shiia live in the south of the country and many resent what they say is particularly harsh treatment by Saddam Husseyn, who is from the country's Sunni Moslem minority. The Shiia rebelled against Saddam in the wake of his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War but the revolt was suppressed by Baghdad with heavy civilian losses.

But if the prospects for any opposition-led regime change in Baghdad might be improved by including the SCIRI, questions remain as to how well it and Iraq's other opposition groups can bridge wide ideological differences.

The umbrella INC favors a secular democracy for Iraq. The two rival Kurdish factions want a high degree of Kurdish autonomy in any post-Saddam Iraq. And the Iraqi National Accord (INA) is made up of senior military defectors and former members of Saddam's Baath party. All these groups, while under the INC umbrella, have reduced their activities as INC members for different reasons or, in the cases of the SCIRI and INA, frozen their memberships.

How to bridge such divides is one of the toughest issues Washington's Iraq policy review is now exploring as it develops its options for increasing pressure upon Baghdad. The Bush administration has said it is determined to find more effective ways than in the past to contain Saddam's regime. But so far, the new administration has not said what the final components of its Iraqi policy will be.

Iraq remains under UN-ordered sanctions introduced following Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The lifting of the sanctions is tied to arms inspectors certifying Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction, but Baghdad has refused to re-admit inspection teams since late 1998.