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Iraq: Opposition Group Prepares TV Broadcasts

  • Charles Recknagel

An umbrella organization of Iraqi opposition groups is moving ahead with plans to begin television broadcasts into Iraq, the first of them possibly in two months. The step comes after the Bush administration recently awarded the umbrella Iraqi National Congress $6 million to fund the broadcasts and other organizational activities. Our correspondent RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel assesses the initiative.

Prague, 20 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In recent weeks, U.S. diplomats have focused on trying to persuade the UN Security Council to adopt so-called "smart" sanctions that would ease restrictions on Iraq's importing civilian goods while tightening controls over its oil smuggling and arms procurement efforts.

The British-U.S. initiative ran aground early this month because of Russian resistance in the Security Council, and for now the discussion has been dropped at the UN. U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to raise it again privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin when they meet Sunday (22 July) on the sidelines of the summit of the G-7 nations plus Russia in Genoa, Italy.

But if the smart sanctions debate has lately dominated the news regarding U.S. policy toward Iraq, that doesn't mean that Washington has made the proposal its only option.

Last month, the U.S. State Department notified Congress it would release an additional $6 million to the Iraqi National Congress, or INC, an umbrella organization of Iraqi opposition groups. The money is to fund INC programs, which include media and public diplomacy activities and gathering of information on war crimes committed by the Baghdad regime.

The INC hopes to build strength through these activities for its goal of changing the regime in Baghdad. The London-based exile organization has received broad support in the U.S. Congress, which in 1998 passed the Iraqi Liberation Act authorizing -- but not obliging -- the U.S. government to provide up to $97 million to approved opposition groups for training and equipment.

The Bush administration itself is said still to be divided into two camps over what role the exiled opposition might play in its policy toward Baghdad.

The administration includes several noted hawks on Iraq, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy. Wolfowitz has previously called for creating a protected enclave in southern Iraq, which an armed opposition could use to challenge Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice are considered moderates who are hesitant to use U.S. forces abroad. Many in Washington think that would be necessary if any opposition effort to overthrow the Baghdad regime were to succeed.

The latest disbursement of funding to the INC does not resolve the debate but will help the opposition to pursue its plans to broadcast television programs directly into Iraq through a satellite. While details of the broadcasts are still being worked out, INC officials say that transmissions could begin from a studio in London within two months.

Wahid Hamdi, Radio Free Iraq's correspondent in Washington, D.C., spoke with INC leaders who visited the U.S. capital last week to meet with administration officials. Hamdi says the INC representatives were confident broadcasts could begin shortly.

"[The INC's official spokesman Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein] said the first thing that we are going to do [with the money] is the plan to set up the satellite television station to beam and broadcast programs into Iraq. He did not go into operational details. But I asked him, how soon will you be able to launch this satellite station, and he said within two months."

"The Wall Street Journal" reported last month that the INC and the U.S. high-tech company Lockheed Martin plan to sign a contract to beam satellite-TV programming into Iraq and nearly all of the Arab world at a cost of more than $3 million a year.

Last month's spending approval comes while Washington is auditing how the INC has used money it received under earlier grants. The State Department describes the audit by the Office of the Inspector General as a routine procedure for organizations that have received their first U.S. government grants. The INC has already received and spent $4.3 million in earlier grants from the U.S. government.

The new $6 million grant is a partial payment on some $30 million that the INC has requested and which Congress set aside for its use last year. Correspondent Hamdi says:

"During the audit, the State Department stopped allowing the Iraqi National Congress to get the money that was in the pipeline, which is $24 million. So the operation of the Iraqi National Congress started to be affected because of lack of funds. So, in order for the State Department to allow the Iraqi National Congress to continue to operate, they decided to give them $6 million until the audit is over."

Francis Brooke, an advisor to the INC in Washington, said last month that the audit began early last month (4 June) and was expected to last several weeks. There has so far been no public announcement from the State Department that the audit has been concluded.

During last week's meetings, U.S. officials also assured the opposition leaders that Washington will maintain its policy of protecting northern Iraq against any air attacks by Baghdad. The assurance came as Washington is reported to be reviewing how it patrols the no-flight zones over Iraq, as U.S. and British pilots enforcing the zones come under increasingly frequent attacks from Iraqi air defenses.

"The New York Times" earlier this week quoted an (unnamed) administration official as saying that "the principle of maintaining the no-flight zones is not in question." The official added: "The question is how you do that -- the number of flights, how you respond, the rules of engagement. [Those questions] are still being reviewed."