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Iraq: Opposition Says It Is Galvanized

By Marie Thompson

An Iraqi opposition organization says that last month's meeting of opposition groups in New York has revitalized its efforts to bring down the regime of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

London, 16 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A few weeks after Iraqi opposition groups met in New York for their biggest congress in seven years, opposition leaders are crediting the event with giving a new impetus to their efforts to one day oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Ahmed Chalabi, a key leader of the umbrella opposition group the Iraqi National Congress (INC), told RFE/RL's Iraq Service that the groups now have begun to do the hard work of building an alternative to Saddam's regime.

The U.S.-backed meeting in New York brought together a variety of Kurdish, Shi'ite and leftist groups to form a broader alliance under the auspices of the INC, and to elect a new leadership. The groups include the INC proper, the Amman-based Iraqi National Accord (INA), the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and many smaller groups.

The congress was not attended by the largest Shi'ite opposition grouping, the Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and several smaller Islamic or Marxist groups. The opposition groups that boycotted the session dismissed the INC as ineffective and too reliant on Washington.

Chalabi tells RFE/RL that in the wake of the congress, opposition groups are holding meetings to expand the alliance to other groups and to win the support of Arabic and Islamic countries. Ahmed Chalabi:

"After the INC meeting in New York, we will take the following steps: [we will] start a campaign to expand the INC, bringing in other opposition groups; [we will] start a diplomatic campaign to get the support of Arabic and Islamic countries in the Middle East and the support of European countries; [we will] pursue the agenda aimed at indicting Saddam Hussein and we will attempt to gain support for that among countries that are members of the United Nations' Security Council. [We will also] activate opposition groups inside Iraq politically, militarily and through the media."

U.S. officials said the New York meeting was a success. However, they warned that the real test will be whether various opposition groups can agree on a program for a future Iraq without Saddam Hussein -- and on leaders to carry it out.

Opposition to Saddam's rule has long struggled with political, ethnic and religious divisions. In the United States, the meeting was seen as something of a last chance to bring key opposition groups together and elect a credible leadership that the United States will support.

Half the delegates present at the New York conference came from Iraq and the rest from Syria, Iran, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Europe, the United States and Canada. The U.S. government funded the assembly, drawing on money authorized by the U.S. Congress to support Iraqi opposition groups. The Clinton administration has made toppling Saddam a major objective. It counts on opposition inside Iraq, backed by opposition groups outside Iraq, to do the job.

During the interview with RFE/RL, Chalabi said a meeting last week between INC members and 12 U.S. senators and congressmen was a "historical" occasion. Chalabi said some senators, from both the Republican and Democratic parties, did not rule out that U.S. troops could be involved in a future forced removal of Saddam's regime.

"They said that, if we prove that we are able to challenge Saddam, they will vote to involve American troops in the process of changing the regime."

However, the degree of the possible U.S. support for Iraqi opposition groups is a matter of debate. The Associated Press news agency reported that Benjamin Gilman, a New York Republican who heads the House International Relations Committee, said if such a plan were proposed, the U.S. would provide new communications equipment, uniforms, and training, but not military hardware.

Chalabi also criticized unnamed Arab countries for maintaining what he called a "double standard." He said some countries had accepted the support of the United States and relied on it for their security, but at the same time criticized Iraqi opposition groups for receiving U.S. support.

Chalabi was asked to comment on a statement by Iraq's UN ambassador that while the Iraqi government had no representative at the New York meeting of opposition groups, some attendees had informed him of the issues discussed at the meeting. Chalabi acknowledged that this had indeed been the case. He added that the INC chose to inform Iraqi officials about their meeting because INC leaders, in Chalabi's words, "want Saddam to know that we are serious about removing him."