By Ahmed Al-Rikaby and Charles Recknagel
The Iraqi opposition was in Washington, D.C., this week to meet with administration officials and with Vice President Al Gore, who is running for U.S. president in the November election. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at what was discussed.
Prague, 29 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Iraqi National Congress, or INC, an umbrella group of opposition parties, asked months ago to meet with all the leading candidates for the U.S. presidency.
Since then, the field of candidates has narrowed to just two frontrunners: Vice President Al Gore, a democrat, and Texas Governor George W. Bush, a Republican. Both agreed to meet individually with the Iraqis. Gore held his meeting this week, while Bush will do so at a date still to be fixed.
RFE/RL Iraq Service correspondent Ahmed Al-Rikaby followed events closely as the INC leaders met on Monday in Washington first with administration officials and later with the vice president.
He says that during the meetings, the opposition leaders expressed complaints with what they saw as the slowness of the Clinton administration in implementing the Iraqi Liberation Act. The act, passed by Congress in 1998, authorizes the president -- but does not compel him -- to provide up to $97 million to approved opposition groups for training and equipment, including military surplus.
Al-Rikaby says the INC leaders requested a speed-up of aid, including weapons as well as funding for the council to carry out its own campaign to indict Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for war crimes. A separate indictment effort is currently under way by a group of organizations not affiliated with the opposition. That effort is headed by INDICT, a foundation based in London, and supported by Iraqi Liberation Act funds. Al-Rikaby says:
"The INC is saying that they requested the immediate implementation of the Iraq Liberation Act, to include weapons supply and the expansion of the current no-fly zone rules of engagement, and to include U.S. military protection of the Iraqi civilian population. And they also requested assistance in their efforts to indict Saddam on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity."
"And also, the leaders of the INC discussed the extensive environmental and ecological damage done by the regime of Saddam in southern Iraq and efforts to reverse their effects. Further, the INC leadership requested support for the current legislation providing for humanitarian assistance, and they requested aid to develop aid distribution and infrastructure inside Iraq."
The administration has shown no enthusiasm for previous INC requests to provide it weapons or to expand the no-fly zone, measures which could offer protection for any opposition efforts to establish a safe haven for military operations within Iraq.
Instead, the administration has provided limited funding to the INC to build its political organization. Washington last year helped the INC come back together after a long setback due to being forced out of northern Iraq by Baghdad in 1996. With U.S. support, the INC last year in New York held its first large-scale assembly meeting since 1992.
This year, the administration is focusing on helping the INC establish office space, carry out information programs, advocate democracy for Iraq, and provide relief to refugees in northern Iraq and in neighboring states.
The administration also is stepping up non-combat training at U.S. military bases for candidates proposed by the INC. A first three candidates went through training last year. The INC has now proposed an additional 145 candidates who are acceptable to its member parties and have passed clearance tests. Training is to begin for them as quickly as possible.
The training is in such areas as field medicine, logistics, computers, and communications and is part of longstanding U.S. military training programs for officers from other Arab countries.
Few details are available about the closed-door session Monday between the INC leaders and Gore. No formal statement was made by either side afterward, but several INC leaders expressed satisfaction with the meeting.
Sherif Ali bin Hussein of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, one of the parties in the INC, told Reuters that he had the impression that, to quote, "if Gore were president he would take a much more active position in supporting the Iraqi opposition."
Ahmed Chalabi, who headed the INC until a reorganization last year made him an equal in collegial leadership, said he felt the meetings cleared the way to move further forward.
RFE/RL correspondent Al-Rikaby says that many in the INC feel that Gore is more personally committed to the cause of the Iraqi opposition than U.S. President Bill Clinton has been. Al-Rikaby:
"I made an interview with Chalabi less than a month ago and I asked him why are you so optimistic when you speak about Al Gore. What's the difference between Al Gore and Bill Clinton? And he said that Al Gore made a promise to the INC during the first half of the 1990s that the opposition will be protected and in 1996 when the Iraqi army came in [to northern Iraq and evicted the INC with casualties] Al Gore was very upset and this issue became a personal issue for him."
Gore, in a statement to the INC on Monday, said the United States will not falter in supporting its efforts to promote a change of regime. He also said, to quote, "There can be no peace for the Middle East as long as Saddam remains in a position to brutalize his people and threaten his neighbors."
The INC is now looking forward to meeting with George W. Bush, possibly as early as next month. Foreign policy advisers to Bush have said Washington should give more support to the opposition and even consider carving out a part of Iraq as a base for military operations.
How either a Gore or Bush presidency might change U.S. foreign policy toward Iraq will only become clear after voting in November.
But as one INC official told our correspondent after this week's meeting with Gore, the opposition can consider just the fact it is meeting with both frontrunning candidates something to celebrate. Because, in his view, this week the Iraqi opposition made itself a U.S. election issue.