The Bush administration and Iraqi opposition groups met in Washington, D.C. this month to discuss U.S. aid for expanding the groups' operations to include information-gathering missions inside Iraq. The Iraqi opposition has hailed the meetings as a new chapter in cooperation with Washington, but many U.S. officials and policy analysts are sounding a more cautious note.
Prague, 9 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since U.S. officials and representatives of the Iraqi opposition in exile met in Washington early this month, both sides have expressed renewed confidence in each other.
While the opposition representatives were in town, Washington gave the umbrella opposition Iraqi National Congress, or INC, permission to resume its activities inside Iraq with U.S. funding. That allows the INC 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 decision reversed a cut-off of U.S. funding for opposition groups to operate in Iraq. Washington had provided covert aid to opposition groups in the years after the end of the 1991 Gulf War. But the efforts ended when Baghdad's troops made an incursion into northern Iraq in 1996, routing the INC from the area.
Many of the details of how the INC will use the new funds to gather information in Iraq remain unclear. But this week INC spokesman Sharif Ali Bin Al-Hussein said the opposition would send dozens of groups of infiltrators into Iraq this month to collect information and recruit supporters.
Britain's Guardian daily reported last week that the funds could pay for some 40 INC agents to develop their networks within Iraq by linking up there with sympathizers.
Following this month's meetings with State Department officials and prospective members of the Bush administration, Sharif Ali told reporters he felt a marked shift in the U.S. attitude toward the opposition as compared to that of the Clinton administration.
He repeated his assessment this week in an interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service correspondent Homayoun Majd in Washington.
"The current administration's position is much more positive and considers that [Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein] is a danger for the region. They want to turn policy into practice and help the Iraqi people overthrow the regime and we have been very encouraged by the response we have received from the administration, both in public and private."
The Clinton administration spent little of the some $97 million authorized by the U.S. Congress in the Iraqi Liberation Act, and what it did spend went mainly to help the groups organize politically.
Washington has followed up the meetings with its own public assessment of the INC. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher this week said the U.S. is "confident that we can continue to work with them [and] that they remain important players for us in terms of how we advance the overall policy."
Asked by a reporter if he could say anything more friendly, Boucher replied: "I don't want to criticize them through a lack of enthusiasm. Let it be considered that I've said many friendly things."
But if both sides expressed warmth, the contrast between the INC's enthusiastic tone and Washington's more cautious one may signal they still are looking for very different levels of commitment from one another.
The INC hopes for strong and sustained backing from the Bush team to achieve its goal of overthrowing Saddam. In his election campaign, Bush promised to get tough with the Iraqi president but spoke mostly about re-energizing international sanctions.
Some analysts say that Washington is making a point of welcoming the opposition groups now because the Bush administration wants to demonstrate its firmness on Iraq.
But they say that as the Bush team settles into office, many incoming policy experts will be stressing the importance of keeping all of Washington's options open on Iraq. That could mean the INC will be an important option, but just one among many.
Analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. sees the situation this way:
"From American domestic politics, you might say that you will back the INC [or] similar movements, give them money, give them overt support, simply because it shows you are making good on your campaign pledges or also because the [U.S.] Congress simply wants a visible sign of action, no matter how ineffective it might be."
He continues: "But there is a fairly broad movement among experts among the incoming administration -- as opposed to policy critics of the Clinton administration -- which feels that if you are truly going to do something it has to be covert. That you don't pick one opposition movement relative to another. And that it is going to take a lot of time and a lot of covert action to create a movement that might be effective."
Cordesman says that many in Washington doubt the Iraqi opposition in exile has the popular support inside Iraq to challenge Saddam's regime without requiring a direct military intervention by the U.S.
And that, he says, may convince the Bush team that a covert operation may offer a better option if it regards regime change as essential in Iraq.
"If that is true, then the money would shift away from the INC. [It] would still be an effort to overthrow Saddam but a much quieter one and much more broadly focused. The question would be: What can you do in terms of internal divisions within Iraq, can you reach out to the Shiites, what if anything can be done from the Kurdish security zone that is less overt, less likely to provoke problems and more likely to influence developments inside Iraq?"
He continues: "Can you find any kind of modus vivendi with the Gulf states -- Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran -- that might allow you to cooperate in some kind of effort? These are the issues which the administration is going to have to explore. There aren't any particularly promising answers, but there is no reason you have to give up on the option."
For now, the Bush policy team is still taking shape and any such detailed discussion of Washington's options is for the future.
The INC will push ahead with its plans to build its base of support inside Iraq and possibly obtain further funding for operations inside the country. The umbrella opposition organization has said its next phase will be distributing food and medicines through clandestine forays into Baghdad-controlled areas.
It hopes to obtain permission from the Bush administration to tap another $12 million in U.S. funding for that purpose, plus funds to initiate radio and television broadcasts to the Iraqi population.