Many countries have been critical of U.S. President George W. Bush's strong language calling Iraq, Iran, and North Korea "an axis of evil." The opposition Iraqi National Congress, however, is backing what it believes to be a new U.S. resolve to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Washington, 5 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Despite global criticism and concern over President Bush's recent saber-rattling in his State of the Union speech, the leaders of Baghdad's opposition movement, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), are thrilled by it.
Long maligned in the U.S. as a weak and fragmented umbrella group with little military expertise to back its goal of ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, exiled leaders of the INC left Washington last week with what appeared to be a new sense that the U.S. is set to back an Iraqi insurrection.
However, the idea that the White House may be ready to endorse a war plan -- with the INC possibly at its center -- is alarming even some Washington policy-makers who seek Saddam's removal. Critics say the INC has little military or political credibility, and the apparent Pentagon desire to apply to Iraq the Afghan war model -- U.S. airpower and special forces, plus a local insurrection -- ignores key differences between the two countries.
Sharif Ali, who sits on the INC leadership council, told RFE/RL in an interview that the London-based movement interpreted Bush's speech -- in which he dubbed Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an "axis of evil" -- as proof that the White House has decided to use force in a bid to topple Saddam.
"We took it as that. And we've been asking around with friends and analysts, and we seem to see that is also the general opinion -- that this is a new policy decision and the president is going to put into place strategies that will lead to the Iraqi people overthrowing the regime," Ali said. "So we're very encouraged by that, and we're at the preliminary stages of discussions with the administration on how we could move forward, pending more clarification from the president's office."
Ali added that in meetings with officials at the U.S. departments of State and Defense, the INC reiterated its request for Washington to train Iraqi opposition military leaders in the United States. These leaders would then provide instruction to would-be insurgents inside Iraq, notably among Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south. He said the INC is awaiting an answer on this request.
Ali also said the INC and the White House agreed to hold two meetings in Washington in the future. One meeting would give Iraqi opposition military leaders the chance to hash out their plans for toppling Saddam, while the other would be a political conference on the country's postwar future. The White House has not commented on this plan, but the State Department recently repeated that U.S. policy does not support opposition activities inside Iraq.
Ali, however, said the INC feels it is just a matter of time before Washington has a change of heart. He said last week's meetings with top officials, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, brought U.S.-INC ties to a new level.
"Apart from direct funding, it entails cooperation on the issues of diplomatic and political initiatives, humanitarian relief, media broadcasting, and also the ongoing discussion about the when and how we would use U.S. support to enhance activities inside Iraq -- when that decision is finally made by the U.S. government to support our activities inside Iraq," Ali said.
To be sure, the White House has not clarified the full ramifications of the "axis of evil" message in Bush's State of the Union address. But the speech nonetheless alarmed European and Russian leaders, who indicated they would be unlikely to back any U.S. military action against Baghdad.
Bush has not backed down in the face of such criticism, however. And he turned up the heat again yesterday, using the same fiery language as in his speech on 29 January: "Terrorist states and terrorists' allies are an axis of evil seeking weapons of mass destruction, but I put them on notice. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
Analysts say a debate is currently raging within the Bush administration about how best to take on Saddam. The debate, they say, pits a military solution favored by the Pentagon against Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is viewed as more "sensitive" to the politics of the region and who is reluctant to back what many feel would be a huge military gamble.
INC critics have long felt that the group underestimates Saddam's military, which the INC says doesn't really support the Iraqi leader and which would switch sides once it is clear he is losing the war. But analysts point to the danger that Iraq, which is fragmented between northern Kurds, a Sunni majority, and a Shiite southern minority, could splinter, to the detriment of surrounding states.
Neighboring NATO ally Turkey, nearly one-third of which is populated by Kurds, is seen as particularly vulnerable to any splintering of Iraq, which could strengthen the case for an independent Kurdish state. In an open letter to Saddam, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit called on Iraq yesterday to allow United Nations arms inspectors to return to the country they were tossed out of in 1998.
"Of course, in case of military action [against Iraq], Turkey will be harmed by the action. That is why it was our duty to communicate our wishes and desires on this subject [to Saddam]," Ecevit said.
Anthony Cordesman is a former senior U.S. official at the departments of State and Defense. Now a military and strategic analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, Cordesman said the INC does not offer a valid military option for Washington. And he added that for any action to have a chance in Iraq, a lot of advance diplomatic and military legwork needs to be done -- work that he said has yet to start.
"What you basically need is support from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, certainly basing facilities in Bahrain. You need Jordan and Egypt to stand aside at least, and you need the same from Iran. Because if you're really going to do anything meaningful, it isn't a matter of creating a sort of hollow opposition movement from a group [the INC] which has never had any military strength, which has no military background, which is heavily penetrated by Iraqi intelligence and with limited regional credibility," Cordesman said. "It's really going to take significant U.S. military forces."
Cordesman also said he believes before it can make any move against Iraq, the U.S. must first convince its allies that it has solid proof of its main allegation -- that Baghdad has weapons of mass destruction and is supplying them to terrorists.
So far, Washington has yet to do that, despite concerted efforts to prove that Saddam had a hand in the September terrorist attacks, which the U.S. blames on the Al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden.