Washington has asked Hungary to allow it to use one of its air bases as a training ground for a new force of some 5,000 Iraqi opposition fighters. The fighters, drawn mostly from Iraqis living in exile, are to be trained to assist U.S. ground troops in the event of a military campaign against Baghdad. But recruitment for the force has already come under criticism by some Iraqi opposition groups, which fear it could become an army primarily loyal to just one faction, the London-based Iraqi National Congress.
Prague, 11 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Washington's formal request to Hungary for permission to use an air base to train Iraqi opposition fighters is the latest step in U.S. efforts to lay the necessary foundations for any eventual attack on Baghdad.
Some 4,500 fighters are to be given military training to act as scouts and interpreters who could help U.S. troops in ground operations. Part of their training is likely to include preparing them to act as target spotters for U.S. aircraft and artillery. As territory is taken from Baghdad, the opposition fighters could also serve as an administrative and security force, maintaining public order and preventing factional fighting or revenge killings.
Hungary's state news agency MTI reported yesterday that the United States requested use of Hungary's Taszar air base, a facility previously used by U.S. troops on missions in the Balkans. It is not yet clear how soon the training will begin or how long it will continue. Some reports have said the training could ultimately expand to include up to 10,000 men.
The formal request to Budapest comes just two months after U.S. President George W. Bush authorized combat training for Iraqi opposition fighters -- funded with the $92 million set aside by the U.S. Congress for opposition activities under the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. Prior to Bush's authorization, the fund had only been used to support political and organizational activities by opposition groups.
Christopher Langton, a regional expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said that the training of the opposition fighters offers several strategic advantages to the United States.
He said one advantage is to immediately increase psychological pressure upon Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to cooperate with weapons inspections or face an ever more real threat of invasion. "Over a couple of months now, the U.S. has been building up pressure in a number of ways. One is by building up a number of forces surrounding Iraq, by corralling allies, steadily building up psychological pressure," Langton said. "One of the effects of this recent announcement is to continue that, but in a slightly different way so that the Iraqi regime feels perhaps more pressurized but by its own people. So far, the pressure has been because of the U.S. bringing together allies who are not Iraqis."
Langton also said that, should there be a war, the new Iraqi force could be of particular use to Washington in encouraging the defection of Iraqi officers and troops to a U.S.-led coalition. "In practical terms, this means that the U.S. forces would not be acting without the accompaniment of Iraqis, people who could make contact with other Iraqis on the ground and deal with the very real problem of what happens if army commanders want to move across [defect]. And this particular thing may encourage army commanders to do that," Langton said.
Over the past few months, the United States has been quietly recruiting the new fighters from among exiled Iraqis living in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, mostly using a list of thousands of names proposed by the London-based Iraqi National Congress, or INC.
The "Christian Science Monitor" newspaper recently reported that Washington has also begun recruiting some men, mostly Sunni Arabs, in Kurdish-administered northern Iraq, which is protected by a U.S.- and British-patrolled no-fly zone. The paper reports that recruits in northern Iraq have been promised $3,000 and a trip to the United States.
But the recruiting has come under criticism from some Iraqi opposition leaders who say it could create a small army loyal only to the INC, which until now has been one of the few main Iraqi opposition groups without its own force.
The INC, led by Ahmed Chalabi, has sought to be an umbrella group for uniting the opposition, but its partnership with the other groups, notably the two Kurdish factions in northern Iraq and the Iran-based Iraqi Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, is beset by rivalries.
One vocal critic of the recruitment effort has been a top leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two Kurdish groups that control northern Iraq. KDP Prime Minister Nerchivan Barzani recently said that the KDP assumes that the force is being organized for Chalabi. He said, "We think it is very dangerous because we view that [force] as a nucleus for a new civil war in the future."
The prime minister of the other top Kurdish group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), also has warned against the recruiting process. Barham Salih said recently that "the U.S. should enter into a partnership with the real freedom fighters of Iraq, the people with a real constituency. Mercenaries will not do the job."
Several opposition leaders have long argued that the INC has little following inside Iraq and gets undue attention from Washington, a charge the INC rejects. Chalabi has been at the forefront of keeping interest in the Iraqi opposition alive in the U.S. Congress over the past decade and is reported to enjoy strong support in the Pentagon.
The Iraqi opposition is due to meet in London on 13 December in a new effort to forge a united front against Saddam Hussein. Reuters reported yesterday that the conference will seek to establish a leadership committee over the Iraqi opposition after several opposition groups rejected Chalabi's aim of setting up a government in exile.
Chalabi told reporters yesterday that the London conference will bring together some 300 delegates from all Iraqi ethnic and anti-Hussein factions. Speaking after meeting in Tehran with head of the KDP, Masud Barzani, and head of SCIRI, Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, he said the meeting "will present a united opposition, discuss the future of Iraq and choose a follow-up committee, so we can proceed with the business of removing Saddam."