An influential Iraqi opposition group previously opposed to cooperation with the United States has said that it would now welcome American efforts to help oust President Saddam Hussein. This announcement comes at a time when the Bush administration has pledged to resume funding opposition groups inside Iraq for the first time since 1996.
According to reports, Mohammad Hadi of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) said that his Iran-based group was now "more realistic" and would be ready for direct talks with Washington. Perhaps realism crept in after Iran and Iraq stepped closer to each other, leaving SCIRI scurrying for cover.
The Americans view them (the INC) as so hapless, corrupt, and unpopular both within Iraq and with neighboring states that the State Department was out searching for other Iraqi dissidents to support.
Interestingly, the group, which is supported by Iran, had refused in the past to commit itself to any U.S.-supported plan to oust the Iraqi leader, accusing Washington of not being serious about overthrowing Saddam. Hadi said the White House has not changed its position toward Iraq since President Bush took office.
Most U.S. support goes to the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an umbrella organization that has little or no internal support and has proved inept, slow, and, many contend, corrupt in utilizing U.S. funds.
Over the past few decades, the U.S. has repeatedly urged a popular uprising and then failed to provide military support.
On February 6, 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the U.S. would resume funding opposition efforts inside Iraq for the first time since the Iraqi army overran the rebels main base in 1996.
Sharif Ali Bin Al-Hussein, spokesperson for the umbrella opposition INC proclaims that a tangible change has come about in U.S. support. Perhaps this was manifested in the coincidence that as U.S. fighter jets bombed Baghdad suburbs, INC leaders were meeting with U.S. State Department officials to discuss funding details. Such public show of strength and unity aside, Bush administration officials are reported to disparage the INC as the gang that couldn't shoot straight. The Americans view them as so hapless, corrupt, and unpopular both within Iraq and with neighboring states that the State Department was out searching for other Iraqi dissidents to support.
The history of American support for the Iraqi opposition has had many manifestations. Four months before the 1990 Gulf War, Saddam was assured that criticizing the regime's human rights record did not necessarily reflect U.S. government policy. However, when the Gulf War ended, President H.W. Bush called on Iraqi dissidents to rebel, adding a assurance of military support. However, when the uprising took place, US help was nowhere in sight.
When Saddam retaliated, killing thousands of rebelling Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south, U.S. officials let it be known that Bush favored a military coup within the regime, not a popular insurrection.
Internal Iraqi coups were reportedly attempted in July 1992, July 1993, and May 1995. Each ended with mass arrests, executions, and the restructuring of the ruling Baath Party's security apparatus and tribal alliances, but with Saddam Hussein's regime intact.
A 1996 US backed operation failed, ending in Saddam crushing the INC, brought its operations to a standstill.
According to reports, during the early 1990s, the U.S. gave over $100 million to the Iraqi opposition. In 1998, Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, allocating $97 million for Pentagon training and used military equipment. However, INC was unable to utilize these funds and most funds remained unspent.
The INC, a London-based coalition, is described as an 'umbrella' but it is in fact a group of 7 out of over 70 opposition groups within and outside Iraq, selected by the then Clinton administration to topple Saddam. Of these, only three are based inside Iraq.
Ahmed Chalabi, a shadowy Shiite mathematician frequently described as a limousine insurgent or an armchair guerrilla, leads INC. He was indicted in Jordan for embezzling millions from a bank he once headed. Thus, the right choice for a foreign funded program--a person who can be shown his past record to be kept in control.
The entire exercise of supporting a Shiite opposition seems nothing more than a minor irritant for Saddam because the US would hardly look favorably on a future Shiite-dominated Iraq which would be taking its cues from Iran. The opposition has virtually no international support, except the U.S. and U.K. Iraq's neighbors do not want to set a dangerous precedent of acquiescing to U.S. coups in their region. Also, the regional powers do not want a fragmented post-Saddam Iraq, threatening Turkey with a Kurdish dilemma and Saudi Arabia with a Shiite problem.
Picture released 06 January 2001 by the Iraqi News Agency shows Iraqi President Saddam Hussein addressing the Iraqi nation live on state-run television in Baghdad putting the rest opposition reports he had suffered a severe stroke. The Iraqi strong man, in power for 30 years, gave a speech to mark the 80th anniversary of the formation of the country's armed forces.
Indeed, it is questionable if America really wants Saddam's ouster at all. Some feel that the existence of the Saddam regime serves the American interests.
The American strategy under the Republicans may hark back to Reagan's Contra tactics in Nicaragua. The contras bequeathed to the world a bitterly divided and poverty-stricken Nicaragua. The unregulated spread of arms in Afghanistan continues to spawn its problems. These lessons do not seem to matter and the US is looking to arm Iraqi groups, threatening stability in the region.
Likewise, the US supported opposition is unlikely to build democratic institutions should it ever come into power, since its component groups all have authoritarian internal structures, scant popular support, and undemocratic tendencies. However, the only 'achievement' of this American backed opposition effort is that it pushes Baghdad to even greater repression.
While the US is openly announcing support for the Iraqi opposition, international law is clear that planning coups in another country is illegal, and even U.S. law states that its citizens cannot organize coups abroad.
However, the support to a weak and inconsequential opposition serves two US goals; one, it keeps Saddam in power and two, satisfies critics at home that the US administration is acting against Saddam.
The sanctions regime voids the emergence of an indigenous and credible opposition within Iraq because as such there is no strong middle class and civil society. The sanctions have only led to even greater repression, including restrictions on travel, Internet access, and the circulation of information. Iraq's education budget has been slashed by billions of dollars, reducing the population to further deterioration. Another consequence of the economic sanctions is that they have centralized Iraq's
economy in Saddam's hands. Today, if an Iraqi wants to trade abroad, he must petition the government in Baghdad. Without the sanctions, Saddam's stranglehold on his country will ease.
The U.S. has coexisted with, and too often supported, some unsavory leaders and dictators. Saddam is, in part, a creation of the West. His military arsenal grew during a marriage of convenience in the 1980s between Washington and Baghdad.
The successor that the US may have in mind may not be too far removed from his ways and could easily be worse.
Abdul Haqq lives in the Washington D.C. area and is a writer on international affairs.