Global Policy Forum

US Gives Go-Ahead to


By John Lancaster

Washington Post
January 14, 2001

With barely a week left in office, the Clinton administration has approved a plan to help Iraqi opposition groups reestablish their presence inside Iraq, a potentially high-risk operation that could test President-elect Bush's commitment to ousting Saddam Hussein, administration officials said.

In a report submitted to Congress on Wednesday, the administration outlined plans to distribute food, medicine and other forms of humanitarian relief inside government-controlled areas of Iraq by means of the Iraqi National Congress, or INC, the main umbrella group for opposition forces arrayed against Hussein's government.

Notwithstanding its humanitarian purpose, the $12 million program has important political and security implications because it would commit the United States to assist the INC in reestablishing a substantial operation inside the U.S.-protected "safe area" of northern Iraq, from which it was ousted by Hussein's forces in 1996. Congress appropriated funds for the program last fall and gave the administration until Jan. 5 to develop a plan for carrying it out.

According to the plan, prepared in close consultation with the INC, opposition members will make clandestine forays into government-controlled areas to distribute relief supplies and propaganda. Administration officials acknowledge that the Iraqi leader is sure to regard the opposition's presence as a provocation, raising questions about the willingness of the incoming Bush administration to protect the relief operation from Iraqi government forces.

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, say they view the operation as a precursor to the armed insurrection that they hope to mount one day with the help of American weapons and air support.

Administration officials say they welcomed the initiative as an effective way to boost the opposition's profile in Iraq short of supplying it with arms, a proposal with wide support in Congress but one that President Clinton and his aides regard as ill-advised. Even as a relief program, however, the U.S.-backed plan "does raise obvious security questions," said a senior administration official involved in formulating Iraq policy. The INC "is very conscious of the risk it faces," the official added. "We've talked about security issues with them, . . . and a new U.S. administration is going to be looking closely at this."

After checking with Bush transition officials yesterday, a Bush spokeswoman said she was "unable to determine" whether Bush's foreign policy advisers had been consulted on the plan. But in any event, she said, they would have no comment on it until after Jan. 20.

Richard N. Perle, a former assistant defense secretary who advised Bush on foreign policy during the campaign, predicted the new administration will welcome the initiative. "It's not a question of blocking them in or forcing them into a situation they would object to," he said. "My guess is they will wish to support the opposition."

From all indications, U.S. policy toward Iraq is approaching a crossroads, and not just because a new president is taking office Saturday. The trade embargo against Iraq is losing international support and in some cases has been flouted by governments eager to restore business and diplomatic ties with Baghdad. Arab states, in particular, are critical of continued airstrikes against Iraqi targets by U.S. and British aircraft patrolling no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq.

Another cause for worry for the administration centers on an unknown: the scope of Iraq's programs to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons after the departure of U.N. arms inspectors on the eve of U.S. airstrikes in December 1998. In addition, Iraq has used oil-smuggling revenues to rebuild some of its conventional forces, which were displayed in a Dec. 31 military parade in Baghdad. U.S. intelligence analysts are scrutinizing videotapes of the parade.

Notwithstanding its stated commitment to "regime change," the Clinton administration devoted most of its diplomatic energy to protecting sanctions, in part by promoting and enhancing the oil-for-food program under which Baghdad can use its petroleum revenues to buy food and other humanitarian supplies. On Capitol Hill, Republicans and some Democrats have criticized what they regard as the administration's failure to move aggressively to topple Hussein's government.

In 1998, Congress passed, and Clinton reluctantly signed, the Iraq Liberation Act. It authorized the Pentagon to provide the opposition with as much as $97 million in arms and military training. So far, however, the Pentagon has spent barely $2 million of that sum, most of it to provide nonlethal training in areas such as civil-military relations and logistics. In addition, the administration last fall provided the London-based INC with $4 million for administrative and broadcasting expenses.

During his campaign, Bush pledged strong support for the Iraq Liberation Act, and several of his top advisers have been vocal in their criticism of Clinton's policy toward Baghdad. In a February 1998 open letter, Secretary of Defense-designate Donald H. Rumsfeld and Paul D. Wolfowitz, who was picked last week to be his deputy at the Pentagon, joined other conservatives in urging the administration to recognize a provisional government of Iraq headed by the INC. Among other measures, the letter called on Clinton to "help expand liberated areas" in Iraq "by assisting the provisional government's offensive against Saddam Hussein's regime logistically and through other means."

It is far from clear, however, that Bush will take that advice. At a 1998 panel discussion, for example, Richard B. Cheney, now the vice president-elect, commented that "part of the difficulty is we keep looking for the silver bullet in Iraq." What is needed, he said, is "constant, continual effort, consistency of purpose and goals and objectives over a long period of time. You've got to work the U.N. and keep the sanctions in place. You've got to work the region out there and keep your word."

Secretary of State-designate Colin L. Powell received a full briefing on Iraq policy this month from the State Department's Bureau of Near East Affairs. The senior official who described the humanitarian relief program declined to comment on that briefing. But other sources said Powell expressed deep skepticism about the capabilities of the Iraqi opposition.

Responding to Republican critics, administration officials say it would be premature, and perhaps disastrous, to arm the opposition until it resolves its factional rivalries and organizational problems. "I think that in the final analysis, if Saddam Hussein is to go the way of [ousted Yugoslav president Slobodan] Milosevic, it's going to happen on the inside," national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger told reporters and editors of The Washington Post on Friday. While the opposition "can play a role," Berger added, "I don't know any countries around Iraq who believe that's a viable option, that they could constitute a serious threat to Saddam Hussein in that way."

Blocked from acquiring lethal aid, the INC leadership last year proposed the relief operation as a first step to get the organization up and running again inside Iraq. The idea was embraced by Congress, which last fall appropriated $12 million for humanitarian relief "to be provided to the Iraqi people inside Iraq" through the INC. An additional $6 million was budgeted for INC radio and television broadcasts inside Iraq.

State Department officials saw both initiatives, which come on top of the $97 million in the Iraq Liberation Act, as a good opportunity to help the opposition and satisfy Congress while avoiding the issues posed by lethal assistance.

Clinton signed the law Nov. 6. Congress gave the administration the choice of submitting its plan in classified or unclassified form. The administration chose the latter, in part because it wanted to respond publicly to critics who said it was not doing enough to help the opposition.

According to the eight-page report, the INC plans to distribute humanitarian aid to displaced persons in northern Iraq and to "Iraqis living in areas controlled by the regime (especially Marsh Arabs and other people living in southern Iraq and the Iran-Iraq border areas)." To that end, the opposition will set up relief offices in northern Iraq and southern Iran; aid will be distributed in government-controlled areas of the south "through temporary deployments of mobile teams supported by offices in Iran."

The propaganda campaign will include satellite television broadcasts, 24-hour-a-day radio broadcasts from a "high power transmitter inside the country" and distribution of a "miniaturized version" of the INC's weekly newspaper "inside areas now under the control of the Baghdad regime," the report states.

The administration's embrace of the plan heralds a modest comeback for the INC. Founded in 1992 with heavy CIA backing, the organization and its various offshoots once fielded a guerrilla army from bases in northern and southern Iraq. But that operation was largely destroyed in 1996, when Hussein sent tanks into the north and forced the hasty evacuation of 6,000 INC operatives and supporters.

The Clinton administration's refusal to block that incursion with military force has long been a source of bitterness within the organization and among its supporters in Congress. According to the report, the prospect that the INC will begin rebuilding its infrastructure in the north, even on a modest scale, could confront the next administration with a similar choice.

"Beyond such improvement of the INC's own abilities to protect its people and others inside Iraq, the administration and Congress will need to consider what forms of direct protection, if any, the U.S. should provide," it states.

In a telephone interview from his London office, Ahmed Chalabi, a founding member of the organization and its most visible spokesman here, expressed hope that the relief operation will lead to bigger and better things. "If we can operate an organization inside the country and at the same time carry out an actual program inside the country in the face of Saddam's regime," he said, "this means . . . we can do it for other things which are relevant to getting rid of Saddam."

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