Iraqi opposition groups courted by U.S. split along ethnic, political lines

Posted: Monday, August 05, 2002

WASHINGTON -- One Iraqi opposition group is headed by a smooth-talking exile mistrusted by much of the U.S. government. A second has close ties to Iran's radical Shiites.

The two main Kurdish factions still do not get along. And one of the few former generals viewed as credible is under investigation for war crimes.

The opposition groups courted by U.S. officials are split along ethnic and political lines. They have histories of infighting and betrayal. Several accuse the United States of past betrayal.

None is guaranteed to be effective against Iraq President Saddam Hussein, who has defeated numerous revolts and coup attempts. Yet the groups could prove key to any U.S. effort to overthrow Saddam -- or perhaps even more importantly, essential to governing Iraq once Saddam was gone.

As talk of war increases, the Bush administration has invited half a dozen Iraqi opposition groups to Washington for talks this month at the Pentagon and State Department.

A look at the most important, from the U.S. perspective:

The Iraqi National Congress: Headed by longtime exile Ahmed Chalabi, this is a London-based umbrella group of opposition figures that has received millions of dollars in U.S. aid. But many U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials regard the group as inept or untrustworthy with little support among other Iraqis.

The INC's main U.S. support now appears to be in Congress and among some top civilians at the Pentagon. The group is receiving little U.S. aid at the moment.

The group was created in 1992 to bring together disparate groups, including Shiites and Kurds. Operatives worked inside northern Iraq until Saddam's army ousted them in 1996. Some view America's failure to protect the group then as a betrayal.

Other Iraqi opposition figures have accused the INC in recent months of being just a U.S. stooge. Yet cooperation among various opposition groups does exist. Chalabi, for example, attended a recent London meeting of former Iraqi military men.

The Iraqi National Accord: Based in London, this group also is made up of Iraqi exiles, including former military men from the dominant Sunni sect inside Iraq. The group claims it has closer links to military leaders still inside Iraq. The group has had links with some U.S. intelligence officials.

In 1996, the INA was involved in a coup attempt against Saddam that did not succeed, according to both its supporters and detractors. Saddam's security services apparently learned of the coup and prevented it.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party: These are the main Kurdish groups that control a large portion of northern Iraq, with protection from U.S. and British jets patrolling a no-fly zone. They have created quasi-democratic governments and relatively vibrant economies there in recent years.

The factions are bitterly divided, and there are other Kurdish splinter groups. The PUK is led by Jalal Talabani, the KDP by Masoud Barzani.

Together, the Kurds are estimated to have as many as 80,000 armed men organized into militias, making them one of the few credible Iraqi fighting forces against Saddam.

The Kurds are leery of any U.S. attack against Saddam unless they receive guarantees they will continue to have autonomy in the north. Neighboring Turkey -- a key U.S. ally -- opposes any independent state for the Kurds.

Both Kurdish leaders met secretly this spring in Europe with U.S. officials.

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq: This Shiite group based in Iran's capital, Tehran, and in London, claims to have 10,000 armed men inside Iraq. It opposes any U.S.-backed effort to overthrow Saddam, saying any effort should be led by Iraqis or the international community.

Shiites make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, even though the smaller Sunnis have dominated Iraq politically.

U.S. officials fear the group is basically a front operation for neighboring Iran, although in the past it also has been part of the INC. Nevertheless in June, U.S. officials met jointly with the two Kurdish groups, the National Accord and with the council.

Shiites remain bitter at the U.S. decision not to help when they tried to revolt against Saddam at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. That revolt and a similar Kurdish revolt in the north were brutally put down by Saddam. The United States later created the northern and southern no-fly zones to provide protection to both groups.

Gen. Nizar al-Khazraji: A former high-ranking general in Saddam's army during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, he defected in 1995 and now lives in Denmark. The highest-ranking officer to escape Saddam's government, he is believed to still have links within Iraq's military and has expressed interest in helping the opposition.

But al-Khazraji is under investigation by Danish officials for possible war crimes. He was the Iraqi army's chief of staff during Saddam's poison gas attacks on Kurds in 1988, and at least one Kurdish group calls him responsible.

The two main Kurdish factions have defended him; he says another Iraqi official was responsible.

The Iraqi National Movement: This U.S.-based group is a recent offshoot of the Iraqi National Congress. It includes some exiled Iraqi military men and recently received some modest State Department aid.

The Free Officers Movement: This U.S.-based group is headed by the former commander of an Iraqi Republican Guard unit, Najib al-Salhi, and also has some links with U.S. officials.

Sally Buzbee covers foreign affairs and the military for The Associated Press in Washington.

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