Gulf Crisis: Rebels seek US arms to oust Saddam

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The Independent Online
THE IRAQI opposition intends to establish a provisional government in southern Iraq, exploiting American military aid to create a "liberated zone".

The main Iraqi opposition leader, Dr Ahmed Chalabi, was in Washington yesterday to meet members of the administration and Congress. Although the Iraqi opposition has suffered in the past from splits, and the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella group of 12 parties, had a very public falling-out with the United States, Dr Chalabi is the US Congress's favourite.

The White House, State Department and CIA greatly mistrust him, but if their efforts to rebuild the opposition are to proceed they have to listen to him. Dr Chalabi had meetings scheduled yesterday with the State Department and the Department of Defense, suggesting political and military options for replacing President Saddam Hussein were under discussion.

The US President's renewed shift towards the Iraqi opposition has reignited the debate within the opposition about how to end their damaging divisions. Dr Chalabi said a meeting would probably be held in London, the main centre for the Iraqi opposition, to form a united leadership that would take responsibility for military aid.

"We would like to have a very quick meeting of the opposition to declare a unity of purpose," he said. "We want to meet to elect a new leadership."

Congress this year passed the Iraq Liberation Act, establishing a fund for military training and equipment for the Iraqi opposition. Dr Chalabi said the military aid should not be divided between the different opposition groups, the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Shias in the south, as some in the administration and the CIA had suggested. "All military aid should be given to a united opposition," he said.

The Iraqi opposition leader will propose to the US that the military aid be used to support the creation of a "liberated zone" in southern Iraq, rather than the north, as was previously attempted. A provisional government could be established there as the first step towards toppling President Saddam.

But the US is wary of engaging in another covert war, because of past failures. "Congress has given us the authority and funding to arm the opposition," said the State Department spokesman James Rubin. "We don't rule that out, but we want to make sure that any action is effective in achieving the goal and is well- prepared. We don't want any ill-prepared efforts to lead to a tragic or unnecessary loss of life."

Downing Street confirmed Britain was also preparing aninitiative to help the Iraqi opposition, probably through propaganda. The Prime Minister told MPs on Monday the Government would investigate ways to "bolster the opposition and improve the possibility of removing Saddam Hussein".

The US has set up Radio Free Iraq in Prague, while Britain's expertise has been shown by techniques using the Internet and radio stations in the Balkans to break the information monopoly of Slobodan Milosevic.