Officers in exile plot Saddam's fall

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SENIOR Iraqi army officers who have fled Iraq in recent years plan to set up their own military organisation to overthrow President Saddam Hussein. The move comes because they are frustrated by the helplessness and divisions within the Iraqi political opposition.

"Army officers outside Iraq know those inside and still in the army," says General Wafiq al-Samarra'i, the former head of Iraqi military intelligence, who escaped from Baghdad in 1994.

"A military organisation should be set up in northern Iraq [Iraqi Kurdistan where there are no Iraqi troops] or in a neighbouring Arab country."

The move is relevant because of greatly increased support for the Iraqi opposition from the Republican majority in the US Congress, who see the defusing of the crisis over the inspection of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as a defeat for America. They have added $38m (pounds 24m) for opponents of President Saddam to the US State Department authorisation bill.

General Samarra'i helped organise a small opposition army under the aegis of the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition umbrella group, which in 1995 tried to overthrow President Saddam through armed attacks aimed at fomenting mutinies and defections within the Iraqi army. He told The Independent: "The political opposition is helpless because they are divided."

Ironically, American support for Iraqi opposition groups is increasing just as their ability to overthrow the Iraqi government is on the decline. Although the US Congress is likely to allocate funds for their support, they no longer have any true safe havens in Kurdistan or in the Marshes of Southern Iraq.

The head of the Iraqi Mukhabarat security police was received by Kurdish leaders in Arbil and Sulaymaniyah, their main cities, in January.

General Samarra'i admits that the chances of a successful coup d'etat were diminished by the agreement brokered by Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, with President Saddam. He believes that some Iraqi generals would have moved against the regime if US and British air strikes had occurred in February.

He says the Iraqi leader will move quickly to improve his relations with Arab governments in Egypt, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. He does not think that President Saddam will give up his weapons of mass destruction, not least because they played a key role in the defeat of Iran by Iraq in the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war.

General Samarra'i, who then headed Iraqi military intelligence against Iran, paints a chilling picture of President Saddam's use of chemical weapons, culminating in a plan to put chemical warheads on missiles fired at Tehran, the Iranian capital, in 1988. He says the Iraqi leader was worried that poison gas, being heavier than air, would keep low and Iranians would be able to surviveby sealing doors and windows and getting into high buildings.

The plan devised by Iraqi military staff officers was first to send in Iraqi fighter-bombers to strike at Tehran. General Samarra'i says: "They planned to bombard the city with bombs which would break all the glass in the windows. This would allow the gas to spread."

At Halabja, a Kurdish city in Iraq, some 7,000 Kurds were killed by Iraqi poison gas in 1988 and those that survived continue to suffer genetic defects.

Other Iraqi observers believe that President Saddam's determination to keep some chemical and biological weapons comes from their successful use against Iran. One, who was in touch with the Iranian leadership in 1988, says Iraq sent a private message to them saying that it might put chemical warheads on its missiles. He says this was a significant reason why Iran sued for peace.

The general says that Iraq estimated Iran suffered 90,000 casualties from chemical weapons in the war. Iran says that the figure is 50,000, of whom 10 per cent died. This excludes the Kurdish civilians killed at Halabja. A UN mission of inquiry, which visited Iran and Iraq at the time, put the blame on both sides, though it did not visit Halabja. Western criticism of the use of poison gas against Iranians was muted.

Currently General Samarra'i says that Iraq has about 40 missiles left. He says a UN figure of two or three is based on the number delivered by the Soviet Union before the Gulf War, but there are others which were made out of Soviet spare parts or which were largely manufactured in Iraq itself. He says they are accurate only to within some three kilometres, but this does not matter in the case of chemical or biological warheads. He believes that there are about 100 cases of biological weapons which could be put in warheads.

Between 1986 and 1989 General Samarra'i was the chief military contact between the CIA in the US Embassy in Baghdad and the Iraqi Army. He says he met with the CIA once or twice a week to be shown US satellite pictures of Iranian positions and more-detailed maps based on the pictures showing US analysis of what they represented. In 1989 President Saddam, after the defeat of Iran, ordered that contacts with the CIA cease.