US to arm Iraqi opposition

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THE UNITED States will announce in the next few days plans to give military support to the Iraqi opposition, figures within the opposition groups said.

The money will go to seven of the most significant groups ranged against Saddam Hussein, including the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the largest. Some opposition sources said the cash may also go to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shia group backed by Iran, and to the Iraqi Communist Party, though this could not be confirmed. The seven groups will meet in London, probably before the end of the month, to sort out their differences and plan a strategy against the regime, the opposition said.

The announcement marks a victory for the INC in particular, which was backed by the US and Britain but lost favour, and was routed in northern Iraq. It has lobbied long and hard in Washington for renewed support, against opposition from the White House and the CIA. "To be designated as eligible for military aid for the first time, with overt aid, that is a really big deal," said an INC spokesman.

The Iraq Liberation Act, passed by Congress last year, provides $97m (pounds 60m) to arm and support the opposition. The administration has until the end of this month to designate the groups to whom the cash will go, and it has already informed Congress, officials in Washington said. The US will also name a co-ordinator for the Iraq opposition, who will be responsible for seeing that the cash is properly spent.

The opposition wants guarantees from the US that if Saddam Hussein attacks them, they will have anti-tank ordnance to defend themselves. They also want to ensure air support if it is needed. The last attempt to back an opposition insurgency collapsed ignominiously when the US refused to provide air support.