US will fund opposition to Saddam

Click to follow
THE UNITED STATES will announce a new strategy for boosting the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein this week.

Propelled by Congress and anxious to fill the vacuum left by the disintegration of previous policies, the US will announce a programme of $5m (pounds 3.1m) to assist the opposition. The plan is likely to include some support for Shia opposition groups based in Iran for the first time.

The US established the Iraq National Congress (INC) as the main channel for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) support after the 1991 invasion of Kuwait. But relations with the INC deteriorated and support was switched to the London-based Iraqi National Accord. Both were effectively wiped out on the ground when Saddam's forces moved into Iraqi Kurdistan in 1996.

Since then, the opposition has fragmented with infighting and lack of resources and presence on the ground apparently dooming it to impotence.

But pressure has built up for a new policy. Congress has pushed for a more active stance to overthrow President Saddam and the existing policy of containment through weapons inspections and sanctions is starting to look threadbare.

Last month, Congress approved the $5m along with plans for a new radio station broadcasting to Iraq, and this week the administration is expected to announce how the cash will be spent.

The money will be overt rather than secret, and is likely to be put towards boosting the democratic credentials of the opposition. One possibility would be to support moves by the opposition to create a council of national unity, drawing together all the different factions. A meeting was held in London last February organised by the INA to enable the organisations to speak with one voice, and there have also been suggestions that something approximating a government in exile might be formed in London.

The US is anxious to demonstrate that it does not regard the current Iraqi regime as salvageable, as do many of its erstwhile allies in the Gulf War coalition. Instead, it will underline that it is working towards a new regime, formed from the democratic opposition. But with the evaporation of the opposition it has found it hard to claim that there is an alternative.

The US's discussions with the opposition have included for the first time a Tehran-based group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri). As the name might suggest, it has little in common with the US and has been working very closely with the Islamic regime in Iran. But alone of the opposition groups, it has ground forces in Iraq which harass Iraqi troops in the south of the country. It represents elements within Iraq's substantial Shia minority.

Contacts between the US and the Sciri have accelerated this year, with frequent trips by the movement's leader, Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, to Kuwait, where US forces and aircraft are based. Hamid Bayati, the organisation's London representative, visited Washington last week and met representatives of the US government.

Relations between the US and Iran have warmed noticeably since the election of the moderate Mohammad Khatami as Iran's President last year. Iran and the US have few interests in common, but they do share a desire to limit Iraq's aggression.