America suspends funding for Iraqi opposition over 'poor bookkeeping'

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The United States has suspended funding for the leading Iraqi opposition group, citing poor bookkeeping. Some consider the group a key to any effort to topple Saddam Hussein, but it has been criticised as ineffective, unorganised and without a capable fighting force.

The State Department informed the Iraqi National Congress this week that the suspension would remain in effect "until adequate financial controls are in place". The department still considered the group an important player in the opposition to the Iraqi President, Gregg Sullivan, spokesman for the Near Eastern Affairs bureau, said.

A spokesman for the group, Sharif Ali Bin AlHussein, said the action was premature and blamed State Department officials who did not want aggressive action against Iraq. Some top department aides had praised the organisation.

Mr Sullivan said the suspension was completely based on an audit by the inspector general that found the group could not properly account for its spending. No financial wrongdoing was discovered. "The financial controls were insufficient and did not match requirements under US laws," Mr Sullivan said, contending that the group had failed to heed warnings since June.

Mr AlHussein said the group was given until 15 January to institute new financial controls and said the State Department was told the deadline would be met. He said certain department officials, including some from the time of President Bill Clinton's administration, "want to appease Saddam. They want to contain him and keep him in his box and don't want to take Saddam on as the head of a terrorist state."

The London-based confederation of opposition groups has considerable backing in the US Congress, but critics have said its members are not prepared to combat the Iraqi President's forces on the ground, even with US backing.

Congress appropriated $25m (£17m) for the Iraqi opposition, with at least $10m to be used inside Iraq. But Mr AlHussein argued that administration officials would not let the group use the money inside the country and therefore the opposition group rejected the entire amount. The State Department went ahead on its own and sent the group about $12m in 2001.

The money was primarily used to collect information on abuses by the Iraqi government, present the findings to the United Nations and save it for later use if there was a war crimes tribunal. "Senior level officials have been very encouraging" about the opposition's work, Mr AlHussein said.

In the background of the dispute is an argument over policy toward Iraq in the war on terrorism. Hawks in the Bush administration, led by Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, have been pressing for the US military to finish off the Iraqi President. Other administration officials, however, have argued to keep the focus on the anti-terror war against Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network. (AP)