Opposition leader 'ready to support liberation of Iraq'

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The Independent Online

The man who would like to replace Saddam Hussein said yesterday that Iraqis were ready to join in the "liberation of Iraq" as the United States military denied its troops were already inside the country.

Commander Frank Merriman, a spokesman for the US Central Command, which has responsibility for military operations in the Middle East, said: "There are no US troops in Iraq. Are we invading Iraq? No."

He was responding to rumours that affected the price of oil and gold, with speculators presuming any American attack would drive up oil prices and make gold a safe-haven investment.

The need to issue such denials underlines the sense of expectation both in Washington and the Middle East that America is planning an imminent military operation against Iraq, which might involve up to 200,000 ground troops.

President George Bush – who cites Iraq as one point in an "axis of evil" – is widely believed to have decided that Saddam Hussein needs to be ousted and that the "unfinished business" of the 1991 Gulf War, when his father's administration decided against going all the way to Baghdad, needs to be resolved.

One man who believes himself to be at the centre of any such plan is Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), whose own blueprint for ousting Saddam has divided the US intelligence and defence communities. He told The Independent: "[The administration] has said we are central to that plan. Whatever that plan is – we don't know what the plan is.

"I cannot praise our own plan or comment on how others think about it but it's a good plan, an effective plan, and it involves, most importantly, Iraqis partaking heavily in the liberation of Iraq."

While the INC – an umbrella of opposition groups – may not have the inside track on Mr Bush's plan to counter Saddam, it says it has regular meetings with senior officials and receives several million dollars in funding. Its point of contact is Richard Armitage, the deputy US secretary of state.

The INC plan calls for American special forces to be inserted into southern Iraq, an intense bombing campaign and a move by INC forces in the north. The plan – designed to lead to defections in the Iraqi military and confront Saddam with the dilemma of whether to protect Baghdad or send his troops to confront the US forces – has been drawn up with the help of a retired US general.

Dr Chalabi said: "The Iraqi people are ready for the business of government. The Iraqi people were well on their way to the development of very democratic and liberal and an open political system when it was curtailed by military coups. Since the Ba'ath Party came to power in 1968 the entire society has been decimated, civil society has been destroyed and institutions have either been obliterated or subverted by Saddam and I think the Iraqi people will develop institutions and an effective democratic government."

The INC is not the only anti-Saddam group America is dealing with and Dr Chalabi has a number of opponents. David Mack, former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and vice-president of the Middle East Institute, said many in the Iraqi exile community were jealous of Dr Chalabi's influence and that he did not have a good relationship with many of the countries in the region.

Dr Chalabi, 57, a former banker, has survived several financial scandals. However, many say he should be applauded for keeping the flag of the opposition flying – terribly difficult given Saddam's technique of torturing family members still in Iraq.

Dr Chalabi's strongest supporters in America belong to the Republican right – people such as Richard Perle, head of the Defence Policy Board.

But uprisings in Iraq have until now been brutally suppressed by Saddam. The Iraqi President put down revolts in the aftermath of the Gulf War by the Kurds in the north and Shia Muslims in the south.

In 1995, an insurrection planned by Dr Chalabi and supported by America failed and 130 INC members were executed. Dr Chalabi insists it could have succeeded had the US been more committed.

He even claimed that CIA-sponsored agents were sent to wreck the plan. "They sent agents to undermine our men and encourage them to sell their weapons. I don't know who gave the orders but that is what we saw on the ground."