Overthrow of Hussein or a new Bay of Pigs? Many fear disaster in U.S. backing for an Iraqi insurrection

November 19, 1998|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Ann LoLordo contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Now that a massive U.S. bombardment of Iraq has been put on hold, the Iraqi opposition in exile and powerful supporters in Washington have another suggestion: an insurrection supplied with U.S. weapons.

With an eagerly anticipated $97 million worth of U.S. anti-tank weapons, rifles, artillery and training, the Iraqi opposition aims to insert 5,000 warriors into southern Iraq who would encourage defections from Saddam Hussein's army. With American air cover, the forces would launch insurrections from this "safe haven" aimed at replacing Hussein with a broad-based democratic government.

Despite President Clinton's strong words of support Sunday for Hussein's opponents, the United States is far from endorsing such a scheme and making it happen -- even though the military hardware comes via legislation approved by Congress last month.

Some CIA and Pentagon officials express grave doubts about the leadership of the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC) and say the plan is a potential recipe for disaster.

"We don't want any ill-prepared efforts to lead to a tragic or unnecessary loss of life," said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin.

But in a show of support for the group's goals, if not its tactics, the department announced a meeting yesterday between INC leader Ahmad Chalabi and Martin Indyk, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs.

Some military officials liken the plan to a U.S.-supported military operation that turned into one of America's greatest Cold War embarrassments -- the Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles in 1961. A previous Iraqi insurrection was crushed by Hussein in 1996, as have been several attempted coups; expected American help failed to materialize.

"It's insanity to think that 10,000 men can hold a front against a 400,000-man army" -- even with U.S. air support, said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the National Defense University, who doubts the INC could draw large numbers of defectors.

"The Republican Guard and the regular army will remain loyal to Saddam and crush these guys," Pollack said.

One of the chief American backers of the Iraqi opposition plan is Duane R. "Dewey" Clarridge, a retired top CIA official who was one the architects of the contra insurgency in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Clarridge, who also worked in the Middle East and Europe, helped draft the military plan for the Iraqi opposition. He says the plan is workable and could spur coup attempts in Baghdad.

Clarridge dismisses any parallel with the Bay of Pigs, saying Hussein has few troops in southern Iraq with which to attack the rebels.

"If we don't get defectors in eight months, we come out. We failed," Clarridge said.

But Paul R. Williams, who teaches law and international relations at American University, said "there are serious legal questions concerning the legitimacy of the plan," which could run afoul of United Nations charter protections of states' sovereignty.

Pledging to "intensify" American support for the Iraqi opposition, Clinton said Sunday: "What we want and what we will work for is a government in Iraq that represents and respects its people."

One of the chief tasks will be to unite an Iraqi opposition comprising about 30 ethnic, political and religious groups that are deeply suspicious of one another. The British government will sponsor a meeting Monday in London to try to get more than a dozen Iraqi opposition groups to settle their differences.

"These guys don't like each other," a senior Clinton administration official said. "It's not going to be easy."

Analysts say the INC is far from the united umbrella group it claims to be. It has been at odds with the Iraqi National Accord, a group with offices in Amman, Jordan.

"We're not rivals. We have a difference of opinion," said Zaab Sethna, the INC spokesman. "They believe in a coup, and we believe in a broad-based democratic insurrection."

But Dhirgham Jawad Kadhim, a member of the political bureau of the INA, said the INC is merely a vehicle for its leader Chalabi. "Practically, there is no INC left," said Kadhim. Chalabi "calls himself the INC."

Chalabi was convicted in absentia in a 1980s bank fraud in Jordan that predates his role in the INC. He denies the accusation, which he calls a politically motivated attempt to appease Saddam Hussein.

Two other major groups, which recently patched up a bitter rivalry, are the northern Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Iraq Liberation Act

The so-called Iraq Liberation Act, passed by Congress last month, authorizes $97 million in aid to the opposition in unspecified military equipment, education and training. But the law does not require the money to be used.

Recipients must reflect a broad spectrum of Iraqi society and demonstrate that they are committed to democratic values, respect for human rights and peaceful relations with Iraq's neighbors. Clinton is to designate eligible groups by the end of January.

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