WASHINGTON - Buoyed by President Bush's new resolve to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, an organization of Iraqi opposition groups has stepped up its campaign to join Americans in any future military action in their homeland.
But the Iraqi National Congress has a problem. While popular with many in Congress, it is viewed skeptically by the State Department and the CIA, dismissed by America's allies in the Arab world and derided as ineffective by influential Washington analysts.
The role the Bush administration assigns the INC, if any, could influence not only the course of possible U.S. action against Iraq, but also the development of a post-Hussein government and the long-term stability of a volatile region that is the source of much of the industrialized world's oil.
Labeling Iraq part of an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address last month, Bush gave new momentum to a policy of "regime change" in Iraq that long has been a U.S. goal.
Bush has given no hint of how he wants to accomplish the goal. But the administration appears to be gearing up for a showdown later this year over Iraq's refusal to allow United Nations inspectors to carry out their mission of searching for weapons of mass destruction - a showdown that could set the stage for war.
Since the president's speech, INC officials have detected a greater interest in their cause.
"We're encouraged," said Ahmad Chalabi, a key member of the INC leadership and its point man with officials in Washington.
Wide array of members
Founded by Iraqi exiles in 1992, the London-based INC marked the first major effort to unite Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Kurds and backers of a constitutional monarchy in a single organization devoted to replacing Hussein's regime with a pluralistic democratic government.
INC membership ranges from Islamic fundamentalists to relatives of Iraq's last king, Faisal II, who was deposed and killed in 1958. But how much active support the INC has among the dozens of opposition groups around the world is unclear. The Kurds, for instance, are known to be reluctant to fight against Hussein unless guaranteed future autonomy.
The INC maintained a stronghold inside northern Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region until 1996, when Hussein, taking advantage of fighting between Kurdish factions, moved his forces into the area, killing 200 members of the INC and another opposition group, the Iraqi National Accord.
So far, the U.S. government has confined its financial support for the INC to nonlethal aid for radio and satellite-TV broadcasts into Iraq, a newspaper and meetings to organize regime opponents and publicize the plight of the Iraqi people under Hussein.
If Bush pursues a military solution, the INC wants to assume a role similar to the one played by Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, America's partner in defeating the Taliban: providing troops on the ground and fighting alongside U.S. special operations forces while U.S. bombers attack strategic sites and armored columns.
Chalabi laid out a "hypothetical scenario" for how the war would unfold. A U.S. bombing campaign would target Hussein's communications and control apparatus, tanks and the elite Special Republican Guard. Simultaneously, the INC ground troops would attack Hussein's forces in northern and southern Iraq, pressuring units of the Iraqi army to "come over to us or go home."
Inserting thousands of trained INC forces into Iraq is a 4-year-old plan developed by retired U.S. Army Gen. Wayne Downing, now the president's chief counter-terrorism adviser, and former CIA operative Duane R. "Dewey" Clarridge, an architect of the Contra insurgency in Nicaragua (who was indicted for lying to Congress in the ensuing Iran-Contra affair and pardoned before trial) who also worked in the Middle East.
Paul Wolfowitz, then dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and now deputy secretary of defense, also contributed to the plan.
"In a way, the Afghan plan is a copy of the Iraq plan," Clarridge said.
In Congress, the INC draws strong support from Republicans in both houses, who for years have been pressing both the Clinton administration and now the Bush administration to provide more support.
"I think the INC can play a very useful role," said Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican. "You've got to make a transition to democratic rule in Iraq. Chalabi and his guys are committed to doing that."
But there are just as many doubters. Within the administration, some officials fear the INC plan could turn into a Bay of Pigs-style disaster. Part of the skepticism stems from the INC's record in building an opposition movement among the various opponents of Hussein inside and outside Iraq.