Iraqi exiles dream of toppling Hussein

New opposition group, U.S. officials discussing campaign to oust regime

July 04, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When Thair Nakib's thoughts turn to Iraq, he sees his family's three-story stone house, shaded by palms on a Baghdad side street, his room brimming with boyhood swimming trophies and medals.

And there was his grandfather's farm, about an hour from the city, where he and friends would spend summer days fishing in the river, riding horses or picking apples and peaches.

That was more than 30 years ago, before his father, an army general, defected, just before a little-known general named Saddam Hussein seized power.

"Saddam confiscated the house and farm," recalled Nakib, who for the past two years has lived in an apartment in Cockeysville with his wife and two children. "We left everything behind."

Nakib is now the Washington representative of the newest Iraqi opposition group, the Iraqi National Movement, a collection of exiles - about 40 former Sunni Muslim military officers and political leaders - that was formed last year in a break with an opposition umbrella group.

Eager to aid the Bush administration's effort to topple Hussein's regime, Nakib heads south on Interstate 95 four to five days a week to meet with State Department officials, congressional staffers and other opposition leaders. In coming weeks, the Iraqi National Movement will receive $315,000 in federal money to travel, visit fellow opposition figures and maintain a base in Damascus, Syria.

Like others in the fractious Iraqi opposition, Nakib, 42, is heartened by the flurry of meetings with Bush administration officials and by plans for a conference in Europe this summer, organized by either the opposition or the State Department.

"Some of the opposition groups say it would be better if they do it, so we're talking about it," a senior Bush administration official said. "The opposition folks feel that if the U.S. sponsored it, with U.S. money, it makes them look like stooges and puppets."

"They're laying the groundwork" for the overthrow of Hussein, said Falah Nakib, Thair's 45-year-old brother. Falah Nakib lives in Damascus with their father, Hassan Nakib, a former Iraqi army deputy chief of staff, who in 1992 co-founded the opposition umbrella group, the Iraqi National Congress.

"The message we're getting" about a U.S.-led invasion, Thair Nakib said, "is end of the year or next," after the U.S. elections.

"The State Department is saying, `We don't want to speak too loudly and give high expectations. Let us prepare ourselves, and then we'll send the message'" to the Iraqi people.

Thair Nakib, who followed two sisters to the Baltimore area, recently left a management job at a health care company that brought doctors from the United Arab Emirates to train at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He now devotes his energies full time to Iraqi opposition work.

Wearing casual clothes and chain-smoking as they relax in Georgetown Park, a boutique mall on M Street, the Nakib brothers could pass for well-fed international businessmen. Chatting in heavily accented English, they are the educated children of privilege, who count two physicians and an architect among their five siblings.

The children followed their father on military and diplomatic postings from Egypt to Jordan, from Spain to Sweden.

Neither brother has military experience. Thair Nakib wonders how many friends died in the war with Iran in the 1980s.

"Saddam took all my generation to the Iran-Iraq war," he said.

Though they have been working with anti-Hussein groups since the end of the Persian Gulf war, Thair and his brother now do much of the legwork for their 73-year-old father, who is chairman of the Iraqi National Movement and expects to visit Washington next month to meet with administration officials.

The elder Nakib defected after Hussein had begun systematically executing senior military officers, many of them his friends. Thair Nakib's uncle was seized by Hussein and remains in prison, and other relatives are under watch, barred from leaving the country.

The national movement could help attract more dissident Iraqi officers, many of them fellow Sunni Muslims, to the opposition cause, said Carole A. O'Leary, a professor in the School of International Service at American University. Such officers could take part in a U.S.-led invasion or help create a post-Hussein government.

"We are coming to liberate them," Falah said. "Then we will see large concentrations of [the Iraqi army] flee. That's for sure."

The stepped-up pace of meetings at the State Department, as well as at the Pentagon, signals a more determined drive by the United States.

"There is obviously a sense of more seriousness by the administration," said Francis Brooke, an adviser to the Iraqi National Congress, who has seen interest ebb and flow in the past decade. "There has been a unified message this time around: `All you guys need to work together.'"

David Mack, a State Department official in the first Bush administration, said, "There has been an upsurge in activity between the Iraqi opposition and U.S. officials, at a higher level."

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