Iraqi rebel leader calls air support key to fight

After U.S. strikes, he says, locals would oust Hussein

July 17, 2002|By Michael Slackman | Michael Slackman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TEHRAN, Iran - Iraq's main opposition forces have begun coordinating their military efforts and would welcome U.S. air support in their bid to topple President Saddam Hussein, according to the leaders of one of the groups.

Speaking from a guarded compound in Tehran, where he has been in exile for more than two decades, Shiite opposition leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim said last week that his organization opposes a full-blown U.S. invasion but supports the idea of a mission in which bombing paves the way for local forces to fight on the ground.

"We don't need an invasion," Bakr Hakim told the Los Angeles Times. "You must distinguish between an American invasion and an attack - the Iraqi people can protect themselves if there is no heavy artillery or weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the regime."

He said his group has been working with the military leaders of the two main Kurdish factions in northern Iraq, which make up the strongest opposition force inside the country. U.S. officials have acknowledged that the Kurdish opposition probably would play a substantial role in any effort to overthrow Hussein.

Bakr Hakim, president of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said his organization hadn't been contacted by Washington, - State Department officials dispute that - because, he said, America is reluctant to approach a group based in Iran. In his State of the Union address this year, President Bush grouped Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil."

Officials with SAIRI, as the group is known, said the United States is overlooking a potentially valuable ally. They argue that with appropriate backup, a Kurdish and Shiite advance would win the support of the people and overthrow Hussein.

For years, Washington had no contacts with the group, in part because of concern over its close ties with the Iranian regime as well as its religious orientation, according to U.S. officials. Republican as well as Democratic administrations wanted to ensure that Iraq's secular dictatorship wasn't replaced by a religious dictatorship, especially one with close ties to Iran.

Nevertheless, top State Department officials meet regularly with SAIRI representatives in London - and over the years have met with representatives in Washington, State Department officials said. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations also tried to meet with Bakr Hakim when he traveled outside Iran, but he has refused the overtures, department sources said.

Michael Slackman is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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