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The Iraq War back home: Infighting over post-Saddam plan

Thursday, April 10, 2003

The Iraqi National Congress has again become the focus of a dispute with the Bush administration as the pro-Western opposition group begins operations in Iraq.

U.S. officials said the question of the INC's role has divided the administration and prevented Iraqi opposition forces from deploying in several cities in southern Iraq. They said the dispute pits the Defense Department against the State Department.

The Pentagon wants the INC to be a major force in the pacification of Iraq as opposition forces help identify members of the ruling Baath Party and establish a civil administration in cities throughout the country.

Nearly 1,000 INC members are being deployed in southern Iraq and have begun efforts to restore order.

The INC effort is being opposed by the State Department and the CIA, officials said. They said the two departments regard the INC as unreliable and jeopardizes U.S. assurances that Iraq would not be run by foreigners.

The State Department has blocked at least $4 million in funds for the operation of the INC's Liberty television broadcasts to Iraq.

"Our view of an Iraqi interim authority," State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker said, "is something that is run and chosen by Iraqis; that it should be representative of all the groups in Iraq; it should include members of the exile community who have worked very hard over a number of decades for the liberation of Iraq, for the freedom of the Iraqi people. It should also include people inside Iraq."

The fighting within the administration over the INC is said to be endangering the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Five U.S. senators, all of them Republicans, have sent President George Bush a letter calling on him to "personally clear the bureaucratic road blocks from within the State Department" and ensure that the INC obtains the funding allocated by Congress.

"American lives are at stake," said the letter, signed by Senators Sam Brownback, Norm Coleman, Jon Kyl, John McCain and Rick Santorum. The CIA has argued that the INC has little support in Iraq, particularly in the Sunni Muslim community. Officials said the CIA has accused Chalabi, a Shi'ite Muslim, and the INC of relaying largely unsubstantiated intelligence information and assessments to the Bush administration.

On Sunday, Chalabi was flown to the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya to recruit support for the INC and establish a political presence in Iraq. At the same time, Iraqi opposition sources said the CIA has threatened the INC with attack unless the group coordinates efforts with the U.S. intelligence community.

On Tuesday, a leading INC member, Kanan Makiya, told the American Enterprise Institute in Washington that the CIA threatened air strikes against INC-aligned forces unless they evacuated Amara, about 360 kilometers southeast of Baghdad.

The Amara headquarters was captured by Abu Hatem Mohammed Ali, who led a militia of several thousand combatants, Makiya said. He said Abu Hatem was a contact of the INC and also known to the Pentagon.

"He [Abu Hatem] was then told by a CIA officer whose name I do not know but who spoke perfect Arabic that he had to vacate that city," Makiya said.

"He was threatened with bombing and strafing of the building, the compound he took over, so he decided it would be better to be wise and he did withdraw in fact."

INC leaders have urged the United States to allow opposition forces to help the war effort. They said the INC and other opposition groups could quickly win the confidence of ordinary Iraqis to rebel against the Saddam regime. So far, they said, the United States has ruled out any military engagement by the INC.

"I bring it as a cautionary tale of where we can go wrong," Maykiya said, referring to the Amara episode.

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