TEHRAN, IRAN — Wearing the black turban of a Shiite Muslim ayatollah and clicking prayer beads between his fingers, Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim seems an unlikely player in Washington's Iraq policy game.
Well-protected in his Iran headquarters in central Tehran, this longtime Iraqi opposition leader thinks so, too.
Yet Mr. Hakim's guerrilla forces at work in southern Iraq and based in Iran may present one of the most serious threats to the rule of Saddam Hussein. And their aim is the same as that of the Americans - to change the regime in Baghdad.
Washington would highly prize cooperation from the Shiite opposition group. But Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) has refused to accept part of the $97 million earmarked by the US Congress for viable Iraqi opposition groups, and says that the American policy of openly backing the opposition is misguided.
"The first mistake is that the change the Americans are trying to make in Iraq does not consider the real issue, which is to protect the Iraqi people in their moves to topple the Iraqi government," says Hakim in a rare interview.
Intelligence and diplomatic sources in Tehran and Washington indicate that since November, SCIRI has been contacted in Kuwait and Iran by senior US officials, Iraqi opposition figures, and almost certainly Central Intelligence Agency operatives.
But SCIRI's role and that of its military wing - the 10,000-strong Badr Brigade militia under Hakim's command and overseen by Iranian security forces - is complicated by lack of ties between the United States and Iran.
Iran's own internal struggle between extremists and reformers adds to the confusion, by making even secret US contacts in Iran a political liability.
Many American critics say that the Iraqi opposition is too divided to threaten the iron grip of Saddam Hussein. They point to a previous failed effort run by the CIA that sought to bring together disparate Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni opposition elements. The operation was broken up by Baghdad and kicked out of northern Iraq in 1996.
But the Clinton administration's openly declared aim since November of military "containment plus regime change" is a "positive step," Hakim says, though US-led military action must be expanded if that mission is to succeed.
"We are not in a position like a man who needs food and clothes and is on the verge of death, so that we have just to revive him by giving him food and clothes," he says, a smile sometimes emerging on a face framed by a gray beard. "What we need from the American policy is to protect the Iraqi people against the use by the Iraqi regime of heavy weapons - to protect them from the mass killings going on inside Iraq."
Hakim says that such support would require the US- and British-patrolled no-fly zones in south and north Iraq to be extended across the whole country. Since Anglo-American airstrikes last December, the zones have been the scene of almost daily clashes and US strikes against Iraq's antiaircraft batteries.
Saddam Hussein heightened the tension Sunday, by issuing a warning that Iraq was "capable" of striking bases with US troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which he said were "unmistakably implicated in the hateful war" against Iraq.
And Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister, visited Ankara yesterday to try to persuade NATO-ally Turkey to put an end to allowing use of its air bases for patrols over Iraqi "no-fly" zones.
Hakim, meanwhile, wants far more aggressive tactics that would prevent Iraqi forces from using tanks and helicopters to stamp out rebellion, as they did during a 1991 revolt.
Hakim's Shiite group has good ties with the northern Kurdish opposition groups and elements of the Army, he says. Also, Shiite Muslims account for as much as 65 percent of Iraq's total population.
"As soon as we have the blockade on the movement of the Iraqi heavy weapons, the people can make this change without the help of any foreign troops," Hakim says. "I am confident that the Iraqi people and the Iraqi Army will do this without needing [other] military support from outside."
"But our basic problem is the use of this utmost repression" by Iraq, he warns. Any less US support "means that either they are not serious, or they are not able to comprehend the realities in Iraq."
But such a deep commitment is unlikely and could be dangerous, says Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to President Bush during the 1991 Gulf War.
"Then they would become our wards," he says in a telephone interview. "It is unfeasible."
Backing the opposition at all is a policy mistake, he says, borne out of the frustration that Saddam is still around and absorbing strategic assets eight years after the war. "I think it is at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive," Mr. Scowcroft says. "It's not the way to go."
In southern Iraq, Scowcroft would reverse the repressive measures taken by Iraqi forces since the Gulf War to drain, burn, and depopulate marsh areas that have historically been hotbeds of opposition. In 1994, a UN Special Rapporteur for human rights stated that such moves "place the survival of the indigenous population in jeopardy."
"I would bomb the dikes that Saddam Hussein has built to dry out the marshes," he says. "That is their protection, and it's why Saddam has dried them out. I would reflood the marshes. That's the safe haven they need."
But politically, keeping the balance right in Baghdad will prove tricky.
"If you want to overthrow Saddam Hussein, you almost certainly have to do it from inside," Scowcroft adds. "All the levers of power are held by the Sunni [Muslim] elite, and the Kurds and Shiite represent dissidents and are the most unlikely basis for an opposition. And if they succeed, they could splinter Iraq."
Reservations also remain among Iraqis and Western critics about the steadfastness of American resolve.
"No doubt we can gain some lessons from history, and of course there are still some suspicions of the credibility of US policy, because of past positions," says Hakim. "But when we talk now about the actual position ... it is not impossible to solve this problem right now."
Part of the anxiety is over the unprecedented public call for the removal of Saddam and handling of cash - both of which in the past have been managed covertly. "The US is not marching in the correct way now," Hakim says. To openly declare such a policy is a "tactical error," he says, rolling his eyes in disbelief.
But it's precisely the lack of resolve in the past that is one reason for the new transparency, says Michael Eisenstadt, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's an important way to demonstrate our commitment to change the regime of Iraq," he says. "As long as it is deemed a credible policy that we're willing to back, it will alter people's calculus."
There are three legs to this policy table, he explains: military action, covert action, and support for the opposition. Without one, the table can't stand. "I don't see the opposition role as storming Baghdad, or making an army that will roll into Baghdad," Mr. Eisenstadt says. "But it shows our commitment ... and that the tide is changing."
For the US, the dilemma is unavoidable: "We have a legacy we are trying to overcome - of perceived abandonment of the opposition, of coddling and hidden agendas. Every step we take from the past we have to make some compromises," Eisenstadt says.
"I think we are not quite sure we know where we're going with this."