As US targets Iraq, key rebels balk
In rare interview, Iraqi opposition leader rejects the "Afghan model" of intervention.
The Bush adminstration is accelerating development of plans to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But the leader of one of the few credible armed Iraqi opposition groups says he doesn't want Washington's help.Skip to next paragraph
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"There is no need to send troops from outside to Iraq," says the black-turbaned Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakkim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). "It could be seen as an invasion and could create new problems."
Though courted for months by American diplomats to join in their effort to overthrow Mr. Hussein, Ayatollah al-Hakkim - also commander of the 10,000-strong Badr Brigade militia - urges caution in a rare interview. The chief reason is President Bush's declaration that SCIRI'S host and sponsor, Iran, is part of an "axis of evil," as well as the past experience of the Iraqi opposition with "unreliable" US support.
The "Afghan model" of backing proxy forces, as the US did against the Taliban late last year, does not apply to Iraq, al-Hakkim says. One Pentagon option includes a pincer operation toward Baghdad, with 50,000 American troops moving from the south with SCIRI's Shia Muslim guerrillas and 50,000 more moving from the north with Kurdish fighters.
Such plans are "very far-fetched" and a "bad idea," al-Hakkim says, his cleric's face framed by a gray beard. "The best thing the US can do is force the regime not to use its heavy weapons against the people, like they did in Kosovo. Then the Iraqi people can bring change--it must be done by the Iraqis themselves."
Few doubt growing American resolve against Iraq, though no evidence has emerged that Baghdad was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, or in any terrorist act for the past decade.
But Iraq is clearly a target. US Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday there are no "plans" to attack North Korea or Iran, but that Iraq was a special case.
Powell said a "regime change" in Iraq, however, "would be in the best interests of the region." He says Mr. Bush is considering "the most serious set of options one might imagine." Vice President Dick Cheney is to make a nine-nation Mideast tour in March to solidify allied support for any moves against Iraq.
Few armed opponents of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein have suffered as much as Iraq's southern Shia Muslims. They have seen their religious leaders assassinated, their marshes - both their economic lifeline and hiding place - drained, and their 1991 uprising put down mercilessly with a toxic cocktail of chemical weapons.
So few might be so willing - after spilling blood for years to topple the Iraqi leader - to embrace Washington's growing plans to do just that.
Contacts between SCIRI and US officials outside Iran had warmed during the Afghan campaign, like those between the US and Iran. American diplomats had been increasing contacts for months.
"They were making good progress. It even looked like SCIRI might take US money for the first time, as a gesture of good will," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "There was a minor love-fest going on in London, until the 'axis of evil' speech. We can forget about that now - it's not going to happen."
The SCIRI is now warning that US troops in Iraq would be a "mistake."
But as a serious threat to Baghdad, SCIRI has "petered out" in recent years, says Mr. Dodge.
SCIRI is not a fighting force - like the Iran- and US-backed Northern Alliance in Afghanistan - that could hold front lines. "It was always a hit-and-run organization," Dodge says. The role it could have played in US strategy may remain a mystery because " 'axis of evil' has now alienated any support that may have been building in Tehran [to help the US topple Hussein]."