US forms Iraqi opposition army
A 5,000-man force is being recruited, fueling more feuding among Iraqi opposition groups.
SULEIMANIYEH AND ARBIL, NORTHERN IRAQ
With promises of $3,000 and a trip to America, the US is quietly recruiting - inside northern Iraq - part of a new 5,000-man force to help topple Saddam Hussein.Skip to next paragraph
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But Iraqi opposition leaders here say that the US is creating a military force for the controversial Iraqi National Congress (INC), which has little support in Iraq. It is one of six opposition groups that Washington is encouraging to come up with a plan for ruling a post-Hussein Iraq.
Iraq's squabbling opposition groups have already put off until mid-December a key meeting in Brussels meant to have started tomorrow. This behind-the-scenes US drive - which may also include a separate US intelligence effort to recruit agents across Iraq - is exacerbating the infighting between the Iraqi groups.
"The US should enter into partnership with the real freedom fighters of Iraq, the people with a real constituency," says Barham Salih, the prime minister of one of two main armed Kurdish groups that control northern Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "Mercenaries will not do the job."
In early October, President Bush signed a presidential directive authorizing the combat training, and approved the use of $92 million remaining from the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act to create a force of local scouts, interpreters, forward spotters to call in laser-guided bombs, and even
guards for prisoner-of-war camps. Most of those recruited for the new army so far are being drawn from Iraqi exiles living abroad, from lists supplied by the INC, but some fresh recruiting is now taking place here in northern Iraq.
Critics say the new army is designed to provide a power base for the INC leader, Ahmed Chalabi, who has the ear of Congress, the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, but has little support in Iraq and is dismissed by some State Department and CIA officials as a self-promoting solo act.
Ironically, one of the top recruiters for America's new Iraqi opposition army is Bahaldeen Nouri, a septuagenarian former secretary general of the Iraqi Communist Party. In recent weeks, he's signed up and sent 150 new recruits to Turkey, for transport to a secret training camp.
"So many people have shown an interest - some people slept overnight to sign up; people came from Iran," says Kurdish elder Nouri, his turban cocked gamely to the right. Though he has reservations about the quality of the recruits, the first batch sent off to a secret training base was "very, very enthusiastic, because they hate [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein," and were promised $3000 and a trip to the US.
Nouri makes clear he was not asked directly by Americans to take part, and that a "friend with links to the outside" requested his help with the hush-hush operation.
But Nouri has no doubt about who he is working for: "America is recruiting them, paying them and training them," he says. "America should decide what to do with them."
Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq, who control tens of thousands of lightly armed forces arrayed against the Baghdad regime, say the US effort to create yet another force is "dangerous" and could result in a "fiasco."
Informed sources say the initial batch of recruits has been "infiltrated" by intelligence "assets" of several governments, including Iraq.
"This should be about freedom, not about king-making," says Mr. Salih, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The forms for applicants to the "Iraq Liberation Army" ask volunteers about their past military experience, family history of imprisonments and executions by the Baghdad regime, and whether they had taken part in war crimes or human rights violations.
"Did you ever speak or give any pronouncement against America?" reads the final question.
Most of the recruits from northern Iraq so far are from Iraq's minority Sunni Arab population, the same group that Mr. Hussein is from, and that - unlike the Kurds in the north, and Shia Muslim Arabs in the south - have no armed opposition forces of their own.
While noting that such guides could be useful for US troops during any invasion, "the Iraqi people will not take kindly to such groups - no matter how patriotic they may be - if they are seen to be riding the US train," says Fawzi Hariri, a senior official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the other main armed group in northern Iraq.