Iraq's sidelined opposition pushes for greater war role

Groups say they can help gather intelligence and mobilize Iraqis to aid the US war effort.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Arab and Kurdish opponents of President Saddam Hussein say the US is considering granting them a larger role in the war.

But this optimism tempers only mildly their frustration that US military planners have not already sought their assistance to gather intelligence about Mr. Hussein's war plans or to encourage popular uprisings.

US military officers met on Monday with representatives of opposition groups at the mountain resort of Dukan, in the PUK-administered region. A senior official from the Iraqi National Congress (INC) also says that the US Central Command, which is running the war from its forward headquarters in Qatar, has requested that an INC official come to Qatar to act as a liaison.

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Barham Salih, prime minister of the portion of northern Iraq run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), says a recent US-Kurdish joint military operation - to crush several hundred Islamist radicals in the eastern part of PUK territory - "showed what can be achieved with a partnership between coalition and Iraqi opposition forces."

He says he is hopeful this experience will inspire the US to involve the opposition more broadly in its war effort.

"We Iraqis should be tasked with the liberation of our country; this cannot be done by Americans alone," says Mr. Salih.

"The biggest failure" of the war so far, says a senior INC official, who declined to be identified by name, "is the issue of communication with the Iraqi people, to mobilize them on [the US] side." The Americans, this official says, "have failed to tap into the latent energy of revulsion against Saddam."

A cold welcome

US reluctance to make use of the Iraqi opposition may be one reason why coalition forces are not receiving a warmer welcome among Iraqi civilians and why these Iraqis have not risen up to oppose the regime and support the US-led invasion.

Because of opposition disgruntlement, quite the reverse is happening. Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-backed movement that has fought the Iraqi regime for decades and that represents part of the country's majority Shiite community, has instructed his followers not to lead an uprising or help the invading forces.

Unnecessary help?

A belief among some US officials that the war would be won quickly may have also contributed to a conviction that opposition help was unnecessary. Kurdish strategist Noshirwan Mustafa, a senior member of the PUK, says the Americans "think they are not in need of anyone."

US war planners, the INC official adds, have ignored what opposition forces can do to gather intelligence about the Iraqi military and to convince Iraqi officers to defect.

This source and a SCIRI official separately cited one recent incident as a US misstep that greater coordination with the opposition might have prevented. In the early days of the invasion, the US announced that the Iraqi Army's 51st Division had surrendered, but it later emerged that the US had been duped by a man posing as the unit's commander.

Iraqi Kurds and Shiites feel as if they have experience to offer in opposing Hussein. Following the 1991 Gulf War, Kurdish militias and Shiite rebels overwhelmed the regime and took control in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces - without benefit of a US invasion.

They undertook these uprisings in part because of encouragement from then President George H. W. Bush, and they remain dismayed and embittered that the US declined to prevent Hussein's forces from using force to turn them back. Fear of a repeat of 1991 is undoubtedly keeping some Iraqis from fighting the regime.

US 'doing it on its own'

In reviewing the progress of the war in southern Iraq, where coalition forces have found little popular support, opposition leaders shake their heads. "The lesson from the south is that they are there to do this on their own, without [the] opposition," says a Kurdish official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

SCIRI official Adel Abdul Mahdi, a senior adviser to Ayatollah Hakim, attended the Dukan meeting, but says he sees no concrete signs of a US willingness to involve the opposition. "We see good will, we have heard some good words, but in practice we have seen nothing," he says.

Hakim has sidelined his Iraqi Shiite followers because of the way the US has handled SCIRI and other groups, Mr. Abdul Mahdi says. "The Americans have isolated the opposition, minimized its role, and in contacts in Washington and London, they have spoken only about 'consulting' the opposition."

Opposition leaders say they do not expect the US to hand them the country on a platter, but they do insist on a more substantive role in prosecuting the war and in whatever transitional leadership emerges following a defeat of Hussein. "We are not going to fight the Iraqi Army without knowing the real intentions of the Americans," Abdul Mahdi says.

In its campaign against Hussein, the US has often kept the opposition at arm's length, in part because different elements of the US government have been at odds over the utility and reliability of various opposition groups.

The main constituents of the opposition are the two Kurdish parties that administer northern Iraq, SCIRI, and several smaller groups, including the INC, that consist of longstanding exiles and defectors from Hussein's regime.

The US may have drawn some benefit from having Iraqis call for Hussein's ouster, but it has also kept the opposition on a short leash because of worries that Iraqis inside the country would reject opposition figures perceived as outsiders and turncoats.

If the US does not incorporate the opposition into its war effort, SCIRI official Ghaleb al-Assadi warns, "there will be a lot of losses inside the coalition and lots of destruction and damage against the people of Iraq and the forces of the Iraqi regime."

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