Iraqis Against Saddam Irked At US Attacks

Opposition fears strategy only strengthens his grip, complicates its own efforts

PRESIDENT Bush is going, but his archenemy, Saddam Hussein, stays on, firmly in power in Baghdad and as defiant as ever despite the punishment meted out by coalition jets and missiles.

Those Iraqis most dedicated to bringing about Saddam's downfall have few illusions about the prospects of unseating him soon - and many are bitterly critical of the current Western campaign, fearing it will only strengthen his grip and complicate their task.

"If the allies continue like this, I wouldn't be surprised if Saddam is still there in four years' time, when Clinton's term expires," says Haidar Abbas, spokesman for the radical Iranian-backed Al-Daawa party, one of dozens of Iraqi opposition factions.

Not only Islamic radicals like Al-Daawa, but also many of the traditionally and strongly pro-Western liberals and democrats who make up the middle ground of the exiled Iraqi opposition, are dismayed by the latest coalition moves.

"What is the objective of all this? Is it to destroy a few Iraqi missiles here or a factory there, or to kill a few civilians, in order to `frighten Saddam into line'? He will never, never give up; the man is beyond redemption," says Walid al-Tamimi, a leading member of the Association of Iraqi Democrats.

"I am shocked when I hear Bush or [British Prime Minister John] Major saying they are delivering Saddam a message," he adds. "Saddam couldn't care less about Iraqi people's lives and property. They are the most disposable items he possesses. If you destroy a factory he built or a weapon he bought, he isn't going to be upset, he's going to use it to his advantage. And that's just what he's doing." `In fact it hinders'

"This kind of operation by the allies doesn't really help us; in fact it hinders," adds Sabah Kathim, senior adviser to Gen. Hassan al-Naqib, one of the few prominent Sunni Muslims and ex-Army men in the opposition. "Unless they really do something serious about removing Saddam himself, two or three days of bombing will make little difference. They should either bomb Saddam seriously, or let the opposition work without these hindrances."

Saddam's successful defiance, many opposition sources argue, encourages those around him to believe he will survive and that they had better stick by him. Weaning such people away from him is one of the key objectives of the opposition's strategy.

Many also assert Saddam triggered the current crisis because of mounting domestic economic discontent resulting from the international embargo, and that the West has played into his hands by letting him externalize the crisis.

"Before this happened, he had a lot of internal difficulties, but now he has distracted attention to something outside Iraq, to the allies, the Americans," says Mr. Abbas of Al-Daawa. "The raids encourage people to rally 'round him, and those close to him stay put because they think the man is not going to fall."

But there are also optimists who disagree and who see advantage in the current situation.

"Saddam is not strengthened by the bombing," says Ahmad Chalabi, chairman of the executive council of the opposition umbrella group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC). "He started this crisis, and he's getting weaker. He thought he could test the waters and get away with it, but he didn't."

Mr. Chalabi hopes that the crisis will evolve in a way that encourages the Western allies to take a "permanent step" that would make further inroads on Saddam's control, such as turning the southern no-fly zone into a safe haven like that enjoyed by the Kurds in the north of Iraq.

Another move might be to expand the northern haven to include roads which would allow aid convoys from Turkey to reach the big Kurdish cities without passing through Iraqi Army lines. Suspicious of Iran

The issue of a southern safe haven is complicated by continuing Western suspicions of nearby Iran. But one Western diplomat closely involved with the Iraqi question believes that Saddam's behavior may have brought the day closer.

"Saddam is acting in a way that would encourage the West to take more steps rather than give ground on those it has already taken," he says. "His actions show you can't expect him to become a nice moderate; he will always push and try to destabilize and erode."

Most of the opposition factions agree that change must come from within Iraq and that all that the outside powers - and the exiled opposition itself - can do is try to encourage it.

Since its big conference in "liberated" Iraqi Kurdistan last October, much of the INC's energy has been taken up with internal problems. Iraq's neighbors - notably Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia - have remained less than fully helpful. North as a base?

The main Iranian-backed Islamic factions have currently suspended their activities in the INC, demanding changes in the leadership and a shift from what they see as pro-US policies.

But the INC's Chalabi remains optimistic that unity can be reasserted, and that activities can be launched from the Kurdish north that could seriously undermine Saddam.

Although the Kurds criticized the opposition for being slow to take up their offer of an operational base, an opposition headquarters has now been established in the Kurdish town of Salahuddin, and the next meeting of the INC's executive is to be held there next month. There are plans for a daily newspaper and for a TV and radio station to beam anti-Saddam propaganda into government-held areas.

Some Western diplomats believe that if the opposition can get organized and use Kurdistan as an active base, it could win credibility and act as a magnet for defectors. But they agree with the opposition that change must come from within.

Some opposition figures say that when it comes, it will owe little to the Western powers, who, they say, have acted in their own interest.

"When [Saddam] does go, the West will have little credit, and our job arguing for good relations with the West will be a difficult one," says Mr. Tamimi. "The West has lost the goodwill of the Arab people now, because ... of its callousness about the feelings of Arabs and Muslims."

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