Dreams of toppling Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein have persisted in Washington for most of this decade. But a new public presidential seal of approval has put the spotlight on Iraq's fragmented opposition.
Frustration after a string of expensive military buildups to "contain" Iraq has US and British officials searching for "democratic" and "viable" alternatives. But critics - including some opposition leaders themselves - say that Iraqi dissident groups are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
There are well-documented covert failures by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to arm and unify the opposition in the past. That has led some to conclude that this time, despite high-profile rhetoric, Washington and London have more realistic aims.
"We are sure they are not so stupid as to believe that they can change [the regime] from outside," says a European diplomat. "It is part of a public-opinion game to show that they are doing something. If you really want to overthrow Saddam Hussein, you would not do it this way."
President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which earmarks $97 million to revitalize the Iraqi opposition, last month. Though the White House was at first lukewarm about the idea, it has now embraced it - despite criticism.
Exile meeting in London
The administration has drawn up a list of more than 70 groups, and US Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk and top British officials met last week with 16 groups in London. Some exiles said that Mr. Indyk nominated Adnan al-Pachachi, a former foreign minister, to form a united opposition movement, though Mr. Pachachi later disputed it.
Even oppositionists who might get cash, however, are worried. "Political and moral support is OK, but money and arms will undermine the opposition," says Hamid al-Bayati, the London representative for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). "That will give Saddam a card: He will say that we are all American spies, with the label 'Made in the USA.'
"It is the Iraqi people who should do the job," says Mr. Bayati, whose group is active in southern and central Iraq. Adding weight to that argument, a group of 85 independent dissidents in London urged the US "to let the Iraqi people themselves choose their national opposition leader."
Supporters say the current push is not meant to directly overthrow Saddam, but to create high-profile support for opponents that may encourage cracks or defections within the regime.
The recent assassination attempt against Iraq's Vice President Izat Ibrahim in the city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, is the kind of attack that could show the regime is not bulletproof. But one London-based opposition group said Baghdad "falsified" the report as an excuse to "increase repression" in southern Iraq.
Washington has also revitalized an idea to try Saddam for war crimes, a proposal first put forward by Vice President Al Gore in 1992.
Known to be penetrated by Iraqi intelligence, the opposition groups fall into several categories. They often have different aims, and only a few are active inside Iraq. The SCIRI is deemed by many to be the most credible and has kept up pressure on Iraqi troops in the south. Those abroad are often dismissed as being out of touch with their target.
In the north, two Kurdish groups have been fighting for autonomy for decades. They led an uprising there after the 1991 Gulf War but have also worked hand in hand with Baghdad when it suited them. Protected now by a US-led "no-fly zone," the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) agreed to a peace in September in Washington after years of internecine fighting.
Jalal Talabani, the PUK leader, is cautious about US plans: "Because of its cooperation with foreign forces, this opposition [in exile] cannot win the approval of the Iraqi people," he told an Arab television station while visiting Tehran, Iran. Last week in Damascus he said only forces inside Iraq could change the government and that "we will not take part in foreign plots."
Evolving operation since 1991
As early as May 1991, President Bush signed a "presidential finding" authorizing the CIA to begin covert operations to undermine Saddam Hussein. By 1995 and 1996, that operation - reauthorized by Clinton - had turned into a training and support mission for guerrillas in northern Iraq.
It aimed to serve as a catalyst for the mutiny of Iraqi Army units and was run by an "umbrella" group called the Iraqi National Congress (INC). The INC was funded by the CIA, under the leadership of Ahmed Chalabi. But the American spies and their agents in northern Iraq were overrun in 1996 by a surprise advance of Iraqi troops. Hundreds of rebels were killed.
Despite this failure - and other broken or ignored US promises to Iraqi opponents in the past - Mr. Chalabi remains a vigorous lobbyist for funding in Congress. Though he will almost certainly receive some of the money - despite accusations that he embezzled $20 million from his failed bank in Jordan - Western diplomats here call him a "one-man band" and say of all opposition groups: "Nobody takes them seriously."
The CIA had also recruited exiles in London - the Iraqi National Accord (INA) - who said they still had links to the Iraqi leadership, but their 1996 coup plot was foiled too. Hundreds of senior officers were rounded up, and some executed.
Any solution today, says Dirgham Kadhim, an INA leader in Amman, Jordan, "should be convincing internationally, and be accepted by the Iraqi people - this is our job."
INA carries out both overt and covert roles, he says. It runs a radio station that beams antiregime propaganda into Iraq; keeps "lines" open to anti-Saddam Iraqis inside; and serves as a low-profile exit channel for top-level defectors.
"If you wave to Iraqi soldiers on the front line and promise them something, they will join you," Mr. Kadhim says. "But if you have no plan, they will become a burden to you. That's why we need support [with a plan]."