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.
"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]."
Afghanistan is also a sore point: "Iran had a bad experience at the end of the Afghan war," says Dodge. "They helped, but at the end, the US tried to foist a US-client state on Iran. They are not going to let that happen in Iraq."
On the surface, the aims of SCIRI, Iran, and the US appear to coincide in Iraq. Few dislike Baghdad's rulers more than the Iranians. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s was started by Saddam Hussein in the early days of Iran's Islamic Revolution.
Few who lived in Tehran at the time forget the rocketing of the capital. Few on the front lines forget how Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian troops - the spur for Iran's own missile and chemical weapons production.
Still, Iran and SCIRI - which is overseen by Iranian security forces - are trying to gauge the impact of America's saber-rattling against Iraq, and weigh up their own interests. The bottom line: what is the endgame?
"They all wish to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but who will replace him?" says an Iranian analyst who asked not to be named. "The US wants a pro-US government there, but Iran wants a pro-Iran Islamic state and to have influence there."
Ayatollah al-Hakkim insists that SCIRI wants to create a democratic regime in Iraq that includes all its ethnic and religious groups. More than 60 percent of Iraqis share the Shia branch of Islam, along with Iran.
But that mix has caused anxiety in the past. Swift calculations by the US and Saudi Arabia at the end of the Gulf War in 1991 - when Kurdish peshmerga fighters captured all of northern Iraq and marched toward Baghdad, and Shia rebels swept up from the south - first raised hopes, and then dashed them.
President George Bush Sr. promised Iraqis that the US would support their uprising, but then appeared to change his mind when it was clear that chaos - and possibly a Shia-run state allied to Iran - could result. In a history-altering decision, US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf permitted Iraqi helicopters to fly - ostensibly to collect Iraqi war wounded - and Baghdad brutally crushed the revolt. In another failed US mission, a CIA operation aimed at trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 1996 helped split Kurdish ranks, before it was mopped up by Iraqi troops.
Today the administration calls that legacy "unfinished business." Ayatollah al-Hakkim calls it a reason not to trust the Americans again: "The US in 1991 encouraged the regime to kill the people and stop this uprising," he says.
Complicating the issue further are Iran's views of US imperialism in its back yard. Since the Gulf War, Tehran has complained bitterly about the 20,000 or so US troops and sailors deployed in the Gulf region. The US Navy's Fifth fleet is based in Bahrain. With US forces in Afghanistan, too - and possibly one day in Iraq - they feel squeezed.
"Many Iranian journalists are writing that one of the main reasons the US went to Afghanistan is to check Iran's eastern border," says the Iranian analyst. "They are being sandwiched."
And there is another reason for caution. "Nobody sees Iran participating in a coalition against Iraq," says a Western diplomat in Tehran. "Saddam Hussein is watched by the whole world, so that threat is low. They want Saddam gone, but they fear a disintegration of Iraq out of their control."
That is SCIRI's fear, also. Ayatollah al-Hakkim, with a flourish of his hands, says his forces "will use any new chance that comes to hand" to move against Baghdad, though "nobody can speak of the secrets of the [US] administration."
He has his own hunch, too, which he delivers with the broadest of smiles: "They say they made mistakes in 1991," al-Hakkim says, laughing out loud. "George W. Bush is trying to correct the mistakes of his father."