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.
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.
And KDP Prime Minister Nechrivan Barzani warns that any new force will create "tension" in the opposition. "Who is this being organized for? We assume it is for Ahmed Chalabi," he says, adding that it would be "impossible" for the INC leader to find 5,000 followers without paying for them.
"We think it is very dangerous, because we view that [force] as the nucleus for a new civil war in the future," Mr. Barzani says.
"There are sufficient armed men in Iraq already - we don't need anymore."
Though Mr. Chalabi "deserves to play a role," Mr. Hariri says, "Iraq is not Afghanistan, and there is no room for warlords - especially imported ones."
Most of Nouri's recruits so far are from northern Iraq, and from Iraq's minority Sunni Arab population, though he says his organization, the Kurdistan Democratic Movement, is able to recruit from across Iraq. Mr. Hussein is from the Sunni Muslim Arab minority, which - unlike the Kurds in the north, and Shia Muslim Arabs in the south - has no armed opposition forces of its own.
For that reason, having such a force play a role in any US invasion may appeal to American war planners.
"It's a reasonable thing to do, because Arabs aren't going to join Kurdish forces, and Kurds won't train outside Iraq," says Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador who has spent years working on northern Iraq issues, now at the National War College in Washington.
"The State Department should be careful about belittling Chalabi - he ought to have a role," says Mr. Galbraith. "Dismissing him as a Savile Row revolutionary is not fair. It's easy to dismiss a bunch of guys who go around Washington with tin cups and pontificating."
Even some of Chalabi's sternest critics say he should receive credit for keeping Iraq opposition issues alive in Congress during the 1990s.
But Chalabi also has a colorful past that is coloring the present. He is wanted in Jordan for allegedly embezzling from a bank that he ran, and played a key role in a CIA operation in northern Iraq in the 1990s that went bust. State Department funding for the INC was cut off for a time this year, amid allegations of fiscal mismanagement.
"Chalabi has no military on the ground, so how can he tell America 'I have 1,000 fighters'? So he comes here to get them," says a senior Kurdish security official. "But these people are collected from the street - they're not fighters."
The Iraqi infighting is taking place as the US is moving its own CIA assets into Iraq. The Washington Post reported last week that "two teams of eight CIA agents each, with interpreters, were recently inserted secretly" into KDP and PUK territory. It said that Vice President Dick Cheney "reportedly exploded" when he found that State and the CIA had blocked funding for a $4 million intelligence gathering operation inside Iraq by dissidents.
Former communist chief Nouri could be recruiting for some similar operation. The clock on his office wall ticks away, inexplicably two hours and ten minutes fast. He speaks about how the force he is helping to build will be the kernel for a new, national army, drawn from all of Iraq's ethnic groups to minimize revenge attacks and street fighting in a post-Saddam world.
But even Nouri is not entirely pleased with the recruiting effort.
"We should send people who are capable, and believe in it, but some of those who were collected - maybe they won't be good for this mission," says Nouri. "The way it has been done, so rushed, means some people were not suitable. Some of those, you look at them, and you can see that they can't be trained."
Nouri denies that he's recruiting directly for Chalabi's INC, saying that he uses "different channels." His first group of recruits was kept at a hotel in KDP territory for several days, at KDP expense, before moving to the town of Zakho and crossing into Turkey. He says he is waiting for a call to send the second batch.
"This is not Chalabi's army," Nouri says. "This army is a power base for America - if they want Ahmed Chalabi to be a powerful man, or someone else, I don't know.
"My goal is to change the regime, and America is doing that," Nouri says. "They are trying to do a good job in Iraq, and we should clasp hands and join with them."