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US Faulted Over Its Efforts to Unite Iraqi Dissidents


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U.S. Faulted Over Its Efforts to Unite Iraqi Dissidents


While endorsing "regime change" and democracy in Iraq, the Bush administration is stumbling in its efforts to forge a cohesive opposition to Saddam Hussein. According to Iraqi opposition leaders and experts on Iraq, its approach remains plagued by differences over who should lead the dissidents and who would rule the country most effectively if Mr. Hussein were overthrown.

In August, the administration sponsored a meeting of the six main Iraqi opposition groups, trying to help them establish a united front. Yet, according to the opposition groups and analysts on Iraq, this effort has been undercut by clashes between the Pentagon, on one side, and the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency on the other, over the role of the Iraqi National Congress. That group has served for many years as the umbrella group for the Iraqi opposition.

The tensions, critics of American policy say, have seriously complicated Washington's effort to prove that there is a popular, democratic alternative to Mr. Hussein's dictatorship.

"The treatment of Iraqi opposition figures and the lack of a coherent policy towards them is an utter disgrace," said Danielle Pletka, a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, who until last spring was responsible for Middle East policy on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The Bush administration still has no idea what it wants to do with the Iraqi opposition."

Senior administration officials involved in political and military planning on Iraq dismiss the criticism. "I don't think it is correct," said Douglas J. Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy.

In June, Mr. Feith helped fashion what other officials called a "truce" between the Pentagon, which favored a leadership role for the Iraqi National Congress, and the State Department, which with the C.I.A. had been promoting other opposition groups. The agencies agreed to meet jointly with all members of the opposition and to share information about what was discussed.

This led to the August meeting of the major dissident groups, with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and, by video hookup, Vice President Dick Cheney. The dissidents vowed to work jointly to establish a democratic government in Iraq, and the Americans pledged to help convene a conference to discuss the future of Iraq if Mr. Hussein were deposed.

Since then, officials said, the State Department has encouraged quiet get-togethers of Iraqi dissidents, like the one held in mid-September in Cobham, England. "We are meeting with all groups and treating them as potentially part of the future leadership of a free Iraq," Mr. Feith said.

Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman, went further. "One of our unheralded successes has been getting Iraqi opposition figures who have refused to work together in the past to begin working together," he said.

But interviews with Iraqi opposition figures in Washington, in Ankara, Turkey, and in London, and with experts on Iraq, suggest that the interagency rivalries have only been papered over.

In addition, they say, foes of the Iraqi government remain intensely suspicious and jealous of one another and doubt the depth of America's commitment to them. Several expressed skepticism about America's determination to oust Mr. Hussein, and many scoffed at their rivals' agendas, effectiveness and tactics.

Senior representatives of the Iraqi National Congress — which was formed in 1992 with American help and has received millions of dollars under the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 — complained that the group has had no American financing since June, despite the administration's frequent expressions of support.

Moreover, they say that extensive visa screening has jeopardized plans for military training for thousands of Iraqis exiles, whom Washington asked the national congress to nominate two months ago. They also maintain that the State Department and C.I.A. are still trying to promote other dissidents as rivals to Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the congress, and to cultivate alternatives to the group.

Administration officials said that the State Department was now trying to encourage the opposition to stage another grand conference of major dissidents, perhaps in Belgium later this month. The opposition leaders, who range from Shiite clerics to communist proponents of a secular state, have rarely met as a group since 1992, when they endorsed a democratic, federal Iraq at a gathering in the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq.

Many opposition figures and supporters still regard that 1992 meeting as a high point for the Iraqi opposition. "Never before had so many Iraqis with such a diversity of religious and political opinions gotten together, without killing each other or breaking bones," said Rend Francke, who heads the Washington-based Iraq Foundation, which advocates human rights and democracy for Iraq.

That meeting was convened by Mr. Chalabi, a Shiite Muslim from a wealthy and influential Iraqi family who helped found the Iraqi National Congress in June, 1992, with C.I.A. support. Since then, Mr. Chalabi has struggled mightily to coordinate dissident activity and fend off C.I.A. and State Department efforts to discredit his group. "At times, we feel as if their motto has been "A.B.C. — `Anybody But Chalabi,' " said Frances Brooke, the group's long-serving Washington adviser.

Iraqi dissidents and administration officials complain that both agencies have also tried to cast doubt on information provided by defectors Mr. Chalabi's organization has brought out of Iraq.

Khadhir Hamza, the most senior ranking Iraqi official ever to defect from Mr. Hussein's nuclear program, has complained about American intelligence organizations' apparent lack of interest in hearing what he had to say. Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Khidhir, an Iraqi civil engineer who says he helped renovate secret Iraqi facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in underground wells, private villas and hospitals in Baghdad as recently as a year ago, has said much the same thing.

National congress members said that they have several defectors — two of whom had held senior positions in Mr. Hussein's military establishment — whom American intelligence officials had not yet interviewed. "We simply lack the resources to protect these people indefinitely," a senior official of the national congress said.

"The I.N.C. has been without question the single most important source of intelligence about Saddam Hussein," said Richard N. Perle, an influential adviser to the Pentagon and an admirer of Mr. Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress. "What the agency has learned in recent months has come largely through the I.N.C.'s efforts despite indifference of the C.I.A."

A spokesman for the C.I.A. said the agency would not comment on Mr. Chalabi or its relationship with him, the national congress, or with any other Iraqi dissidents.

The group hopes for financial relief soon thanks to a decision to transfer from the State Department to the Pentagon responsibility for financing a $600,000-a-month program to support intelligence collection inside Iraq. Mr. Brooke said that the Iraqi National Congress was also recently informed that the State Department had finally concluded a 20-month audit of its finances, now giving the group, in effect, "a clean bill of health."

The congress is not alone in its complaints. Fawzi al-Shemari, an Iraqi general and member of the Iraqi Officers Movement in Washington, said that administration officials had not consulted extensively with his group, either. Even Kurdish opposition figures, who deeply distrust the Iraqi National Congress, despite being a part of it, share the the group's reservations about the administration's plans for Iraq after Mr. Hussein.

Other groups remain equally distrustful of both the Kurds and the national congress. In an interview in Ankara, Riyaz Sarikahya, the head of the Turkish-backed Turkoman Party, accused one of the two main Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani of still working with Saddam Hussein. He also called Mr. Chalabi's congress a "four-star hotel association" that "has no future in Iraq."

Some Iraq experts say that divisions within the opposition have been exacerbated by the splits within the Bush administration. Reuel Gerecht, a writer and former C.I.A. analyst, said he was worried that the administration could not decide whether it wanted to promote a "nice Sunni military leader who will assure stability" or to encourage a real, and possibly messy, democracy.

While State Department officials say the administration, and many dissident groups, no longer view the Iraqi National Congress as the umbrella group through which support should be channeled, Pentagon officials and aides to Vice President Cheney insist there is no effective alternative to that group.

Mr. Perle said he was untroubled by such tensions. "There are obviously differences about the role of the I.N.C.," he said. "But I believe that in this end, the I.N.C. will emerge by virtue of its long history of promoting a broadly representative democracy which renounces weapons of mass destruction."

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