Iraqi Shiite Muslim leaders say they are building support to launch a new popular uprising against President Saddam Hussein, hoping a united opposition front will lure weapons and supplies from the United States, Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Gathering for a crucial meeting in Tehran this week to heal rifts within the Iraqi opposition, Shiite leaders say they have received encouragement from U.S. officials and others that a new uprising in Iraq might receive outside backing if the opposition can show credible agreement about the future government of a united Iraq after the downfall of Hussein's Baathist regime.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, an uprising by the Shiites of southern Iraq was crushed, like a similar uprising in the north by the Kurds, when Western leaders failed to aid the rebels. Now the Shiites say they believe the United States is ready to re-evaluate its fears that a popular uprising among the Shiites would spawn a revolutionary Islamic government in Iraq much like that here in neighboring Iran.
The Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Mudarressi, head of the Tehran-based Islamic Action Organization, said in an interview Monday that opposition leaders now believe "most definitely" that the United States is ready to endorse weapons and logistics support to Shiite rebels under certain conditions, the most important of which is an agreement on Iraq's future with Sunni Muslim, secular and Kurdish opposition groups.
"They have said that to members of the Vienna conference," Mudarressi said, referring to U.S. officials' contacts with some who attended a conference of a number of Iraqi opposition figures last May in Austria. "They have not specified what kind of help, but I think it's obvious."
In Washington, however, a Bush Administration official said that although the Administration would welcome the overthrow of Hussein's government, Washington is not prepared to provide more than rhetorical support to the Iraqi opposition.
"If that (overthrow of Hussein) happened, we wouldn't object, but we're not going to hand them the guns to do it," the official said.
Another Iraqi opposition leader said that as a prelude to a renewed popular uprising, Shiite leaders are asking the Western allies to expand the current ban on Iraqi aircraft in southern Iraq to include Iraqi artillery and tank operations against southern villages.
"The Iraqi opposition is organizing itself in a good way, and this is going on now," said the Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim, head of an umbrella group of Iraqi Shiites. "We can say we will be able to form an army of liberation with the expectation, of course, that the Iraqi army will cooperate with our liberation army. With this cooperation, it would be very easy to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein without any chaos or terrorism in Iraq."
Hakim said the United States has made no specific promises. But Mudarressi said recent meetings have led the Shiites to believe that the allies have begun to change their views for two main reasons.
"The first is that . . . international public opinion has started to sympathize with people in the south," he said. "Second, (the allies) have failed to make the change (in the Iraqi government) through a military coup. They thought that continuing the embargo and stirring up the army would lead to the downfall of Saddam Hussein, and it has not."
Hakim's Tehran-based Supreme Assembly for Islamic Revolution in Iraq has trained 3,000 to 5,000 troops in Iran, most of them former prisoners of war from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Although the initial purpose of these troops was to fight against Iraq during that war and while there are no plans for deploying them in Iraq now, opposition and diplomatic sources said the troops could be mobilized during any renewed uprising in southern Iraq.
Arab diplomatic sources said Iraqi opposition leaders have approached Saudi Arabia about releasing additional Iraqi prisoners of war from the Gulf War to join the Iran-based forces. The Saudis have turned over 1,000 of the estimated 20,000 Iraqis they hold.
A meeting that had been scheduled in July between senior Saudi, Iranian and Syrian intelligence and diplomatic officials in Damascus was canceled as a result of Saudi fears that the Shiite opposition might not be controllable, the source said.
There were additional concerns that the Shiite groups were refusing to clearly endorse the United Nations' newly demarcated border between Iraq and Kuwait, he said.
Islamic militancy within the Shiite opposition has been a cause of concern among the Western and Arab allies of the Persian Gulf and within Iraq's secular opposition. Many fear that a successful Shiite uprising would lead to the installation of an Islamic government in Iraq answerable to Tehran.
While Iran has apparently provided some limited support to the Shiites in Iraq, diplomats and Iraqi opposition leaders here say that support has been drastically reduced in the months after the Gulf War, partly because of warnings from the West and partly because of Iran's own concerns about the possible breakup of Iraq into different ethnic and religious factions.
Shiite leaders respond that they are also opposed to breaking up Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish republics.
"We also fear this," Mudarressi said, "because this will create a blood bath in the region. . . . The Sunnis have the majority of the weapons, the Shias have the majority of the people, the soldiers."
But the Shiites admit privately they can afford to take the long view. Any democratic elections in Iraq after the downfall of Hussein, they believe, are bound to be dominated by the Shiite majority. Nor are they ruling out an Islamic government in Iraq that the West so fears.
"I think at this given moment, the Iraqi people want freedom and democracy. After this phase, there is a possibility . . . they might convince the other people to have a sort of an Islamic republic, or another movement similar to that," Mudarressi said.
But Hakim said the West's fears of an Iran-dominated Shiite state "are baseless."
"Of course, no doubt, the Iraqi people is a Muslim people and has an ambition to establish an Islamic government," he added. "The problem is, the Americans and the West don't know the base and the characteristics of an Islamic government."