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U.S. to Back Iraqi Group Seeking to Oust Hussein : Mideast: Administration shifts policy amid reports of foiled Baghdad plot to kill Bush on his Kuwait visit.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Against the background of a thwarted Iraqi assassination attempt against former President George Bush, the Clinton Administration is readying a new political and diplomatic offensive to support a broad-based Iraqi opposition group in its efforts to overthrow President Saddam Hussein.

President Clinton pledged American support for the Iraqi National Congress this week, officially giving up on Bush’s hope that leaders of the Iraqi army and the Arab Baath Socialist Party would eventually topple Hussein to end Western economic sanctions.

The new Administration policy emerged as more details reached Washington of an Iraqi attempt to kill Bush during his triumphant visit to Kuwait on April 14-16. According to Kuwaiti reports, confirmed by U.S. officials and Iraqi opposition leaders, Kuwaiti security forces arrested 17 people in an Iraqi plot to destabilize Kuwait. Among those arrested was a man who intended to detonate a car bomb near Bush during a celebration of the allied victory in the Persian Gulf War.

Kuwaiti officials said that the man, an Iraqi, has confessed to plotting the attack, which was to have been carried out in an auto with Kuwaiti license plates that was stolen and taken to Iraq during the occupation.

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The members of what Kuwait called an “Iraqi sabotage net” drove from Iraq into Kuwait in several cars laden with at least 550 pounds of explosives, the Interior Ministry said. But Sheik Ali al Salim al Sabah, defense minister and member of the Kuwaiti ruling family, said that all of them, including the would-be assassin, were caught before they could get anywhere near the former President.

Although the plot was widely reported in the Kuwaiti press, it has received little attention in the United States. State Department officials confirmed the substance of the Kuwaiti reports, though no effort was made by the Administration to call attention to them.

Vice President Al Gore, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and White House National Security Adviser Anthony Lake underlined the revised U.S. strategy in a series of meetings with the top leadership of the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization of Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and secular Arabs that already controls much of the northern part of the country.

“There is no doubt that this Administration is more positive in its attitude,” said Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the congress, to which the Bush White House had given a cold shoulder. “The reaction in Washington far exceeded our expectation.”

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Clinton once hinted at plans to “depersonalize” the U.S.-Iraqi controversy, suggesting just before his inauguration that Washington could work with Hussein if the Iraqi dictator changed his behavior. But U.S. officials said that the latest policy is intended to dramatize Clinton’s determination to remove Hussein from power, no matter how long it takes.

In addition to throwing its support behind the Iraqi National Congress, the Administration called on the United Nations to bring Hussein and his top aides to trial for war crimes and human rights abuses. Bush avoided both steps, apparently because he feared they would interfere with the hoped-for coup against Hussein.

“We do not wish the United States to actually topple the regime on our behalf,” Gen. Hassan Nakib, one of the congress’ three top leaders, said in an interview. “This problem belongs to us exclusively. But the free world should assist us in every possible way to save the Iraqi people from the genocide that is being carried out by Saddam and his gang.”

Nakib, vice chief of staff of the Iraqi army in the days before Hussein seized power, declined to say how long he thinks it will take to oust Hussein. But he said the regime is “speeding toward self-destruction.”

Kadhim conceded that the congress is too weak at present to threaten the entrenched dictatorship. But he said that, with U.S. backing, the group hopes to gain the support of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Turkey, neighboring countries that would play a crucial role in any attempt to depose Hussein.

At the same time, Kadhim said, the only way to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity--a goal supported by the United States and most other countries--is to replace Hussein’s dictatorship with a democratically oriented government.

Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the elected leaders of a Kurdish “administration” that is the effective government in northern Iraq, are top officials of the congress. They have promised to keep their region in a united Iraq if the congress takes power, but they have vowed to resist any attempt to reassert Baghdad’s authority over the area as long as the Iraqi government is a dictatorship.

“Kurdistan is an important part of Iraq, but it will never again be subjected to a dictatorial regime in Baghdad,” Kadhim said. “Our objective is to establish a regime that will allow the Kurdish people to decide on their future within a united Iraq.”

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