Angered and frustrated by the failure of a U.S.-orchestrated policy to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, King Hussein of Jordan has launched his own initiative to form an opposition coalition capable of challenging the Baghdad regime, according to Iraqi sources and Western diplomats.
They say the king's three-point plan calls first for a meeting of major opposition leaders and intellectuals in either Amman, Jordan, or London in early 1996. The second and third points center on reconciling disparate politicians and ethnic groups and committing to a pluralist Iraq, possibly under a federal structure.
The Jordanian leader's behind-the-scenes efforts reflect the growing consensus in the West and the Middle East that the two centerpieces of Western policy have failed:
First, the CIA-funded Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group operating in northern Kurdistan, has become fragmented and virtually useless. It still exists only because it is "on life support," a key U.S. official conceded. "These guys are a feckless bunch who couldn't hold up a 7-Eleven. They'd fight over how to do it and then what to do once they got it."
The Iraqi National Congress has been good for propaganda and for waging psychological warfare against Baghdad, another U.S. official added, but it was never expected to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Second, almost five years after Iraq was forced out of Kuwait, U.N. sanctions have dealt a severe blow to the Iraqi people but have failed to weaken the Iraqi president's control.
King Hussein's goal is to come up with a broader-based opposition that is not tainted--or, as widely perceived in the Middle East, manipulated--by the Central Intelligence Agency. To give it greater legitimacy in the Arab world, it would be based in Amman, Iraqi sources said.
Ideally, the new opposition coalition eventually would establish a framework for a post-Saddam Hussein government. It might also set up a government-in-exile or a "skeletal administration" in Amman, according to Iraqi dissidents based in London who said they have talked to the king.
U.S. officials are skeptical about the initiative's impact. "We never felt the answer to Saddam Hussein was in organizing the exiles. From 1991, we've known that external opposition was zero plus zero equals zero," said a U.S. official.
King Hussein's new initiative is attributable to political, economic and personal factors. "The king is deeply disturbed by what is happening to the people of Iraq," said a senior U.S. official.
More than half a million Iraqi children may have died from illness because of U.N. sanctions since the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991, according to a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization survey conducted by a Harvard University researcher. Iraq's population is about 17 million.
The study, published last week, also found steeply rising malnutrition among the young. Cases of emaciation or "wasting" have quadrupled since the 1991 war.
Sanctions have been maintained because Iraq has not fully complied with U.N. resolutions calling for the dismantling of weapons of mass destruction. A provision allows Iraq to sell some oil to pay for humanitarian needs--a right Baghdad has refused.
King Hussein also fears the impact of a prolonged stalemate on his country. Iraq and Jordan have long had intertwined economies, and they share a long border.
"The king also has a special attachment to Iraq," said an Iraqi dissident involved in talks with Jordan. Until the 1958 overthrow of King Faisal II, which converted Iraq from a monarchy to a republic, Iraq and Jordan were both led by the Hashemite family. King Faisal and King Hussein were cousins.
Several Iraqi dissidents are enthusiastic about the new effort. "This has a better chance than anything else we've seen," said a leading Iraqi opponent in exile. "
Others have not signed on because of fears that the country could be divided effectively between the Kurdish north and a south dominated by Shiite Muslims. Another sect, Sunni Muslims, would probably control the central part of the country around Baghdad, even though Shiites dominate the capital, Iraqi sources said.
Other reservations include concern about solutions fostered or designed by non-Iraqis and suspicions that Jordan may be interested in restoring Hashemite control over its neighbor--a concern shared by other regional players.
Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam has charged that Jordan appears to be interested in being a partner in the proposed new federation, thus creating a pro-Western and Israeli-influenced bloc.