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Chief Rival Exemplifies Risks of Taking On Hussein

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He is the U.S. antidote to Saddam Hussein, or at least the man Congress seems to think stands the best chance of unseating the Iraqi leader. But even a cursory glance beyond the manicured nails and upbeat rhetoric of dissident Ahmad Chalabi provokes more questions than answers.

Can the daring plan he envisions to trigger an anti-Hussein revolt--with the help of 10,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi troops and American air support--actually work? Many U.S. analysts cringe at the idea and predict disaster.

“Stupid,” declared Mideast specialist Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. Another U.S.-based specialist on the region, who declined to be identified because of personal dealings with Chalabi, was harsher yet.

“It’s insanity, the Bay of Pigs all over again,” this source said, referring to the disastrous attempt by a ragtag band of CIA-trained Cuban exiles to invade Cuba in 1961. “They’ll either be slaughtered in the sand and we’ll have blood on our hands or, worse, we’ll have to go in and bail them out. I don’t think congressmen have looked at the details.”

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Then there is the question of the United States’ own resolve, especially in the wake of backpedaling on Iraqi opposition groups by the last two U.S. administrations.

And there is the question of Chalabi’s character and accusations that he embezzled $20 million from his failed Jordanian bank--allegations that he insists are part of a political effort to discredit him.

Nonetheless, Chalabi has charm, the right message for Capitol Hill and a proven ability to unite at least some elements of Iraq’s disparate opposition groups as the leader of the CIA-backed Iraqi National Congress. And he left a number of lawmakers wowed during an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March.

“He’s polished, and he sings the right song,” said Kenneth Pollack, a Mideast specialist at the National Defense University in Washington. “He talks about a six- to nine-month, $100-million campaign and no American lives in danger. This is exactly the kind of thing that’s going to appeal to Congress.”

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Pollack and other analysts believe it is no coincidence that Congress last month approved the Iraq Liberation Act, which earmarks $97 million in assistance for Iraqi opposition groups. Yet senior administration officials--President Clinton’s pledge Sunday to intensify cooperation with opposition groups notwithstanding--privately share many of the doubts about Chalabi expressed by others.

“Chalabi can’t be the Charles de Gaulle he wants to be,” noted one official, who declined to be identified, referring to the leader who ushered in France’s Fifth Republic.

Meanwhile, a look at the other candidates for leading any U.S.-backed challenge to Hussein’s power helps explain why such a strategy remains a long shot, at least for the immediate future.

Two leaders of the Kurdish separatist movement vehemently opposed to Hussein, Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani, have both received CIA support in the past. But they’ve spent as much time scheming against each other as they have collaborating against Hussein.

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“The only military skill [the Iraqi Kurds] have ever demonstrated is the ability to fight each other over smuggling rights,” Cordesman said.

A fourth potential political threat to the Iraqi dictator, Mohammed Bakr Hakim, controls an anti-government insurgency movement in Iraq’s predominantly Shiite south. But he too appears to be a less than ideal candidate in the United States’ view. Hakim has close links with Iran--he lives in Tehran--and dreams of building a fundamentalist Islamic state in Iraq.

In many ways, a survey of Iraq’s main opposition leaders evokes the expression “With friends like this, who needs enemies?” Administration critics, however, say it is not so much inferior opposition forces but catastrophic U.S. policy failures that have lengthened the odds of toppling Hussein.

They note that former President Bush publicly urged the Iraqi people to rise up in revolt against Hussein during the chaotic days after the U.S.-led military victory over Iraq in 1991. Yet when organized Kurdish units in northern Iraq not only answered that call but scored impressive initial gains, the United States suddenly got cold feet. Apparently fearful that an independent Kurdish state could lead to the disintegration of Iraq, the U.S. decided not to get involved.

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“We’ll wait and see how it plays out,” Bush said at the time. What played out was large-scale killings of Kurdish rebels by Hussein’s forces, which were allowed to operate despite the presence in the region of vastly superior U.S. air power.

In the summer of 1996, the U.S. failed to broker a peace between two rival Kurdish opposition groups--and then, when fighting broke out between them, stood by as more than 30,000 of Hussein’s troops marched on the Kurds’ designated northern capital, Irbil. Clinton eventually ordered cruise missile attacks on Iraqi air-defense systems in southern Iraq, hundreds of miles from the fighting, in a move that critics suggested was aimed more at American public opinion than at Hussein’s troops.

While U.S. military forces helped evacuate about 7,000 rebels and their dependents from the region, the incident further damaged American credibility among Iraqi opposition groups.

Former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz praised the bravery and perseverance of those Iraqis opposed to Hussein despite a lack of consistent or meaningful support from the U.S.

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“It’s amazing what they’ve done in the absence of American help,” he said. “This administration hasn’t given them a single rifle, a single antitank gun. I get tired of people talking about a feckless opposition when it’s our policy that’s been feckless.”

But even if that support was forthcoming, some Mideast specialists, both inside and outside the administration, cite formidable barriers. Among them:

* The chaotic and quarrelsome political landscape outside Baghdad, shaped mainly by Iraq’s social patchwork of ethnic, religious, linguistic and clan divisions, makes lasting unity virtually impossible.

* Hussein’s pervasive intelligence and security units have become skilled at infiltrating and undermining opposition groups, playing on their inherent suspicions or simply crushing them.

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* Typically, insurgencies require years to mature and gather the strength required to challenge a powerful central authority. And as was proved in Vietnam and Afghanistan, armed resistance groups benefit enormously from rough terrain and a sheltered supply network, neither of which exists in Iraq.

Another small, yet telling, sign: The State Department position responsible for maintaining contacts with Iraqi opposition groups remains vacant despite considerable efforts to fill it. Department insiders say some qualified candidates have rejected the job as pointless, while others have doubted the administration’s commitment.

Times staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.

* INSPECTIONS RESUME: U.N. weapons inspectors return to “a normal day’s work” in the Iraqi capital. A20

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