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Clinton Puts Iraq Opposition on Ice

Congress’ $97-million man is having a bad day.

Ahmad Chalabi, the longtime leader of the Iraqi opposition movement, is sitting on a leather couch in his spacious, quiet, well-furnished office in fashionable Kensington. As aides work the phones and computers nearby, Chalabi recites his usual lament: The Clinton administration won’t show the Iraqi exile movement any respect.

“There’s a problem in the Pentagon,” Chalabi mourns. “They think we’re a bunch of ‘brag-heads’ and that we’re going to go in there [to take military action in Iraq] and get into trouble. And then they think we’re going to call them like 911, and they’re going to have to go into Iraq with hundreds of thousands of American troops.”

From London, Saddam Hussein and the turbulent world of Baghdad seem a long way off. Yet Chalabi is neither detached nor idle. On this day, there are still problems to be attended to. Word arrives that some Iraqi exiles have gotten into a fight in a Los Angeles County jail. Chalabi instructs his aides to call the Washington law firm of former CIA Director R. James Woolsey for help.

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Again and again, however, he keeps coming back to the main source of his irritation: America’s unwillingness to support Iraqi exiles in military action against Hussein.

“Nobody in Washington has a plan to deal with Saddam,” he says. “Bombing is not a plan. . . . There is a serious reluctance to support the Iraq Liberation Act.”

That law, passed by Congress last fall, has put Chalabi and the Iraqi exiles at the center of an intense foreign policy debate in Washington. The issue is whether the United States should try to overthrow Hussein by supporting the exiles outside the regime, or whether it should try instead to promote a coup d’etat from within.

Under the Iraq Liberation Act, Congress authorized the spending of $97 million in military aid for Iraqi opposition groups to challenge Hussein.

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Not all of this money was supposed to go to Chalabi’s organization, the Iraqi National Congress. But Chalabi is the best-known opposition leader. The INC was designed as the umbrella organization for the exile groups, and it was instrumental in lobbying for the legislation.

Although the administration had been unenthusiastic, President Clinton signed the bill. But that doesn’t mean Congress got its way. What followed shows the limits of Congress’ ability to dictate American foreign policy to a recalcitrant executive branch.

The administration, concluding that the Iraqi opposition groups are not yet ready or worthy, has yet to hand out any of the $97 million.

That is merely one of many recent demonstrations of the administration’s unwillingness to back the Iraqi exiles. Six weeks ago, Gen. Anthony Zinni, the commander of American forces in the Persian Gulf, delivered scathing testimony to Congress about the Iraqi opposition groups. “They have little, if any, viability,” Zinni said.

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That view had been displayed a few weeks earlier in a scholarly article in Foreign Affairs magazine called “The Rollback Fantasy.” In it, three American defense experts suggested that if the United States supported military action by the Iraqi opposition, it might be headed for a debacle comparable to the Bay of Pigs in Cuba 38 years ago. It would be, they said, “a terrible disaster that could easily lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths.”

Others in Washington dispute such claims and think the Iraqi exiles deserve American backing. The exiles have an influential champion in Paul Wolfowitz, a former Bush administration official often mentioned as a possible future Republican secretary of State or Defense. He argues that the Bay of Pigs comparison doesn’t work because the Iraqis already have shown a greater willingness to rise up against their leader than the Cubans ever did.

Nevertheless, in the clearest indication yet of where the administration stands, National Security Advisor Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger has hired one of the authors of “The Rollback Fantasy,” Kenneth Pollack of the National Defense University, to help coordinate U.S. policy on Iraq.

The message to the Iraqi exiles, in short, is not to look for support from the White House any time soon. The administration has discovered they have imperfections, both as a movement and, in the case of Chalabi, personally.

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Instead, the administration seems to be harboring what may be a delusion of its own. Let’s call this the “Benign General Fantasy.” The dream is that somewhere in Iraq, there’s a virtuous military leader who’s been working for Hussein for many years, who will be able to seize power and turn the regime in a direction more to America’s liking.

Chalabi doesn’t believe the coup strategy will succeed. “They’ve made several attempts to organize coups, and every one has been penetrated by Saddam Hussein,” he says.

He sighs. On the walls surrounding his office are scores of good, weighty books with such titles as “The Great Game” and “The Nobility of Failure.” The way American policy is heading, Chalabi will have lots of free time for reading.

Jim Mann’s column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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