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U.S. Finds Concern Over ‘Iraq, the Sequel’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As President Bush struggles to gain international backing for a U.S. campaign against Saddam Hussein, his own government faces a growing list of challenges and delays in crafting a plan to oust the Iraqi president, according to U.S. and European officials.

A key problem revolves around the issue essential to winning even tentative support from European and Arab allies: What happens after Hussein is gone?

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 03, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 03, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 10 inches; 361 words Type of Material: Correction
Radio Liberty--A story in Section A on June 4 incorrectly reported that Radio Liberty, which broadcasts programs into Iraq as part of efforts to build opposition to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, had suspended operations. The station remains on the air.
*

Bush’s call in a weekend speech at West Point for “preemptive action” against terrorist threats seemed to underscore his administration’s determination to drive the Iraqi leader from power. But as was driven home to Bush during his recent European trip, most major allies either oppose a military operation or worry about its impact. And they are even more alarmed about the political, economic and security dangers that could loom once Hussein and his inner circle are removed and others try to govern the historically unstable nation.

“The aftermath of a regime change in Iraq could make the problems of Afghanistan after the Taliban look simple by comparison,” a ranking European official said. “Getting rid of Saddam is almost easy compared with the very long-term process of re-creating Iraq. At least 90% of the issues that worry us have to do with Iraq, the sequel.”

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U.S. Is Trying to

Strengthen Opposition

To address these concerns, the State Department has been trying to broaden and strengthen the Iraqi opposition. The chief goal is to bring together Iraqi opposition leaders, military defectors, economists and professionals--first in working groups, then at an international conference--to develop a political strategy to complement any military or intelligence plan to change the regime.

This effort would signal to allies and Iraqis that the country wouldn’t face a leadership vacuum, U.S. officials say.

“We’ve got to start winning Iraqis and people in the region over and make them believe there is a future and it will not be all chaos and war,” said a senior State Department official, who asked to remain anonymous.

But this initiative, like so many U.S. efforts on Iraq during the last decade by Republican and Democratic administrations, has become bogged down.

The Bush administration had hoped to hold the conference last month. But even mobilizing working groups--on issues ranging from avoiding a humanitarian crisis in the wake of Hussein’s ouster to operating the Iraqi oil industry--is still weeks away.

Controversy Over Main

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Anti-Hussein Group

The complications are reflected in the latest controversy over the Iraqi National Congress, once the umbrella group for several anti-Hussein movements. The INC is in jeopardy of losing some or all of its U.S. aid because of financial mismanagement, despite the group’s pledge to correct past practices and provide a full accounting for millions of dollars, U.S. officials say.

The INC is “basically writing checks to people in an attempt to build its ranks and pay off people to get attendance at meetings,” said a well-placed U.S. official, who asked to remain anonymous. “Its entire way of doing business is in conflict with U.S. law.”

Financial mismanagement has jeopardized the INC-run Radio Liberty, which broadcasts programs into Iraq. American officials believe that Radio Liberty has significant propaganda potential, but it suspended broadcasting in May when U.S. funding was held up because of the accounting problems.

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The State Department has submitted a request to Congress for an additional $8 million to fund Radio Liberty, an INC newspaper and the group’s offices, but the money may be blocked if a probe by the congressional inspector general’s office launched last month finds that the INC can’t fully account for the millions in aid.

Long wary of the INC, the State Department has been quietly working for months to develop alternative leadership that won’t exclude either the group or its leader, Ahmad Chalabi. But the diplomacy is facing staunch resistance from Pentagon and congressional hawks who remain loyal to Chalabi, a charismatic mathematician once indicted in Jordan on bank fraud charges who is now based in London.

Political, Religious

Differences in Iraq

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A second challenge is divisions among Iraqis themselves. The seven major groups now talking with the United States are a microcosm of the political, religious and ethnic differences that have long divided Iraq--and that underscore potential problems in devising a post-Hussein regime. No individual or group is emerging, as the Bush administration had hoped, as a rallying point.

“We’ve been sorely disappointed in the lack of real leadership in the INC and the glaring inability generally of any Iraqi opposition leader to gather around him a critical mass of the opposition,” said an administration official who requested anonymity.

“Individually, each has pros and cons, but none of them stands out above the crowd,” the official added. “We once looked to Chalabi for that, but he’s repeatedly failed to produce.”

The most popular and powerful military defector, Gen. Nizar Khazraji, is a former Iraqi army chief of staff fired by Hussein and subsequently implicated in a coup attempt. He could be useful during a U.S. military operation, as well as in a reorganization of Iraq’s military in a new regime.

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Arab newspapers have dubbed him “Iraq’s Karzai,” a reference to Afghanistan’s post-Taliban leader, Hamid Karzai.

As a Sunni Muslim, Khazraji would reassure the Sunni-led governments neighboring Iraq--Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan and Turkey. Iraq has traditionally been Sunni-ruled, although the largest segment of its population is Shiite Muslim and at least 20% of its 23 million people are Kurdish.

Khazraji, who lives in Denmark, has talked with several Iraqi opposition groups but belongs to none. His prospects as a leader are clouded by allegations that units under his command killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds and ordered the destruction of dozens of Kurdish villages in the late 1980s. Denmark’s parliament is pressing to try him on war crimes charges, U.S. officials say.

Until the issue is resolved, the State Department has been wary about reaching out to Khazraji. But a former senior CIA official has met with him, reportedly on behalf of the intelligence community, according to U.S. officials.

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In the absence of a single obvious person or group to lead the Iraqi opposition, the State Department is trying to create a movement with strength through numbers, diverse constituencies and a range of skills needed to govern Iraq in a more democratic form.

The most hopeful development is the recent emergence of the so-called Group of Four--key factions engaged in informal dialogue. All four have assets inside Iraq and together represent a cross-section of its society. The group includes two Kurdish movements that administer much of the north of the country and have the only organized anti-Hussein militias.

Sporadic tensions between the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led to infighting that allowed Hussein’s troops to invade the north in 1996--and forced the CIA and the INC to lose an operational base they had established inside Iraq. U.S. officials claim that the two parties now recognize that their rivalry is counterproductive.

The United States is paying particular attention to a third member of the group, the Iraqi National Accord, led by London-based Ayad Alawi. He advocates tapping into Iraq’s disenchanted tribal groups and disaffected government officials.

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“Our philosophy is to disengage the civil service and the military from Saddam and turn them against him,” Alawi said. “The tribes are also important, both to undermine him and to keep Iraq together after he is gone.”

He ridiculed the idea of using exiles as a military force. And he called forming a government in exile “counterproductive.”

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq is the Group of Four’s only religious movement. It represents much of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim population and for years was off-limits to U.S. officials because it is based in Iran. But it has contact with U.S. officials through a London office.

Merged Group Hopes

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to Build a Coalition

Smaller opposition groups include the Iraqi National Movement, formed in February by the merger of the Iraqi Officers Movement, led by Gen. Fawzi Shamari, and the Iraqi National Liberals, led by Hatem Mukhlis.

Mukhlis is a New York physician whose father was executed by Hussein in 1993. His family is from the same tribe and hometown as Hussein. The merged group aims to build a coalition--particularly among Sunni Muslim strongholds within Iraq--that “is acceptable to the Iraqi people and will build confidence in a democratic future,” Mukhlis said. But both leaders have been out of Iraq for years; Mukhlis left in 1981, and Shamari defected in 1986.

Another group, the Iraqi Free Officers, is led by Gen. Najib Salhi. He commanded an armored division against the United States during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and now lives outside Washington. He seeks to tap into discontent within the Iraqi military.

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“What I need from the United States is a mechanism to communicate with the military inside Iraq that Washington is serious,” he said. “This is more important than arms or money.”

Times staff researcher Robin Cochran contributed to this report.


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