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The Iraqi oppositionists and US plans for “regime change” in Baghdad
By Peter Symonds
30 September 2002
Below is the first of a two-part article on the Iraqi opposition. The second part will be published on October 1.
The Bush administration argues that a US invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein will constitute an act of liberation, ushering in a new period of peace and democracy for the long-suffering Iraqi people. US officials are currently engaged in a flurry of activity among Iraqi exile circles aimed at fashioning a replacement regime.
But there will be nothing democratic about the installation of a US-backed regime in Baghdad. A new leader will be foisted on the Iraqi people in the same way that Washington plucked long-time CIA asset Hamid Karzai out of obscurity in Pakistan and turned him into the Afghan president. And, like the regime in Kabul, the new administration in Baghdad will be filled with carefully vetted personnel. Perhaps an Iraqi version of the stage-managed loya jirga (grand tribal assembly held in Kabul) will even be convened to give the proceedings a veneer of legitimacy.
The process is well in train. Key hard-line figures in the Bush administration, including Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and US Defence Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, have long championed the arming of Iraqi opposition groups to topple Hussein. Soon after Bush took office, the flow of money to various Iraqi oppositionists began to substantially increase.
The clear favourite has been the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which has been the main focus of US intrigues inside Iraq for more than a decade. It currently operates from offices in London but its chairman Ahmad Chalabi, a shady financier who has been convicted on major fraud charges in Jordan, is well known in Washington and counts people like Perle among his long-time American friends.
Over the last few months, the CIA, State Department and other agencies have been bullying, bribing and cajoling various other Iraqi opposition groups to back the Bush administration’s war plans. Their aim is to establish a unified front that can, superficially at least, provide a coherent and plausible alternative to Hussein. The US also wants intelligence, militia and bases inside Iraq to help plan and facilitate a US invasion.
In April, the CIA met with two Kurdish groups—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—to seek permission to establish bases in two cities in northern Iraq. According to a report in the British-based Guardian, the two groups were wary because the CIA had double-crossed them before. Northern Iraq, which the two Kurdish militias have effectively controlled since 1991, has been a hotbed of US intrigue for over a decade.
In June, the State Department held the first official talks in Washington with the Shiite-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI, which is just one of a number of organisations based among Iraq’s Shiite majority, has connections to Iran where its leader Muhammad Baqir Hakim resides. Initially cautious about openly supporting a US invasion of Iraq, SCIRI now appears to have joined Washington’s anti-Hussein front.
The most significant meeting took place on August 10 at the White House. It brought together the six groups at the core of US plans for a post-Hussein regime for high-level discussions with top Bush administration officials, including Powell, Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney. The gathering, which was jointly organised by the Defence and State Departments as well as the CIA and National Security Council, pledged to work together for a “free Iraq”.
The groups included Chalabi’s INC, the two Kurdish groups and SCIRI, as well as two other exile formations—the Iraqi National Accord (INA) and the Constitutional Monarchy Movement (CMM). The INA is a shadowy group of defectors from Hussein’s Baathist Party, the Iraqi military and security apparatus with close contacts to the CIA, British MI6 and Saudi Intelligence. It has offices in London and the Middle East. The CMM aspires to put the heir apparent, Sharif Ali Bin Al-Hussein, back on the throne as king of Iraq.
Since the White House meeting, preparations have accelerated. A week later, the Sunday Times reported that the US was intending to provide additional funding to Iraqi opposition groups to conduct covert operations inside Iraq for the purpose of gathering intelligence and encouraging high-level defections. The State Department’s “Future of Iraq Project,” which was described by the Guardian in July as a small “underfunded and understaffed” office, has mushroomed into six working groups, which have begun holding meetings in the US and Britain. Last week the US media reported that the Bush administration was preparing to seek congressional approval to provide military training for up to 10,000 members of Iraqi opposition groups.
After the Gulf War
One look at the assortment of military defectors, dubious businessmen, aspiring monarchists, political opportunists and thugs that constitute the Iraqi opposition is enough to make clear the venal nature of the regime that the US proposes to install in Baghdad.
All of them have collaborated and connived with Washington, to one degree or another, since the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War. Some have been directly on Washington’s payroll and involved in the various failed US schemes and plots to oust Hussein. Others, like the Shiite- and Kurdish-based groups, have exploited the opportunities opened after the war to establish a degree of autonomy and to manoeuvre with the US and various regional powers.
Neither Washington nor its Iraqi clients want a popular rebellion or any genuine expression of democracy, either of which would be profoundly destabilising in Iraq and throughout the region. In February 1991, in the midst of the Gulf War, George Bush senior called for a revolt against Hussein, but rapidly backtracked when the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north rose up. The US military stood by while Hussein’s elite Republican Guards slaughtered the insurgents, sending streams of refugees flooding towards the borders.
Washington had no intention of making any concessions to Kurdish demands for independence, or calls by the Shiites, who constitute 60 percent of the population, for a greater say in the country’s political affairs. US ally Turkey, as well as Iran and Syria, were all acutely sensitive to any move that would have strengthened their substantial Kurdish minorities. In the case of the Shiites, the US, along with Saudi Arabia, was opposed to any step that would bolster the position of predominantly Shiite Iran within the region.
The US, with the backing of Britain, exploited the plight of the Kurds and the Shiites to unilaterally impose “safe havens” or “no-fly” zones in the north of the country in April 1991 and in the south in August 1992. The military exclusion zones effectively partitioned the country into three and provided Washington with the pretext needed to keep its warplanes patrolling over Iraq and attacking military targets.
Having stopped short of a full-scale assault on Baghdad in 1991, the Bush administration focused its attention on ousting Hussein through an internal coup or military putsch. Washington was instrumental in establishing the Iraqi National Congress (INC) at a gathering in Vienna in June 1992. The INC was both an umbrella organisation for anti-Hussein groups and a front for clandestine activities inside Iraq.
The INC and its CIA advisers set up a base of operations in Irbul inside the northern “no-fly” zone—the area of Iraq north of latitude 36 degrees, which included some, but not all, of the major Kurdish cities. The two Kurdish groups—the KDP and the PUK—had taken advantage of the military exclusion zone to establish a de-facto Kurdish autonomous region. Elections were even held in 1992 for a Kurdish Regional Government, which resulted in an uneasy power-sharing arrangement between KDP leader Massoud Barzani and his PUK counterpart Jalal Talabani.
Notwithstanding the bitter experiences of Kurdish and Shiite insurgencies the previous year, both Kurdish groups—the KDP and PUK—joined the INC. The Stalinist Iraqi Communist Party, the Islamic fundamentalist Al Daawa party and the forerunner to SCIRI, the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, signed up at a meeting held in northern Iraq in October 1992.
The US is estimated to have spent $100 million financing the activities of Iraqi opposition groups in the early 1990s—much of it purportedly spent on propaganda and public relations. But the CIA’s efforts to foment a revolt in Baghdad failed dismally. Coup attempts were reported in 1992 and 1993, but each ended in arrests, executions and a further strengthening of Hussein’s security apparatus.
Moreover, the shaky alliance of opposition groups that comprised the INC began to rapidly fall apart. The two Kurdish groups came into conflict over the division of profits from the lucrative smuggling operations that had sprung up to circumvent the UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq. Scores of trucks carrying goods from Turkey to Iraq passed through the northern “no-fly” zone every day and returned laden with cheap oil and petroleum products. But the route passed through KDP territory, and Barzani refused to share the huge customs fees with his PUK rivals.
Fighting between the groups broke out in 1993 and continued to escalate. Each manoeuvred and schemed against the other, trying to garner the support of the regional powers—Iran, Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The conflict destabilised the INC and resulted in the departure of other groups, including the Shiite organisations and the Iraqi Communist Party.
At the same time, the CIA began to concentrate more of its activities on INA, which had been established in 1990 with the backing of the British MI6 and Saudi intelligence. The INA, with its focus on establishing clandestine military networks in Baghdad, was more in line with the CIA’s needs than the rather amorphous and increasingly unstable front organisation, the INC.
The most extensive CIA operation appears to have been in March 1995 and included the INC and the INA based in Irbul and other operatives inside areas of Iraq controlled by Hussein. Insofar as details are available, the plan involved both a military offensive in the north and a coup attempt in Baghdad. The CIA conspired with elements of the INA and other contacts to organise the putsch in the capital.
At the same time, Chalabi enlisted the support of the Kurdish militia to retake the Kurdish cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, which lay outside the northern “no-fly” zone, after implying that the US would provide the attackers with air cover. The KDP and PUK were particularly keen to seize control of Kirkuk, because it lies at the centre of Iraq’s rich northern oil and gas fields. Thousands of ill-trained and poorly equipped militia members were dispatched to fight the Iraqi army.
The whole affair—both the coup attempt in Baghdad and the military offensive in the north—failed miserably, leading to bitter and continuing recriminations on all sides. With the support of US and British intelligence, the INA reorganised its operations in 1996 and received permission to use Jordan as a base. Its network was infiltrated by Iraqi intelligence, however, with devastating results. In June 1996, well over 100 military officers linked to the INA were rounded up, at least 30 of whom were summarily executed.
In northern Iraq, matters went from bad to worse for the CIA and its Iraqi proxies. The bloody fighting between the KDP and the PUK reached its climax in August 1996. Barzani, claiming that his rival was being supported by the Iranian military, invited the Iraqi army into the Kurdish areas to retake Irbul from the PUK. The Iraqi security forces not only seized the city, but also took the opportunity to crush the Iraqi oppositionists.
The result was a complete disaster for the CIA, the INC and the INA. According to one estimate, 200 oppositionists were executed by the Iraqi army and as many as 2,000 arrested. Another 650, mainly INC members along with their CIA handlers, managed to escape and were resettled in the US. As an umbrella group, the INC all but disintegrated. And in the space of a year, the INA had lost both its network in Baghdad and its base of operations in northern Iraq.
To be continued
The Iraqi oppositionists and US plans for “regime change” in Baghdad
By Peter Symonds
1 October 2002
Below is the concluding part of a two-part series on the Iraqi opposition. The first part appeared on September 30.
The humiliating debacle suffered by the CIA and Iraqi opposition groups in northern Iraq in 1996 was to have political ramifications in Washington. The Clinton administration was already under fire from the Republican right wing for failing to pursue US interests in the Middle East with sufficient aggression. The collapse of the Iraqi oppositionists was added to the long list of Clinton’s sins and a campaign mounted in Congress that culminated, in 1998, with the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act. Under the legislation, “regime change” in Iraq was enshrined as part of US law—an unprecedented step—and military aid to the tune of $97 million was provided to nominated opposition groups.
Among those who backed the Iraq Liberation Act, and then berated Clinton for failing to fully implement its provisions, were the chief organisers of war against Iraq today—Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle. After the law was passed, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz wrote as private citizens to Clinton, demanding he use the funds for operations inside Iraq. As Wolfowitz declared to Congress in 1998: “The heart of the problem is that the United States is unable or unwilling to pursue a serious policy in Iraq.”
In the course of the 2000 election campaign, Perle, speaking as Bush’s foreign policy adviser, declared: “Governor Bush has said... he would fully implement the Iraq Liberation Act. We all understand what that means. It means a serious and sustained effort to assist the opposition with a view to bringing down Saddam’s regime.” Perle ridiculed the Clinton administration for providing only non-lethal assistance to the Iraqi opposition and denounced its “sustained hypocrisy” for failing to implement the Act.
But Iraq was part of a far broader agenda. The Bush election campaign became the vehicle for those layers of the American ruling elite who were determined to use the US military to establish America’s unchallenged global predominance, in particular in the key strategic and oil rich areas of Central Asia and the Middle East. Once in office, having stolen the 2000 election, the Bush administration rapidly proceeded to press ahead with these foreign policy objectives.
Funds available under the Iraq Liberation Act began to flow to Iraqi oppositionists. The September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were seized upon by Rumsfeld, Perle, Wolfowitz and others as a pretext to accelerate their long-held agenda for regime-change in Iraq—irrespective of whether or not Saddam Hussein was actually involved.
The chief beneficiary of the renewed activity was the Iraqi National Congress (INC). After 1996, it had reestablished itself in London. According to the US State Department, by February 2002, the INC had received over half the $24 million that had been appropriated under the Iraq Liberation Act.
There is no doubt that for Perle, Rumsfeld and Co., Chalabi is the preferred replacement for Hussein. But, even within the Bush administration, opinion is sharply divided. As one staunch defender of Chalabi noted, he has the reputation among CIA and State Department officials of being “a small-time opportunist and trying to use his position in the INC to make something of himself.” Supporting evidence includes his conviction for financial fraud over the collapse of the Petra Bank. Chalabi fled Jordan in 1989 and, despite proclaiming his innocence, failed to return in 1992 to defend charges that he had fleeced the bank of $200 million. The INC’s detractors also point out that the group commands no serious support inside Iraq.
Significantly, however, the obvious deficiencies of Chalabi and the INC do not appear to concern his champions in the Bush administration. In a recent interview on the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s program Four Corners, Perle lavished praise on Chalabi declaring he “very much reflects Western values”. And, when asked on the same program about Chalabi’s conviction in Jordan, one of Perle’s co-thinkers, Danielle Plekta from the American Heritage Foundation, declared: “It’s absolutely immaterial.”
In the eyes of hardliners like Perle, Chalabi’s weaknesses are more than made up for by his loyalty to American interests. He has long advocated a US military invasion of Iraq and backs the Bush administration’s policy in the rest of the Middle East, including support for the Israeli state. On the most crucial question of all—who controls Iraqi oil—Chalabi has already indicated where he stands. He recently told the Washington Post that he favoured the creation of a US-led consortium to develop Iraqi oil fields. “American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil,” he declared.
The military defectors
Those in the CIA and State Department critical of Perle, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz have no fundamental objections to a US military invasion of Iraq. But they regard the idea that the US army can march into Baghdad and install a figure like Chalabi, without serious repercussions in Iraq or the region, as utterly light-minded.
Reflecting these views, Bob Baer, an ex-CIA operative with 20 years experience in the Middle East, scathingly denounced the “neo-conservatives” on the Four Corners program. “What everyone knows in Washington is that there’s no endgame plan. Who’s going to replace Saddam? They don’t have the slightest idea... Do you have to go in and destroy the military, which would create a vacuum in Iraq? No-one’s dealing with that,” he exclaimed.
Critics of Bush’s “regime change” fear that if the Iraqi government is completely destroyed the country will rapidly disintegrate. They point to the experience of Bush’s father, who stopped short of ousting Hussein in 1991 when the Shia and Kurdish revolts threatened to break up the country. Their alternative is to push for a greater role for various military defectors, with the aim of refashioning a defeated Iraqi army as a key instrument of US policy.
There is no shortage of candidates with the credentials for such a job. In addition to the remnants of the Iraqi National Accord, there are various cliques of former Iraqi military officers, all of whom maintain contact with the CIA and/or other intelligence agencies.
The list includes Brigadier General Najib Al-Salhi, leader of the Free Officers Movement, who was Chief of Staff for the First Mechanised Division of the Fifth Corps of the Iraqi Army until he defected seven years ago. He lives near Washington, claims to be able to raise 30,000 fighters and will explain his detailed plan for a three-pronged attack on Baghdad to anyone willing to listen. He is facing a war crimes investigation in Denmark over the use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.
Another group of ex-Iraqi officers known as the Iraqi National Coalition helped organise a gathering of 80 military exiles in London in July. Among other decisions, the meeting grandly decided to establish a military council to prepare for a post-Hussein regime. General Fawzi Al-Shamari, who heads the Iraqi Officers Movement, did not attend the London meeting, because, as he explained to Four Corners he had already established his own military council two years ago. He admits to having used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq war.
The State Department has attempted to seek out another military defector, General Nizar Khazraji, a former Iraqi army chief-of-staff, who was invited last December to a meeting of Iraqi oppositionists at a US thinktank known as the Middle East Institute. He is under investigation in Denmark for his role in the use of mustard and nerve gas against the Kurdish population of Halabja in 1988 that resulted in an estimated 3,000 deaths. Khazraji led the army during the months-long repression of the Kurdish population in 1998, during which an estimated 100,000 people were killed.
The purpose of enlisting the services of figures like Khazraji and Al-Salhi is all too obvious. Their proven military skills can be exploited in crushing opposition, while their military contacts can lay the groundwork for reforging the Iraqi army as the basis for a US-backed regime. As Baer bluntly commented in reference to General Al-Salhi: “He could go back and set up a military government to replace Saddam, which is the most logical thing to do if you’re really interested in holding this country together. What you don’t—can’t introduce into Iraq is democracy. It would be total chaos.”
As for the remaining Iraqi opposition groups, the Bush administration regards them as useful, if expendable, auxiliaries.
Not wanting to be left out of any post-Hussein arrangement, the two Kurdish organisations have both lined up in support of a US invasion. The KDP and PUK ended the brutal fighting of 1993-1996 through a settlement brokered by Washington that divided northern Iraq into separate Kurdish fiefdoms. The former bitter enemies have decided they will have more clout at the negotiating table if they join forces. To that end, Barzani and Talabani met in early September and agreed on a plan for Kurdish autonomy as well as to convene the Kurdish regional assembly.
The KDP and PUK claim to be able to jointly muster at least 40,000 fighters. But the US views the Kurdish militia with mixed feelings. While they may be of assistance to the US military in ousting Hussein, the Kurdish fighters pose a threat to any regime that Washington sets up in Baghdad and are regarded with deep suspicion in Turkey, Iran and Syria. Moreover, the groups have ambitions to extend the area under their influence to Kirkuk, with its extensive oil and natural gas fields—an aim which will conflict with US plans to control Iraqi oil from Baghdad.
Washington has even less reason to cooperate with the Shiite-based SCIRI, estimated to command between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters, except for immediate tactical reasons. Asked on Four Corners whether the US could “stomach a leader that came from a possibly Teheran-leaning Shia,” the American Heritage Foundation’s Danielle Pletka summed up the general attitude in Washington to the various Shiite organisations. “Do we want the Iranians to have a controlling interest?” she replied. “No. No question. We don’t want the Iranians to have a controlling interest. To the contrary, we want Iraq to be the exemplar for Iran, and then get rid of those guys.”
The least significant of the Iraqi opposition groups is the Constitutional Monarchy Movement which is closely identified with the INC. Iraq’s would-be king Sharif Ali Bin Hussein may have taken heart when Zahir Shah, Afghanistan’s octogenarian former monarch, was hauled out of his Italian villa to preside over that country’s loya jirga in June. But Sharif Ali Bin Hussein has even less claim to any legitimacy than his Afghan counterpart.
The Iraqi monarchy is a concoction of British imperialism, cooked up in 1920 as the preferred method of rule for its newly-acquired League of Nations mandate territory. The Hashemite Amir Faisal was offered the job as Faisal I. When he died in 1933, his playboy son King Ghazi took over, but died in a car accident in 1939. The third king Faisal II, then only three, mounted the throne in 1953, but was executed in the military revolt of 1958. On the basis of this short and inglorious history, Sharif Ali Bin Hussein, who was two-years-old when his uncle was killed, offers himself as a “uniting influence” for Iraq.
The World Socialist Web Site holds no brief for Saddam Hussein. But, like the regime they propose to replace, none of the Iraqi opposition groups seeking US patronage represents in any way the interests and aspirations of the Iraqi masses. Their thoroughly mercenary character is the surest indication of the type of “regime-change” being hatched by the Bush administration. Like Karzai in Kabul, any new incumbent in Baghdad will be nothing but a neo-colonial puppet, totally dependent on US military, financial and political support for survival.
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