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CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR (USA)
21st November 2002
US FORMS IRAQI OPPOSITION ARMY
With promises of $3,000 and a trip to America, the US is quietly
recruiting - inside northern Iraq - part of a new 5,000-man force
to help topple Saddam Hussein.
But Iraqi opposition leaders here say that the US is creating a
military force for the controversial Iraqi National Congress (INC),
which has little support in Iraq. It is one of six opposition groups
that Washington is encouraging to come up with a plan for ruling
a post-Hussein Iraq.
Iraq's squabbling opposition groups have already put off until
mid-December a key meeting in Brussels meant to have started
tomorrow. This behind-the-scenes US drive - which may also
include a separate US intelligence effort to recruit agents across
Iraq - is exacerbating the infighting between the Iraqi groups.
"The US should enter into partnership with the real freedom
fighters of Iraq, the people with a real constituency," says
Barham Salih, the prime minister of one of two main armed
Kurdish groups that control northern Iraq, the Patriotic Union of
Kurdistan. "Mercenaries will not do the job."
In early October, President Bush signed a presidential directive
authorizing the combat training, and approved the use of $92
million remaining from the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act to create a
force of local scouts, interpreters, forward spotters to call in
laser-guided bombs, and even
guards for prisoner-of-war camps. Most of those recruited for the
new army so far are being drawn from Iraqi exiles living abroad,
from lists supplied by the INC, but some fresh recruiting is now
taking place here in northern Iraq.
Critics say the new army is designed to provide a power base for
the INC leader, Ahmed Chalabi, who has the ear of Congress,
the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, but has
little support in Iraq and is dismissed by some State Department
and CIA officials as a self-promoting solo act.
Ironically, one of the top recruiters for America's new Iraqi
opposition army is Bahaldeen Nouri, a septuagenarian former
secretary general of the Iraqi Communist Party. In recent weeks,
he's signed up and sent 150 new recruits to Turkey, for transport
to a secret training camp.
"So many people have shown an interest - some people slept
overnight to sign up; people came from Iran," says Kurdish elder
Nouri, his turban cocked gamely to the right. Though he has
reservations about the quality of the recruits, the first batch sent
off to a secret training base was "very, very enthusiastic,
because they hate (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein," and were
promised $3000 and a trip to the US.
Nouri makes clear he was not asked directly by Americans to
take part, and that a "friend with links to the outside" requested
his help with the hush-hush operation.
But Nouri has no doubt about who he is working for: "America is
recruiting them, paying them and training them," he says.
"America should decide what to do with them."
Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq, who control tens of thousands
of lightly armed forces arrayed against the Baghdad regime, say
the US effort to create yet another force is "dangerous" and could
result in a "fiasco."
Informed sources say the initial batch of recruits has been
"infiltrated" by intelligence "assets" of several governments,
"This should be about freedom, not about king-making," says Mr.
Salih, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The forms for applicants to the "Iraq Liberation Army" ask
volunteers about their past military experience, family history of
imprisonments and executions by the Baghdad regime, and
whether they had taken part in war crimes or human rights
"Did you ever speak or give any pronouncement against
America?" reads the final question.
Most of the recruits from northern Iraq so far are from Iraq's
minority Sunni Arab population, the same group that Mr. Hussein
is from, and that - unlike the Kurds in the north, and Shia Muslim
Arabs in the south - have no armed opposition forces of their
While noting that such guides could be useful for US troops
during any invasion, "the Iraqi people will not take kindly to such
groups - no matter how patriotic they may be - if they are seen to
be riding the US train," says Fawzi Hariri, a senior official of the
Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the other main armed group
in northern Iraq.
And KDP Prime Minister Nerchivan Barzani warns that any new
force will create "tension" in the opposition. "Who is this being
organized for? We assume it is for Ahmed Chalabi," he says,
adding that it would be "impossible" for the INC leader to find
5,000 followers without paying for them.
"We think it is very dangerous, because we view that (force) as
the nucleus for a new civil war in the future," Mr. Barzani says.
"There are sufficient armed men in Iraq already - we don't need
Though Mr. Chalabi "deserves to play a role," Mr. Hariri says,
"Iraq is not Afghanistan, and there is no room for warlords -
especially imported ones."
Most of Nouri's recruits so far are from northern Iraq, and from
Iraq's minority Sunni Arab population, though he says his
organization, the Kurdistan Democratic Movement, is able to
recruit from across Iraq. Mr. Hussein is from the Sunni Muslim
Arab minority, which - unlike the Kurds in the north, and Shia
Muslim Arabs in the south - has no armed opposition forces of
For that reason, having such a force play a role in any US
invasion may appeal to American war planners.
"It's a reasonable thing to do, because Arabs aren't going to join
Kurdish forces, and Kurds won't train outside Iraq," says Peter
Galbraith, a former US ambassador who has spent years
working on northern Iraq issues, now at the National War
College in Washington.
"The State Department should be careful about belittling Chalabi
- he ought to have a role," says Mr. Galbraith. "Dismissing him
as a Savile Row revolutionary is not fair. It's easy to dismiss a
bunch of guys who go around Washington with tin cups and
Even some of Chalabi's sternest critics say he should receive
credit for keeping Iraq opposition issues alive in Congress
during the 1990s.
But Chalabi also has a colorful past that is coloring the present.
He is wanted in Jordan for allegedly embezzling from a bank that
he ran, and played a key role in a CIA operation in northern Iraq
in the 1990s that went bust. State Department funding for the
INC was cut off for a time this year, amid allegations of fiscal
"Chalabi has no military on the ground, so how can he tell
America 'I have 1,000 fighters'? So he comes here to get them,"
says a senior Kurdish security official. "But these people are
collected from the street - they're not fighters."
The Iraqi infighting is taking place as the US is moving its own
CIA assets into Iraq. The Washington Post reported last week
that "two teams of eight CIA agents each, with interpreters, were
recently inserted secretly" into KDP and PUK territory. It said that
Vice President Dick Cheney "reportedly exploded" when he
found that State and the CIA had blocked funding for a $4 million
intelligence gathering operation inside Iraq by dissidents.
Former communist chief Nouri could be recruiting for some
similar operation. The clock on his office wall ticks away,
inexplicably two hours and ten minutes fast. He speaks about
how the force he is helping to build will be the kernel for a new,
national army, drawn from all of Iraq's ethnic groups to minimize
revenge attacks and street fighting in a post-Saddam world.
But even Nouri is not entirely pleased with the recruiting effort.
"We should send people who are capable, and believe in it, but
some of those who were collected - maybe they won't be good
for this mission," says Nouri. "The way it has been done, so
rushed, means some people were not suitable. Some of those,
you look at them, and you can see that they can't be trained."
Nouri denies that he's recruiting directly for Chalabi's INC,
saying that he uses "different channels." His first group of
recruits was kept at a hotel in KDP territory for several days, at
KDP expense, before moving to the town of Zakho and crossing
into Turkey. He says he is waiting for a call to send the second
"This is not Chalabi's army," Nouri says. "This army is a power
base for America - if they want Ahmed Chalabi to be a powerful
man, or someone else, I don't know.
"My goal is to change the regime, and America is doing that,"
Nouri says. "They are trying to do a good job in Iraq, and we
should clasp hands and join with them."
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