Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

U.S.-Supported Iraqi Opposition

Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

U.S.-Supported Iraqi Opposition

Article excerpt

On February 6, 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the U.S. would resume funding opposition efforts inside Iraq for the first time since the Iraqi army overran the rebels' main base in 1996. The next day, Sharif Ali Bin Al-Hussein, spokesman for the umbrella opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC) proclaimed: "It's a different ball game now. It's tangible how big the change is." Ten days later, as U.S. fighter jets bombarded Baghdad suburbs, INC leaders met with U.S. State Department officials to discuss funding details. But despite the public show of strength and unity, Bush administration officials were quietly describing the INC as "the gang that couldn't shoot straight"--so hapless, corrupt, and unpopular both within Iraq and with neighboring states that the State Department was out searching for other Iraqi dissidents to support.

Over the past several decades, U.S. support for the Iraqi opposition has blown hot and cold. Four months before the 1990 Gulf War, two Republican senators visited Baghdad and reassured Saddam Hussein that Voice of America broadcasts criticizing the regime's human rights record did not necessarily reflect U.S. government policy. When the Gulf War ended, President Bush called on Iraqi dissidents to rebel, implying that the U.S. would provide air cover. The uprisings materialized, but U.S. air cover never did. When the Iraqi military retaliated, butchering thousands of rebelling Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south, U.S. officials claimed that Bush favored a military coup within the regime, not a popular insurrection, which Washington feared would lead to a possible breakup of Iraq and a destabilization of the regional power balance. Internal Iraqi coups were reportedly attempted in July 1992, July 1993, and May 1995. Each ended with mass arrests, executions, and the restructuring of the ruling Ba'ath Party's security apparatus and tribal alliances, but with Saddam Hussein's regime intact. Most disastrous was a 1996 covert U.S. military training operation in Arbil in northern Iraq that degenerated into internecine feuds. Saddam Hussein's forces crushed the INC, forcing its operations to come to a standstill.

During the early 1990s, the U.S. spent over $100 million to aid the Iraqi opposition. Most of this money was for public relations and propaganda, not military hardware. In 1998, Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which allocated $97 million for Pentagon training and used military equipment. But the INC has been slow to take advantage of Pentagon training, to submit proposals, or to complete audits, so most funds remain unspent.

There are over seventy opposition groups within and outside Iraq, representing a diverse network of religious minorities, Iraqi monarchists, and military exiles. …

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