29 Apr. - 5 May 1999
Issue No. 427
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Message to WashingtonFor years, Ayatollah Mohamed Baqir Al-Hakim, leader of the main Iraqi Shi'ite opposition group, was sceptical about the US efforts to overthrow President Saddam Hussein, although he had made no secret of his argument that "external" help was "essential" to the opposition's efforts to get rid of the Iraqi leader.
With fine tuning, he steered his Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) away from the US attempts to use Iraqi dissidents as a tool to contain Hussein, regarding such a strategy as unreliable if not mere rhetoric.
But now, the Iran-based Shi'ite clergy is displaying a change of heart. Al-Hakim even seems prepared to give Washington a chance and join the rest of the Kurdish, Sunni and leftist opposition groups which recently set up a US-backed organisation to oust Hussein.
In a telephone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly from his Tehran office, Al-Hakim gave a rather positive assessment of the US plans to unite the deeply divided Iraqi opposition groups and use them to overthrow Hussein.
"The course which the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq has always taken is to support any effort which calls for the unity of Iraqi opposition groups," he said in answer to a question about his views on the meetings of opposition leaders in Windsor, England, on 7-8 April. "However, we believe that there should be a practical plan in the field [inside Iraq] and that any new organisation should come from the real opposition forces," he added.
In further explaining his views on the US plans, Al-Hakim said that "it is imperative that adequate protection should be provided to the Iraqi people against oppression by the regime, such as arrests, mass executions, demolition of houses and deportation," before launching any plans to overthrow Hussein. In addition to "the political cover and diplomatic support, (US) military action should also be taken to protect civilians against the repression of the regime," he said.
Al-Hakim did not elaborate, but clearly he was referring to certain guarantees that he and his group are seeking so that the United States will not let them down as it did during the Shi'ite and Kurdish uprising against Hussein following the 1991 Gulf War when it allowed him to use his powerful Republican Guard units to crush the rebellion.
These assurances, he said, should include an expansion of the two no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq by imposing a "no-drive" zone against Hussein's tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery, and even a clear commitment to use US forces to protect any opposition activities against Hussein.
However, despite his reservations, Al-Hakim, an eloquent orator who is usually hesitant to give an unequivocal 'yes' to the Americans, stressed during the interview that "there has been noticeable progress in the American position towards... taking our points of view into consideration." Beyond these words, one can safely point to a significant, if not dramatic, change in the scene.
The reason for this, is that SCIRI, which was established in 1982 as an umbrella organisation for several active Shi'ite groups, controls thousands of armed men, both in Iran and inside Iraq, who are ready to obey Al-Hakim's orders to fight Hussein's troops. Today, it stands as the only well-organised and viable group representing the majority Shi'ite population in Iraq. It is believed to enjoy considerable support in southern Iraq and thanks to Al-Hakim's moderation and pragmatism, the group is widely respected among Kurds in the north and even among many Sunnis in the middle of the country.
By any account, many analysts believe that wooing Al-Hakim and his group is essential to any plan to topple Hussein. They say he can make or break any coalition needed to launch the move and that without his participation in a Washington-sponsored opposition alliance it would be tempestuous if not short-lived.
Indeed, to underscore its position SCIRI has recently intensified its military operations inside Iraq by sending troops across the border from Iran to attack the ruling Ba'ath Party and government offices in many towns, including the capital Baghdad and Iraq's main port city of Basra. In a letter to the Security Council last week, the Iraqi government acknowledged the attacks and blamed Iran for allowing the Shi'ite rebels to infiltrate Iraq.
On Saturday, the Arab press disclosed that some 1,500 members of the Badr Corps, the code name SCIRI gives to its forces, had penetrated from the Iranian border and engaged in fierce fighting with Iraqi army units in different parts of the country before retreating to their bases in Iran.
This disclosure followed reports earlier this month that hundreds of Badr troops, disguised in Iraqi army uniforms, attacked and killed many Ba'ath Party members who were guarding party offices in Basra. Similar onslaughts were reported in other southern provinces.
In his interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Hakim disclosed that "the resistance forces" have been engaged in intensive fighting with government troops in many parts of southern Iraq since the killing of the Shi'ite clergyman Ayatollah Mohamad Sadiq Al-Sadr on 19 February. He said, "Huge losses were inflicted on the regime in men, equipment and supplies."
Whatever Al-Hakim's men have been doing in southern Iraq, the message he is sending to the Americans is clear: He is the man they should do business with if they are serious in their efforts to overthrow Hussein. Yet, while Washington seems to be taking Al-Hakim seriously, it appears not to be in a rush to give him or his group a leading role in its future plans for Iraq. The Americans may even be thinking, instead, of how to rein SCIRI in, and prevent any disruption by ambitious leaders or unruly groups to its own clandestine plans to deal with Iraq.
If this is the case, Al-Hakim's new optimism about "the noticeable progress" in the US position may soon prove to be unrealistic and unfounded. It is also certain that this is not what he and the Iraqi opposition groups expect from the Americans.