Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
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  Vol. 3   No. 4 Table of Contents
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April 2001 


The United States and the Iraqi National Congress
by Laurie Mylroie

Laurie Mylroie has taught at Harvard University and the US Naval War College. Presently, she is the publisher of Iraq News and the Vice-President of "Information for Democracy." She is the author of Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War Against America.

Ahmed Chalabi
The Bush administration is currently debating between two basic options in dealing with Iraq. The first option, favored by the State Department, is to continue the so-called "containment" policy of the Clinton administration, repackaged as "smart sanctions." The second option, favored by the Pentagon, is to make Saddam Hussein's overthrow the stated goal of US policy and support the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in doing so. And, of course, there is always the prospect of muddling the issue by combining elements of both positions.

This article recounts the history of US dealings with the INC. It first discusses the failure of efforts in 1990 and 1991 to overthrow Saddam in a military coup and the INC's foundation in 1992 as a result of those failures. It then addresses US dealings with the organization after Bill Clinton assumed office in January 1993 through August 1996, when Iraqi tanks assaulted the INC in northern Iraq, ending its presence there.

The US dealt quite differently with the INC under the presidencies of George Bush and Bill Clinton. To be sure, bureaucratic resistance to dealing with the INC was a constant. Arabists in the US government were wedded to the notion of changing the Iraqi regime through a coup. After realizing that there was virtually no prospect of successfully carrying out a coup in Iraq, the Bush administration gravitated toward the alternative of overthrowing Saddam through a popular insurgency. The US political leadership recognized that a serious problem existed, wanted it addressed, and made the bureaucracies do so.

Under Clinton, the situation was very different. The Clinton administration put a low priority on dealing with Iraq and the Arabist preference for overthrowing Saddam in a coup came to prevail. When the deficiency of this approach became evident in August 1996, the Clinton administration did as it was accustomed - it put its own spin on a major foreign policy failure.

The US and the Iraqi opposition after 1990

During the period from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990 through the US declaration of a cease-fire to the Gulf War on February 28, 1991, US officials were prohibited from meeting with Saddam's Iraqi opponents. This ban had its origins in a meeting that Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, held with a US official in 1988. At that time, the US had "tilted" toward Iraq against Iran. The meeting prompted strong protests from Baghdad and Secretary of State George Schultz imposed a ban on such contacts.

However, this does not explain why the prohibition was maintained after Iraq invaded Kuwait. It was contrary to common sense and contributed to serious US intelligence blunders, like the failure to anticipate the post-war uprisings in Iraq.1 Indeed, senior US officials may not even have known of the ban's existence. At the level of Middle East experts who dealt with Iraq, however, it was known and vigilantly enforced.

The prevailing orthodoxy of the American Arabists was that Iraq should be governed by a Sunni Arab strongman. That was so, although Sunni Arabs constitute some 20% of the Iraqi population (roughly comparable to the white population of South Africa), whereas 55% of the population is Shi'ite Arab, 20% Kurdish (mostly Sunni), and 5% "other."

In 1990 and 1991 their focus was on changing the Iraqi regime through a coup and they maintained that US dealings with Iraq's Shi'ite and Kurdish opposition leaders were incompatible with that outcome.2 When the ban on official US contacts with the Iraqi opposition became publicly known in late March 1991 - after three weeks of widespread popular revolts - it was reversed the next day.3 But by then it was too late. The White House had taken the decision to let Saddam crush the post-war rebellions.

One of the reasons for that decision was the belief that if Saddam were allowed to suppress the revolts, the coup that had been anticipated would occur. It was believed that the popular revolts had frightened off the would-be coup-makers and caused them to rally around Saddam. Letting him suppress the revolts would allow the coup-makers to proceed, it was argued.4

The Iraqi National Accord

The Saudis were in fact pursuing a coup, in coordination with the CIA, through a group called the Iraqi National Accord (INA). The INA consisted of a group of ex-Ba'athists and former members of Saddam's regime, including an individual whose cousin, Hakam al-Takriti, headed Iraq's helicopter squadrons. The INA claimed that al-Takriti would lead a coup against Saddam.

Iraq's helicopters were allowed to fly immediately after the cease-fire (an exception to the general ban on Iraqi flights that the US imposed then). Of course, the helicopters did not launch a coup. Quite the reverse happened; they were instrumental in suppressing the post-war uprisings. There is every reason to believe that the INA was penetrated by Iraqi intelligence.5 But unlike the American Arabists, the Saudis were not wedded to the idea Saddam had to be overthrown in a coup. They wanted to support the uprisings. As Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz later explained, "The leaders of most of our Arab coalition partners" wanted Saddam gone. "The Saudi leadership in particular expressed this conviction."6

The Emergence of the INC

As the months passed and it became apparent that a coup might well not materialize, the Bush administration began to look more seriously at another option for overthrowing Saddam. The matter was taken up by a number of congressmen, particularly on the House Intelligence Committee, who had come to know Ahmed Chalabi, a wealthy Shi'ite Iraqi businessman, then residing in London.7 The Congressional intervention with the White House led officials there to meet in late 1991 with Chalabi, the driving force behind what would become the INC.

Chalabi's notion was that the several Iraqi opposition groups should get together under one umbrella organization, the Iraqi National Congress. They would both maintain their own identities and also be INC members. In addition, the INC would include a large number of individuals not affiliated with the established opposition groups.

Chalabi's intent was to base the INC in Northern Iraq, where the Kurds had succeeded in liberating their territory. The INC would exploit the fact that Saddam was hated and despised by so much of the population, including the military. Saddam's overthrow could not be accomplished through a coup, as experience had shown. Multiple, competing, and overlapping security services made the regime virtually coup-proof. Rather, Iraq would be liberated from the south and the north, until Saddam was left the mayor of Baghdad. And the model for that plan was the Kurds' liberation of their own areas.

After the Gulf War, the Kurdish militias succeeded in ousting the Iraqi regime from Kurdish-inhabited territory. This happened already immediately after the war, but Iraq was able to crush the Kurds through the use of its helicopters and other aircraft. In late March 1991, as Iraqi forces bore down on the briefly-liberated Kurdish territories, the panicked population fled to the international borders. People feared that Iraq would use chemical weapons against them. The resulting humanitarian crisis obliged the US to reintervene in Iraq. The US had to provide some measure of safety for the people, so they would return to their homes. The US protection included a ban on the flights of Iraqi aircraft north of the 36th parallel. With that protection, the Kurdish militias proceeded to do what they had done some months before. They freed their area from Saddam's rule, but this time, on a more enduring basis.

In town after town, throughout the summer and early fall of 1991, the Kurdish militias would join with the population to attack the forces of the Iraqi regime. The Iraqi army would not fight. Soldiers either went home or defected to the Kurds. With the army melting away, only the Iraqi intelligence (mukhabarat) was left in Kurdistan to enforce Saddam's rule. Yet the mukhabarat was too few in number to prevail against the militias and the population acting together. By October, the entire area, roughly the size of Austria, was freed from Baghdad's writ. It was ideal territory for an opposition force like the INC. There was no firm line between the Kurdish region and the rest of Iraq. Smugglers, defectors, dissidents, and ordinary Kurdish citizens routinely crossed between one area and the other.

The one condition the Bush administration set for dealing with the Iraqi opposition was that they should establish a unified front and act together. And they did. In June 1992, the first meeting of the Iraqi National Congress was held in Vienna. Late the next month, an INC delegation traveled to Washington. It was received by National Security Council Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker. Another Saudi-backed coup had failed in early July, spurring the US welcome of the INC delegation. The next month, the US (along with Britain and France) imposed a no-fly zone in southern Iraq. The move was meant to ease the Iraqi repression of the Shi'ite insurgents and as a concrete indication of US support for the INC program.

In October, the INC met in Iraqi Kurdistan to chose a leadership structure. Some 600 people attended the conference in Salah al-Din, a resort town in the mountains, 25 kilometers north of the Kurdish city of Irbil, itself 18 kilometers from the Iraqi army lines. Because of its small size and the mountainous terrain, it was much easier to provide security against Iraqi intelligence in Salah al-Din than in the Kurdish cities.

Bush was defeated in November. Yet as his term drew to an end, it appeared that the US had made reasonable progress on the path toward developing an alternative option for overthrowing Saddam and did not necessarily have to rely on a coup to eliminate him.

The Clinton Administration

In April 1993, an INC delegation visited Washington to meet the newly-elected administration. They met with the new Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and the new National Security Council Advisor, Anthony Lake. And in what seemed to be token of the Clinton administration's greater commitment to democracy and human rights, the INC also met with the Vice-President.

Subsequently, the INC began to establish a headquarters and offices in Salah al-Din, where it engaged in a variety of media activities. They included publishing a newspaper and managing a radio station and television station, both of which broadcast into Iraq. The INC also ran a political office. But most importantly, the INC developed a network of contacts with individuals occupying significant positions in the rest of the country.

By the end of 1993, the INC had developed a plan of action called the "Three Cities Plan." In the north, the two Kurdish militias, along with an INC force, would attack the two northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. By prior understanding, friendly military commanders would go over to the opposition. In the south, the INC and the Shi'ite militia, led by Baqir al-Hakim, would attack Basra, where the same thing was to happen.

The INC briefed US officials on this plan, but they were not enthusiastic. It was the first clear indication that the Clinton administration was not serious about Saddam. Above all, the administration did not want the opposition to do any fighting. In fact, although the US was funding the INC, the Clinton administration prohibited any US funds from being used for the purchase of weapons. US officials flippantly maintained that there were already enough weapons in Iraq. It was not long before the White House began to actively undermine the INC. George Tenet, now CIA Director, was then NSC adviser on intelligence matters. Tenet believed that he could orchestrate a coup in Iraq and he acted in co-ordination with Lake. Lake did not want to get into a confrontation with Baghdad and his hesitancy extended to matters far beyond the INC. They included the issue of UN weapons inspections. Early on, Lake advised Rolf Ekeus, UNSCOM chairman, "Don't give us sweaty palms."8 That is, don't create crises. Somehow, Lake believed that he could deal with the several challenges posed by Iraq quietly. It was a remarkable assumption, because these issues constituted the unfinished business of the Gulf War, a deadly serious affair.

In the spring of 1994, a new chief of the CIA's Near Eastern Division, Steve Richter, was appointed. Richter had been head of the CIA station in Amman, where he had recruited Mohammad Abdullah al-Shawani, an Iraqi Turcoman living in Jordan who was a former commander in the army Special Forces. Tenet and Lake worked together with Richter, the three of them bypassing the head of the CIA, James Woolsey.

At Tenet's prompting, in June 1994, Richter called a meeting with figures from the Iraqi National Accord and several other former Iraqi officers. The CIA once again began to push for a coup and it would again promote the coup option at the expense of the popular insurgency represented by the INC.

The March 1995 Offensive

The Clinton administration prohibited the INC from using American funds to purchase weapons. However, determined not to give up on this program, Chalabi spent some $8 million of his own money buying arms for the INC, including RPGs, machine guns and mortars. Yet he was also unaware of the extent of the breach that was developing with Washington.

In November 1994, Gen. Wafiq Samarrai, who had headed Iraqi military intelligence during the Gulf War, defected to the north and joined the INC. He was in the north for nearly two months before the CIA contacted him for a debriefing. Puzzled, Samarrai asked his colleagues, "Don't they know who I am?"

Samarrai's defection added a new dimension to the INC plans, offering the prospect of also taking over his home town of Samarra, a Sunni Arab city on the Tigris, between Tikrit and Baghdad. In January 1995, a CIA team returned to northern Iraq. One American agent, known as "Bob," came with the news that Washington now favored the INC plan and wanted the INC to proceed.

The INC was largely willing to take "Bob" at his word, as they wanted a positive American signal to proceed. Yet the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), Massoud Barzani, was more hesitant. His father, the legendary Mullah Mustapha Barzani, had been betrayed by the US in 1975. Barzani sent an envoy to Washington to check out Bob's claim. The envoy reported (correctly) that there was no support for the plan. Indeed, on the eve of the attack, Washington sent a cable to the CIA station in northern Iraq, asserting that there was a risk of failure and if the INC decided to proceed, it would be without US support. The CIA officers there read it to the INC leadership.

Nonetheless, the majority of the INC leadership chose to go ahead. The operation was already planned and people had been informed. But the KDP did not go along with this and chose to block access along some routes for the INC and PUK forces. Moreover, once the engagement began, the KDP took advantage of the absence of the PUK forces to attack Irbil, an important PUK-held city. The PUK pulled out of the confrontation with the Iraqi army.

Nevertheless, the skirmishing went surprisingly well. There were very few casualties on either side, as the Iraqi army did not fight. The INC's biggest problem was that it ran short of funds - it had to provide food and shelter for thousands of defectors, and sometimes for their families too. Reluctantly, the INC called a halt to the operation.

One Iraqi officer on the other side, General Najib Salhi, later explained that the INC operations had a major effect on the Iraqi army units facing it. They were ready to cooperate, hoping that the INC operations would continue. He and other Iraqi officers would have been able to assume control of their areas and they were extremely disappointed when the INC operations stooped. Later that year, Salhi defected to the INC, with the intent to help energize their activities.9

Despite the success of the INC operation under far less than optimal circumstances, the White House fell into something of a panic. As the operation began, a figure from the INA, who may well have been in the pay of Baghdad, flew to Washington. He advised US officials that the INC move was interfering with the coup and at the same time that it could drag the United States into war with Iraq.

Thereafter, the White House was quite angry with the INC and those behind the March 1995 offensive, including Chalabi and Samarrai. Samarrai had difficulties getting a visa to travel to the United States, eventually settling in London instead, while the tensions between Chalabi and the White House set the stage for developments a year later. At this time the INC also moved its headquarters from Salah al-Din, under KDP control, to Irbil, under PUK control. That, too, was to have serious, unforeseen consequences.

Hussein Kamil's Defection

Hussein Kamil
In August 1995, Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamil, defected to Jordan. Kamil had headed the Special Republican Guards, who were responsible for protecting Saddam. His defection demonstrated that hostility toward Saddam existed at the very highest levels of the Iraqi regime and gave a major boost to those who favored overthrowing Saddam through a coup. Upon closer reflection, however, it also indicated that carrying out a coup would be extremely difficult. Evidently, even a figure as senior as Kamil could not do so and chose to defect instead.

At the time of Kamil's defection, the head of the State Department's Office of Northern Gulf Affairs, Bob Deutsch, was trying to deal with the outbreak of fighting between the two main Kurdish factions in northern Iraq. The INC had regularly stepped in to establish cease-fires, but they did not last. Strong US political backing for a cease-fire was needed and funds were required to create and equip an INC "Peace Monitoring Force."

But the Clinton administration's policy on Iraq was so convoluted that even Deutsch did not understand that the highest levels of the administration really did not support his efforts to secure a Kurdish cease-fire. The US government, confident that Saddam would soon be overthrown and the Kurds would be dealing with a friendly government in Baghdad, saw little point in spending time, prestige, and money in reconciling their differences.

When Kamil defected, Deutsch was meeting in Ireland with representatives of Turkey, the INC and the two Kurdish parties to hammer out the terms for a Kurdish cease-fire. That the meeting was held in Ireland was indication of the administration's desire to keep Iraq out of the news and off the agenda. Nonetheless, an agreement on cease-fire terms was reached, and the US was to provide funds for the "Peace Monitoring Force." But nothing happened.

Tenet maintained that there were no US funds available for a peace-monitoring force. Ostensibly, this was because all of the money for Iraq was in the CIA's budget, which could be used only for covert operations, whereas the peace-monitoring force was considered an overt operation. Of course, this was just an excuse. The money could have been found, if the White House had wanted to provide it.10

Meanwhile, as a result of Kamil's defection, Jordan's King Hussein turned against Saddam. He met with Chalabi in London and proposed that two opposition brigades be formed, one based in northern Iraq, the other in Jordan. Later, he also proposed that the INC leaders hold a meeting in Amman. But the US, which was bent on a coup attempt, was not for it.

Saddam Triumphs

Jordan followed the US lead in overthrowing Saddam. In early 1996, changes were made to the Jordanian government to facilitate the CIA's plan for a coup in Iraq. Abdel Karim Kabariti was made prime minister and Samih Batikhi, who had cordial relations with the Agency, was made Director General of Jordanian Intelligence. Three sons of al-Shawani, Richter's protégé, were Iraqi officers, and one of them was in the Special Republican Guards. They were to act as liaisons and couriers to those who would actually carry out the coup.

Iraqi intelligence had penetrated the Jordanian intelligence services, as was well-known. So a special cell was created within Jordanian intelligence for the operation. A dozen CIA agents were brought to Jordan, where David Manners headed the CIA station. As a cover for the coup, the INA was also brought to Amman. What, after all, were so many CIA agents doing in Jordan?

The ready answer was the INA. It opened a political office in Jordan in February, holding a press conference to announce the event, even as a select few within the INA were apprised of the Agency's real planning. But as was to be expected, Saddam discovered the plotting. And so did the INC. The INC learned from its sources within Saddam's security services that Saddam knew about the plot. The INC warned the CIA that the plot had been penetrated, providing details to substantiate its claim. But the Agency paid no attention.

At the end of June, Saddam made his move, rounding up the plotters, arresting some 300 people. Iraqi intelligence seized the CIA's equipment and elicited confessions from those it had arrested. Baghdad could have turned the event into a major propaganda coup, but it chose to keep the matter quiet, leaving the Agency to worry when its blunder might be exposed to the world.

The failure of the CIA coup prompted a renewed US interest in the INC and specifically in ending the Kurdish fighting. Another meeting was held, this time in London, at the end of August. But by then the PUK was receiving help from Iran and the KDP was very much on the defensive. So the KDP turned to Saddam, and Saddam was more than ready to assist. Some 40,000 Iraqi troops marched north. The Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Robert Pelletreau, assured the head of the PUK that Iraq would pay a heavy price if it attacked the Kurds. Talabani took this to mean an assurance of US protection. The US issued a statement on the evening of August 30, warning Iraq. But the US did nothing when Iraqi forces assaulted Irbil in search of INC forces the next day. Most INC personnel did manage to escape, but 130 lost their lives and the assault ended the overt INC presence in northern Iraq.

The Iraqi assault occurred over the Labor Day weekend. With the presidential elections looming, Clinton was on the campaign trail. The administration asserted that the US did not have any real interests at stake. US interests, the administration maintained, lay in the south not the north of Iraq, and it responded to the attack on Irbil by lobbing some cruise missiles at air defense sites in the south.

Clinton himself affirmed, "Repeatedly over the past weeks and months, we have worked to secure a lasting cease-fire between the Kurdish factions."11 Of course, those who had followed the issue closely knew better. But few had done so and even fewer cared.12

Notes

  1 This author met with a CIA analyst, just after the cease-fire and asked if there was any evidence of unrest in Iraq. She replied no. Of course, shortly thereafter, the north and south of the country were engulfed in revolt. As this author was to learn subsequently through interviews with Kurdish leaders, the Kurdish revolt was, at least in part, planned.
  2 The first time that this ban became known to any Iraqi opposition figures was in early March 1991. Then, a Senate staffer sought to arrange a meeting between some Kurdish leaders and State Department officials. Sandra Charles, aide to Richard Haass, then NSC adviser on the Middle East, called up the staffer in protest, asserting, "Our policy is to get rid of Saddam Hussein, not his regime." Civil War in Iraq, A Staff Report to the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 1 May 1991, p. 28.
  3 Laurie Mylroie, "Help the Iraqi Resistance," Wall Street Journal, 26 March 1991, strongly protested this ban and it was subsequently reversed.
  4 The Washington Post, 29 March 1991, specifically explained that this was Bush's rationale. Prior to the start of the war, Haass had brought two Iraq experts to the White House to brief the president--Phebe Marr and Christine Helms. As The Washington Post, 24 March 1991 affirmed, "Experts on the region such as Phebe Marr of the National Defense University contend that the domestic chaos in Iraq will reduce the likelihood that the military can get rid of Saddam soon. 'The rebellion is strengthening Saddam, not weakening him . . . No military is going to overthrow him while they are fighting a rebellion.'" Similarly, The New York Times, 21 March 1991, wrote: "'It is important to stabilize the situation in Iraq,' said Christine Moss Helms, an Iraq scholar who has advised the White House and Pentagon during the Persian Gulf crisis. 'Until the situation is stabilized nobody is going to be able to focus on getting rid of Saddam Hussein.'"
  5 Laurie Mylroie, "Iraq's Real Coup," The Washington Post, 28 June 1992.
  6 Paul Wolfowitz, "The United States and Iraq," in John Calabrese (ed.), The Future of Iraq (Washington DC: Middle East Institute, 1997), p. 108.
  7 The Chalabis were a wealthy Shi'ite family who served as ministers in Iraqi governments under the Hashemite monarchy. When the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, the family left Iraq. Chalabi himself studied at MIT and the University of Chicago, where he received a Ph.D. in mathematics. In the 1980's, Chalabi ran a bank in Jordan. In the summer of 1989, the Jordanian government took over his bank by military decree and then charged him with irregularities, and he left Jordan. The charges were never pursued outside Jordan, almost certainly because they would not survive public scrutiny. The Jordanian government was closely aligned with Baghdad and Saddam was already planning for the possibility of invading Kuwait. Jordan was critical as a financial conduit for Iraq during the Gulf War. Saddam wanted Chalabi gone, in this author's view, because if he had remained in Jordan, he would have blown the whistle on Amman's extensive coordination with Baghdad in the financial arena during the coming confrontation.
  8 For this episode and the Clinton administration's handling of UNSCOM more generally, see Laurie Mylroie, Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War Against America (Washington DC: American Enterprise Institute Press, 2000), pps. 150 ff.
  9 Gen. Najib Salhi, interview with Iraq News, 9 November 1999.
  10 It might be noted that the CIA provided large sums of money to the Palestinian Authority, including for the support of the Palestinian Preventive Security Department, which was not a covert operation either.
  11 Statement by the President, The Oval Office, 3 September 1996.
  12 Once again, the majority of the policy-oriented Iraq experts behaved abysmally. See Laurie Mylroie, "U.S. Policy Toward Iraq," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, January 2001. For example, Amatzia Baram, a frequent visitor to Washington, wrote a piece purporting to explain why Saddam had attacked Irbil. Baram did not even mention that the Iraqi assault was an attack on the INC. He found many other explanations and suggested that in the first place, "Saddam's move northward was to provide his most loyal troops -the Republican Guards - an opportunity for an easy military victory against a poorly armed Kurdish militia." Amatzia Baram, "Saddam Husayn Conquers Irbil: Causes and Implications," Policy Watch, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 4 September 1996.


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