- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

The U.S. government will finance and host the largest-ever gathering of former Iraqi military and security officers at a conference to plan the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, U.S. and Iraqi opposition officials said yesterday.
Leaders of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the London-based umbrella group dedicated to Saddam's ouster, said the conference was a sign of the Bush administration's determination to drive the Iraqi dictator from power.
The conference, expected to be held by the end of next month at a military site in or near Washington, would include some 200 military and security officials from the various opposition groups united under the INC, according to a posting on the group's Web site yesterday.
Sharif Ali Bin Hussein, a member of the INC Leadership Council, said the conference would discuss both ousting Saddam and the future of Iraq after Saddam. The conference is also designed to boost links between the civilian and military factions among the Iraqi opposition.
The meeting will "mobilize Iraqi officers and unite them with the democratic Iraqi opposition, develop a plan of action to confront Saddam's regime and reinforce the important principle of the control of the military by a democratically elected government in Iraq's future," the INC's Mr. Hussein said.
Zaab Sethna, a spokesman for the INC's Washington office, said the idea for the conference had been discussed with Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman last month.
Mr. Sethna said the ability of the fractious civilian leadership of the INC to unite the military officials from the various opposition groups was critical to the success of the effort.
"That is what will make the gathering different from past conferences on Iraq," he said. "We have been hard at work inviting non-INC representatives and the response has been excellent."
He said the final dates for the conference were still uncertain because of the difficulty in securing visas for many of those invited to come to the United States.
The Reuters news agency, quoting unnamed U.S. officials, said among those expected to attend is former Brig. Gen. Najib Salihi, one-time chief of staff for Iraq's select Republican Guard.
The U.S. backing for the conference also appears to signal an increase of support to the INC, which has feuded with the Clinton and Bush administrations over its financial management and its ability to take on Saddam.
The State Department temporarily froze funding for the INC's operations late last year, citing accounting irregularities, only releasing the money Jan. 31. The Bush administration still refuses to finance INC operations inside Iraq itself, despite the London group's urging.
President Bush's inclusion of Iraq in his "axis of evil" has increased momentum within the administration for a policy of "regime change" in Baghdad. The administration has been internally divided over whether to make Saddam the next military front in Mr. Bush's post-September 11 war on terrorism.
INC Chairman Ahmed Chalabi told the French newspaper La Croix in an interview published yesterday that the Washington conference was designed in part to encourage Saddam's soldiers to join the opposition or at least not resist an effort to topple him.
He said his group was prepared to carry the fight to Baghdad if the United States supplied the arms and intelligence backing as it did in Afghanistan.
"The United States has to give us the necessary training and equipment and conduct an aggressive bombing campaign," Mr. Chalabi said. He said INC forces would need "around 11 weeks of training" for an invasion if the United States backed the effort.
"The most important thing is to get rid of Saddam Hussein," Mr. Chalabi said. "Whatever choice is made, we will back it. If the United States decides to do the job itself, that's not a problem."

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