- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 30, 2002

The leading opposition group to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein said yesterday it believes a funding dispute with the U.S. government can be resolved quickly, but the group remains at odds with the Bush administration over its bid to take the fight against Saddam inside Iraq.

Citing accounting and management shortfalls, the State Department earlier this month suspended all funding for the Iraqi National Congress. INC officials complained that the suspension was premature and reflected U.S. unease about the larger question of what to do about Saddam.

"We have taken all the steps the State Department has recommended, but we do think it is unfair to use accounting problems to deal with issues of a political nature," said INC co-founder Ahmad Chalabi.

Mr. Chalabi and a group of INC officials meet today and tomorrow with senior State Department officials to discuss the funding issues and the future of U.S. Iraq policy.

Saddam's regime surged toward the top of the Bush administration foreign-policy agenda after the September 11 terrorist attacks. With the war in Afghanistan winding down, the administration has been divided over whether to make Baghdad the next front in the global war on terrorism.

The United States repeatedly has said it supports the overthrow of Saddam, but both the Clinton and Bush administrations have harbored doubts that the INC, an umbrella group with a history of internal feuding, can do the job. The INC has yet to spend the bulk of $97 million approved by Congress in 1998.

A new $25 million assistance package is snagged in a dispute over INC plans to use $17 million of the new grant on operations inside Iraq, working from bases in a U.S.-protected "no-fly zone" in the country's north.

INC Chairman Latif Rashid told a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday that operating only outside Iraq would be "suicidal" to his group's credibility.

"We cannot serve our people if we just consider ourselves a PR company," he said.

INC officials said the stunning success of the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan could be a model for action against Saddam, who they claim has only a tenuous control over the country's armed forces and faces extensive opposition both in the country's north and south.

"What was done in Afghanistan could be done much more easily in Iraq," said Sharif Ali bin Hussein, head of the Constitutional Monarchist Movement of Iraq and the INC's official spokesman. "It's time to move on to phase two."

Baghdad has been unusually active on the diplomatic front in recent days, reaching out to Russia, China, the European Union and even longtime regional rival Iran. Diplomats say Saddam is seeking to increase international momentum to ease U.S.-backed economic sanctions and to forestall any U.S. military move.

The Iraqi government yesterday said it had invited a U.N. human rights official to the country next month, the first such visit in a decade.

Mr. Hussein, the INC spokesman, dismissed Baghdad's apparent effort to mend fences with Iran, which hosts large numbers of Iraqi refugees and has provided a base for opposition groups in the past.

"Our relations with Iran remain excellent," said Mr. Hussein. "I think that's a better indicator of sentiment in Tehran."

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