- The Washington Times - Monday, July 15, 2002

LONDON Military and political opponents of the Iraqi regime appealed to President Saddam Hussein's officer corps yesterday to refuse to fight any uprising or a U.S.-led invasion force.
The call came from a 15-man military council established at a meeting in London yesterday to work on dampening the Iraqi army's will to fight and to employ psychological warfare ahead of an expected U.S. attack.
The council said it hopes to take over Iraq's military if it collapses under any internal or external attack and assist in guiding the country toward free elections and full democracy.
An opposition official told Reuters that the council had elected Maj. Gen. Tawfiq al-Yassiri, a navy officer wounded in an uprising in southern Iraq against Saddam in 1991, to head the council.
Gen. Yassiri is an ally of a senior opposition leader, Ahmed Chalabi, who told The Washington Times that there is major dissent within the Iraqi army. If properly exploited, the discontent could lead a very quick and "easy" overthrow of the Baghdad regime, he said.
Speaking during an unprecedented get-together of Iraqi military defectors and opposition figures at a plush London hotel during the weekend, Mr. Chalabi outlined the strategy he expects to be employed in the expected strike on Iraq.
He said the key initial thrust by U.S.-led forces should be made on the southern Iraqi port of Basra, which coalition forces captured in the final stages of the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
This would be "relatively simple," he said, partly because of the proximity of disaffected Shi'ite Iraqis, whose uprising in 1991 was ruthlessly crushed by Saddam's forces as the allies stood by.
At that point, Mr. Chalabi predicted, the already disaffected and nervous military leaders would understand that siding with Saddam would bring them military defeat and leave them at the mercy of a vengeful public.
Hence Mr. Chalabi viewed as crucial a declaration by the dissident council that only a small clique within the army leadership would face criminal prosecution for past actions.
"Our list is no more than 36 at present," Mr. Chalabi said, promising that there would be no post-war prosecution of other officers, provided they did not fight for Saddam in the event of a U.S. attack.
"We need to tell most of the officers that there is life after Saddam indeed that their positions will be better," said Mr. Chalabi, a father of four children brought up in exile. He said he has survived nine assassination attempts but declines to discuss personal security problems.
There would be efforts from within the country, he said, to expand the Kurdish areas that have Western protection, so that the anti-Saddam forces will wrest control of Mosul, an Arab-inhabited city of 1 million people, and Ramadi in western Iraq.
At this stage, he and others would declare the formation of a provisional government.
"There is no point in forming it unless it is done inside Iraq itself," said Mr. Chalabi, adding that he would not serve in any new government but would return to Iraq and become a businessman.
Mr. Chalabi has been a passionate leader of the Kurds but has worked hard to forge an alliance between this community and Shi'ites, Sunnis and other groups within this ethnically riven region.
The signs of disintegration already exist within the armed forces, according to Mr Chalabi's sources, even within the much-vaunted elite Republican Guards.
These units, which escaped major clashes with the advancing U.S., British and French forces in 1991, had been thought to be pampered and privileged by Saddam.
But the sources close to Mr. Chalabi have revealed that many battalions, typically made up of 875 soldiers, are down to 250 or fewer, according to Mr. Chalabi.
"We keep getting messages from commanders that the situation in the army is horrible. AWOL numbers are in some units 40 percent, according to reports we get. Morale is very low among soldiers and NCOs," he said.
He noted that in 1995 and 1996 he had received word that Saddam had ordered that soldiers going AWOL have their ears chopped off, a fate encountered by hundreds, Mr. Chalabi said.
"One must not make light of war," he said. "I hate to make predictions, but the Iraqi army will not fight to defend Saddam."
A major factor holding back open revolt, Mr. Chalabi said, was Shi'ites' and Kurds' bitter memories of their uprisings in Iraq soon after Saddam's military defeat in Kuwait, and again in 1995, that were not backed by U.S. military intervention. There had been what he called a decade of "fecklessness" by the United States. "Many feel: once bitten, twice shy," he said.
He said he believes President Bush's sense of determination has become abundantly clear despite heavy Iraqi censorship, but he wants Mr. Bush to say more.
He said a major step in building the anti-Saddam sentiment inside Iraq would be "a public statement setting out some specific guarantees and signs that actions will be followed through" from Mr. Bush.
"Now we want the president to specifically come out and support democracy for the Iraqi people," Mr. Chalabi said.
He conceded that one restraining factor in Western eyes was the appearance of disunity among Iraqi dissident groups. But the veteran dissident maintained that as the prospect of a real war of liberation neared, disagreements would recede and groups would "coalesce," as had happened when the French resistance united against the Nazi occupation.
"Opposition to totalitarian regimes tends to be like that," Mr. Chalabi said.


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