- The Washington Times - Friday, November 1, 2002

The Pentagon has rescued an intelligence-collection program in northern Iraq from critics in the Senate and State Department who held up U.S. funds for an Iraqi opposition group that has scored major successes in getting information from defecting government officials in Baghdad.

The $8 million program to support activities by the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an opposition group based in London and northern Iraq, was held up for several months by the Senate Appropriations Committee because of political opposition to the group, said congressional and administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The INC's covert information-collection program scored several major intelligence coups in getting information from Iraq and in communicating with opposition sources inside the country, the officials said.

One senior Iraqi defector who was part of the program recently provided valuable data on the location of storage sites in Iraq used to hide chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs and materials.

Officials said that several other Iraqi government officials are also involved in helping the program.

The program also uses television broadcasts and other information programs to communicate to opposition groups inside Iraq.

The funding cuts to the information-collection program were imposed in May, resulting in operations being shut down or severely restricted since the summer.

According to the officials, the $8 million has been approved for release to the INC to cover expenses for operations that already were undertaken in June and July.

However, the State Department objected to using $619,000 of the total $8 million package needed to fund the information-collection program. It claimed that the program is involved in covert intelligence activity and therefore inappropriate for the State Department to run.

The department's Near East and South Asia office instead demanded that the Pentagon or CIA take over the program.

The Pentagon began running the program recently, but the decision to hold up funding has undermined the INC's efforts to conduct more intelligence gathering that could be used in the U.S. campaign to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the officials said.

The INC wants the $619,000 in funds to be used for the information-collection program kept as part of the $8 million package. However, officials said this is being opposed by the Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat.

Asked about the funds, a subcommittee aide familiar with the program said the State Department's Near East affairs bureau asked the panel to withhold the money for the information program.

Mr. Leahy believes the information program should not be funded by the State Department, the aide said.

Several Republican senators are fighting to keep the program going because of the prospect of U.S. military action against Iraq. They have appealed to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to fix the problem.

An official at the INC said the group wants the subcommittee to release the $619,000, which is urgently needed to pay agents in the field and operations that were already conducted and paid for with credit.

"We're not prepared to do that," the subcommittee aide said. "It's been recognized that this is not an appropriate program for the State Department to run and ought to be funded by the Department of Defense. It makes no sense to fund what is essentially a covert program with overt money."

But an administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that an agreement had been reached with Mr. Leahy to release the funds.

"I think we've finally worked out a deal with Leahy and he will lift the hold," the official said.

Republican Senate aides blamed the funding hold on opponents of U.S. military action in Iraq, especially key members of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Five of the 22 Senate Democrats who voted against the recent congressional resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq are members of the Appropriations Committee, including Mr. Leahy, and Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia.

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