- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2003

The United States has provided the Iraqi National Congress $8 million to bolster its position, despite assertions by the Bush administration that it does not favor any political group in postwar Iraq.

The INC, one of several political groups vying for roles after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, is opening 23 offices across the oil-rich nation to promote its “de-Ba’athification” program as well as its blueprint for rebuilding civil society in the country. Saddam exercised power through the Ba’ath Party.

Washington has said repeatedly that it does not support any one Iraqi group.

According to a State Department official, the additional funding was provided in late April to help the INC, which began as an opposition movement by Iraqi exiles in London and Washington, to shift its international operations to liberated Iraq.

The INC also maintains a U.S.-funded office in Tehran, despite the White House’s mounting frustration with Iran over its nuclear program, dealings with al Qaeda and reported interference in Iraq.

The Tehran office stays in constant contact with high-level Iranian officials, INC representatives said. It has a staff of roughly 20 and monthly bills of about $300,000, INC officials said.

“The INC provides a symbol of the common interest between Iran and the United States,” explained Francis Brooke, a senior adviser to the INC who recently returned to Washington after more than four months in Iraq.

Mr. Brooke said INC representatives in Tehran communicate regularly with senior officials in President Mohammed Khatami’s government, the Revolutionary Guard and the religious leadership.

The INC and Iran were discussing refugee issues involving exile populations on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border and cross-border trade, Mr. Brooke said. But he added that the contacts established could have longer-term implications for relations among Iran, Iraq and the United States.

“The day that there is an Iraqi government that speaks for the Iraqi people, you might have an interesting role between that Iraqi, free, pro-U.S. government and the United States and Iran,” he said.

But the State Department denied that the office, which opened about two years ago, could be used to further its dialogue with Iran in any way.

“No, it could not, full stop. No possibility. Nothing,” said an official, on the condition of anonymity.

He added that funding for the office — whose goal is to advance INC operations in Iraq — runs out in October, but stopped short of saying it would be forced to close at that time.

“When it comes time to renew funding I would imagine we would be taking a look if the office is still required,” the official said.

Former U.S. Ambassador Richard Murphy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed it was unlikely that the INC office was being used as a message carrier, but said it could be used as a sounding board for the Iranians to interpret U.S. objectives in Iraq.

Iran shares a long border and complex history with Iraq, as well as a powerful Shi’ite population with close ties to Iraq’s Shi’ites.

“It seems to be that beneath all the sound and fury of condemning the Iranian regime and telling it to back off, there is obviously a recognition that the Iranians count when it comes to the architecture of postwar Iraq,” said Rajan Menon, another senior fellow at the council.

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