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Iraq's opposition. No aid yet for Saddam's foes ARBIL, NORTHERN IRAQ Iraq'’s oppositio. NOBODY wants to change the regime in Iraq more than the Iraqis themselves. They indicated as much when they rose up in suicidal rage after the murder of Iraq'’ most prominent Shia Muslim leader, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad el Sadr, on February 19th. Reports of spontaneous protests emerged not just from the southern half of the country (where Shias make up perhaps two-thirds of the population), but also from Sunni Muslim areas north of Baghdad, usually loyal to the Sunni-dominated government. These disorganised demonstrations were quickly and ruthlessly quelled, —illustrating the immense difficulty of changing anything in Iraq. The assassination of the ayatollah and his two sons was not the first attack on Iraq'’s Shia clerics. Last year, two prominent ayatollahs were shot dead in Najaf, a centre for Shia scholarship and pilgrimage. In January, another was shot at and a fourth detained by police. In a state so tightly controlled by the secret police, the government must, at least, have connived in these attacks. According to Iraq’s opposition groups, the latest killings unleashed a mini-insurrection. They say the security services killed 300 civilians in Baghdad during three days of protests last weekend and claim the army besieged Najaf and shelled the southern town of Nasiriyah. This is exaggeration. United Nations observers, monitoring food distribution in Iraq, passed through Najaf on the day of the supposed siege and noticed nothing unusual. Information-ministry officials took journalists to Nasiriyah, where they found no trace of bombardment. The Americans put the death toll in Baghdad at not more than 25. But, whatever the scale of the demonstrations, the subsequent clamp-down was ferocious. Within two or three days all was quiet. So how, with anti-government feeling running so high, and America three months into its latest scheme to arm and train the opposition, could so many protests have come to so little? In part because, for all America’s public expressions of support, the opposition says it detects “no sign whatsoever” that it means what it says. The Clinton administration long resisted the idea of arming Iraqi dissidents or fostering insurrection, insisting that the best hope for change lay in a coup from within. When Congress pushed through a $97m package for the Iraqi opposition last year, the government produced a list of eligible groups, but it has not yet handed over any aid. Privately, American officials admit they went along with the scheme to appease impatient congressmen. The sceptics have a point. There are 100-odd Iraqi opposition groups, most of them at each other’s throats. The most formidable, the two Kurdish militias that run an autonomous zone in northern Iraq, have reached an understanding with Saddam Hussein that they do not want to jeopardise. Shia groups also have a toe-hold in the vast southern marshland. Of these, one of the biggest has been ruled out by the Americans for being too fundamentalist, leaving only the marginally more palatable Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Although Muhammad al-Hakim, its leader (and the son of a well-known grand ayatollah), claims to have a significant guerrilla network inside Iraq, last week’s events show he cannot capitalise on Shia unrest. The Kurds and Shias scoff at “hotel” opposition groups baseoutside Iraq, such as the Iraqi National Congress ( INC ) and the Iraqi National Accord ( INA ). Both claim to have agents in Iraq, but the INC , once an umbrella group for several parties, lost most of its network when Mr Hussein’s troops overran its base in northern Iraq in 1996. The INA , which specialises in defections from the regime, has been thoroughly infiltrated, say critics. No opposition group wants to look like a lackey by taking American cash. Until the Americans get serious, they argue, why should they stick their necks out? The same goes for America’s allies in the region. The INC , for example, wants a border enclave from which it could mount attacks on Baghdad. But Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the likeliest candidates to provide it, will not risk it without firm American backing. Meanwhile, the daily duels between Iraq’s armed forces andAmerican aircraft grow ever more fierce. They could go on for some time. The Pentagon reckons it has destroyed only a fifth of Iraq’s anti-aircraft missiles. And its planes have recently extended their targets to cover other military installations. Escalation, but to what end? Colin Rowat King's College Cambridge CB2 1ST tel: +44 (0)468 056 984 England fax: +44 (0)1223 335 219 -- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- This is a discussion list run by Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. To be removed/added, email email@example.com, NOT the whole list. Archived at http://linux.clare.cam.ac.uk/~saw27/casi/discuss.html