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Economist article: 27 February, 1999

           Iraq's opposition. No aid yet for Saddam's foes 
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

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

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