[CRS Issue Brief for Congress]

CRS Report

Iraq's Opposition Movements

Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs, Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division

March 26, 1998


Many in Congress believe that the only way to blunt the term threat from Iraq is to remove Saddam from power, but the Administration is skeptical of new proposals to rebuild the opposition movement. The Iraqi opposition has been generally ineffective in shaking Saddam Husayn's grip on power, in part because differences within and between different dissident groups and with the regional backers of these groups. The conference report on the State Department authorization for FY1998-99, as well as the Senate version of S.1768, a supplemental appropriation, includes U.S. funds for opposition activities. This report will be updated to reflect legislative and other developments.


During the latest crisis over access to suspected weapons production sites in Iraq, a growing number of foreign policy experts and Members of Congress have called for a long term U.S. effort to overthrow Iraq's President Saddam Husayn. These critics of current policy maintain that confrontations between Iraq and the United States and United Nations will flare repeatedly, and Iraq will pose a constant threat to its neighbors and the international community, as long as Saddam remains in power. Some Members, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Senator John McCain, and others, have said the Administration should look beyond the immediate crisis and consider steps including: recognizing a coalition of opposition groups as the legitimate government of Iraq; releasing Iraqi frozen assets to those groups; granting export licenses for the purchase of arms by those groups; lifting sanctions for those portions of Iraq controlled by the opposition; establishing an opposition Radio Free Iraq; extending no fly zones to cover the entire country; and barring Iraq from moving armor in all or parts of Iraq. The Administration has said it would continue to have ties to the opposition and look for ways to support it more effectively but that some of the above ideas are impractical. (For further information on Iraq, see Issue Brief 92117, Iraqi Compliance With Cease-f re Agreements; and Issue Brief 94049, Iraq-U.S. Confrontations. )

Postwar Attempts to Oust Saddam

Both the Bush and the Clinton Administrations previously pursued unsuccessful efforts to topple Saddam Husayn. Many of the past difficulties are relevant to the current debate on whether or how to oust the Iraqi President. Prior to Desert Storm, which began January 17, 1991, President Bush called on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam. Opposition Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq and Kurdish factions in northern Iraq, heartened by the U.S. call (and probably anticipating U.S. support) launched all-out rebellions against Saddam and his Sunni Muslim-dominated regime2 within days of the end of the Gulf war (February 28, l991). The rebellion in southern Iraq spread northward and reached the suburbs of Baghdad, but Republican Guard forces gained the upper hand against the rebels by mid-March 1991, and the uprising there petered out. (Saddam had largely kept the Republican Guard out of the fighting in Desert Storm for the purpose of preserving his hold on power after the war.) The Kurds in the north, benefitting from a U.S.-led no fly zone established in April 1991, were able to carve out an autonomous enclave in northern Iraq, free of Iraqi troops and governmental presence. However, Iraq is an Arab state that would not accept Kurdish independence or leadership, and the 4 million Kurds in northern Iraq did not represent a major threat to Saddam's rule.

According to press reports, in May 1991, about two months after the failure of the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings, President Bush notified Congress of an intelligence finding justifying new U.S. efforts to topple Saddam Husayn. Press accounts indicate that about $15 - $20 million were allocated to efforts to cultivate ties to military and security officials around the Iraqi leader in the hopes of fomenting a coup d'etat.3 The published accounts suggest that some funds might have gone to opposition Shiite, Kurdish, and other exiled opponents of Saddam, but that Bush Administration officials reportedly focused on promoting a narrowly-based military takeover. These officials reportedly believed that a military coup offered the best hope of bringing to power a more favorable regime while preserving Iraq's integrity. It was feared that Shiite and Kurdish groups, if they succeeded in ousting Saddam, would fragment the country into warring ethnic and tribal groups, and open Iraq to political and military influence from neighboring Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Saudi Arabia, in particular, was said to fear that fragmentation of Iraq could lead to the establishment of a radical Islamic enclave in southern Iraq, linked to Iran.

An Opposition Coalition Emerges

Although reports in July 1992 of a serious but failed coup attempt suggested Administration policy might ultimately succeed, the Administration appeared to shift strategy from promoting a coup to one of backing the diverse opposition groups that had led the postwar rebellions. Saddam's Kurdish, Shiite, and other opponents were coalescing into a broad and diverse opposition movement that appeared to be gaining support inside Iraq. Sensing an opportunity, Congress more than doubled the budget (to $40 million for FY1993) for the covert effort to oust Saddam and placed emphasis on support for opposition groups and clandestine anti-Saddam radio stations.4

The Iraqi National Congress (INC) served as the vehicle for U. S. support. The INC was formed when the two main Kurdish militias-the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Masud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headed by Jalal Talabani-decided to participate in a June 1992 meeting in Vienna of nearly 200 delegates from dozens of opposition groups. In October 1992, the major Shiite groups came into the coalition and the INC held a pivotal meeting in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, choosing a three man Leadership Council and 26 member executive council. The three leaders include moderate Shiite Muslim cleric Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum; ex-Iraqi general Hasan Naqib; and Masud Barzani. Although Bahr al-Ulum did not represent the more influential radical Shiite fundamentalists in the opposition, his selection was perceived as more palatable to the United States than the appointment of a fundamentalist. Selected to chair the executive council was Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Iraqi Shiite Muslim and mathematician by training, who previously was chairman of the Petra Bank in Jordan.

The INC represented the first major attempt by opponents of Saddam to join forces, bringing together not only Sunni and Shiite Arabs (both Islamic fundamentalist and secular) and Kurds, but also varying political stripes including democrats, nationalists, ex- military officers, and others. In the aggregate, the major component groups in the INC appeared to have a substantial political base inside Iraq, a source of armed force (the Kurdish militias) and an enclave in northern Iraq from which to seriously challenge Saddam's rule. Its constituent groups were able to unite around a platform that appeared to match U.S. values and U.S. interests. The INC platform included establishment of "human rights and rule of law within a constitutional, democratic, and pluralistic Iraq;" preservation of Iraq's territorial integrity, and complete compliance with international law, 5 including U.N. resolutions relating to Iraq. All INC groups, including the Islamic fundamentalists, denounced the invasion of Kuwait, and the INC said it was committed to Kuwait's sovereignty. However, many observers have noted that the INC might not act as a democratic body if it came to power, because most of its groups have an authoritarian internal structure. Observers also believe the Kurds would seek independence or full autonomy from an INC-dominated Iraq. The INC stopped short of declaring itself a provisional government but it began seeking international support as a viable and democratic alternative to the Iraqi regime.

The Kurds. Iraq's Kurds have been fighting for autonomy from the Iraqi government since the 1920s, shortly after their region in what is now northern Iraq was incorporated into the newly formed Iraqi state after World War I. In 1961, the KDP began an insurgency that has continued until today, albeit interrupted by periods of negotiations with Baghdad for Kurdish autonomy. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), split off from the KDP in the 1960s. The two Kurdish parties, which agreed to merge their fighters into a unified army of about 35,000, formed the backbone of the INC's military threat to Saddam Husayn.

Shiite Islamic Fundamentalists. The Iraqi Shiite Islamic fundamentalists came into the INC under the banner of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI). SAIRI was set up in 1982 to increase Iranian control over Shiite opposition groups in Iraq and the Persian Gulf monarchies. SAIRI has about 4,000-8,000 fighters, composed of Iraqi Shiite exiles and prisoners of war, operating against the Iraqi military in southern Iraq.6 Although SAIRI has distanced itself from Iran to some extent, Iran's Revolutionary Guard reportedly continues to provide it with weapons and training. SAIRI's close ties to Iran contributed to the failure of the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war; most Iraqis do not want an Islamic government or to be controlled by Iran. SAIRI's leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim was the late Ayatollah Khomeini's choice to head an Islamic Republic of Iraq.

Ex-Iraqi Military Officers. The INC attempted to broaden its appeal by placing Hasan al-Naqib, a retired general in the Iraqi military, on its executive council. Naqib, a Sunni Muslim Arab, no longer has a major following in the Iraqi military but he was perceived to have some appeal to nationalist Arab Iraqis. He was Iraq' s military attache to the United States (1958-60) before the Ba'th Party took power in 1968 and commanded Iraqi forces present in Jordan during 1967-70. In that position, he argued for greater Iraqi aid for Palestinian guerrillas fighting King Husayn in 1970, and he broke with the Iraqi regime in 1978 to become a military adviser to the PLO.

The Fragmentation of the Opposition

The differences within the INC eventually led to its virtual collapse as a viable challenge to Saddam Husayn. In May 1994, the two main Kurdish parties began fighting with each other over territory, revenues obtained from duties levied at the Iraq-Turkey border, and control over the Kurdish regional government based in Irbil. To bolster their positions against each other, the two factions sought outside support. The KDP, always more amenable than its rivals to pursue autonomy negotiations with Baghdad, sought backing from Saddam Husayn. The PUK obtained a measure of support from Iran. The two Kurdish parties called on the INC as a mediator in their internecine disputes, but this task diverted the INC from its principal mission of fighting the regime.

The Iraqi National Accord (INA). As a result of the growing difficulties within the INC, the United States began seeking out other opponents who could threaten the Iraqi regime.7 This search for alternatives to the INC clearly complicated the U.S. anti- Saddam effort. One group, the Iraqi National Accord (INA), headed by Iyad Alawi, consisted primarily of military and security officers who had defected from Iraq and who were perceived to have residual influence over military and security elites around Saddam.

The INA's prospects for success appeared to brighten in August 1995 when Saddam's son- in-law Husayn Kamil al-Majid-architect of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs -defected to Jordan. The defection suggested to many in the region that Saddam's grip on power was weakening; King Husayn subsequently denounced Saddam and agreed to allow the INA to operate from Jordan. However, Iraq's intelligence services were able to penetrate the INA's dissident operations and, in June 1996, Baghdad arrested 100 military officers linked to the 1NA and executed 30 others. Alawi claims that INA sympathizers continue to operate throughout Iraq.

Iraq's counteroffensive against the opposition was completed two months after the INA arrests. In late August 1996, the KDP asked Baghdad to provide armed support for its capture of Irbil from the rival PUK. Iraq took advantage of the request to strike against the INC base in Salahuddin, a city near Irbil in northern Iraq, as well as remaining INA operatives using northern Iraq as a base. In the campaign, two hundred oppositionists were executed and as many as 2,000 arrested. Six hundred fifty oppositionists (mostly INC) were evacuated and resettled in the United States under the parole authority of the U. S . Attorney General. The lNC has since been plagued by the dissociation of many of its constituent groups from the INC umbrella, a cutoff of funds from its international backers (including the United States), and continued pressure from Iraqi intelligence services.8

U.S. Policy Options

Largely because of the past opposition failures, the Administration appears reluctant to embrace a policy of aggressive support for Iraqi opposition movements or other courses of action designed to remove Saddam from power. Although U.S. officials say they would like to work more effectively with the opposition, Secretary of State Albright said on February 26, 1998, in testimony before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, that the opposition is fragmented and that it would be "wrong to create false or unsustainable expectations" about what U.S. support for the opposition can accomplish. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger said that renewed U. S. support for the opposition could present the United States with the unwanted choice of being drawn into a civil war in Iraq or abandoning its allies. The United States might also be placed in the position of supporting a successor regime that is not viable or does not have U. S. interests in mind. U.S. officials add that a Reagan Administration Executive order (EO 12333)9 bars U.S. attempts to assassinate a foreign leader, and that there are no plans to skirt or repeal that executive order in the case of Saddam.

At the same time, and under pressure from Members who want to back the opposition, the Administration wants to keep open the option, real or apparent, of renewing support to opposition groups. Some believe that U.S. contacts with the opposition give the United States additional leverage over Saddam. Others believe that, even if the opposition does not overthrow Saddam, it could place pressure on his regime and tie him down militarily. INC members visited Washington in mid-February and were received by State Department and National Security Council officials, as well as Members of Congress. In their meetings, the INC asked for $100 million in new U.S. covert assistance in a plan to rebuild its presence in Iraq and, ultimately, declare a provisional government. If coupled with U. S. establishment of a country-wide no fly zone and total military exclusion zones in Iraq, the INC says it can precipitate wholesale military defections leading to the fall of Saddam Husayn. The INC representatives received no specific Administration commitments, according to observers.

Some of the options suggested by Members of Congress, the INC, and outside experts have been under development within the Administration for use should the President decide to renew active support for the opposition. According to a New York Times report of February 26, 1998, since the inspection crisis began, the Central . Intelligence Agency has been drafting a plan that calls for INC supporters to attack key pillars of Iraqi political and economic power, such as utility plants and government media stations, and establishment of a "Radio Free Iraq''.l0 The plan does not appear to include the formation of military exclusion zones, which U.S. military planner believe would require extensive use of U. S . airpower to enforce. However, the Times report notes that the plan, which would cost tens of millions of dollars per year, has not yet been presented to the President for his approval, and that many Administration officials have deep doubts about its viability.

The INC and their supporters also favor using $1.9 billion in Iraqi assets frozen in U.S. banks since the Gulf war in the campaign against Saddam Husayn. However, there are about $5 billion in U.S. claims for those assets, 11 and both the Bush and Clinton Administrations proposed legislation to distribute those assets to U.S. claimants. The legislation has not been enacted. U.S. claimants would be expected to strongly oppose efforts to use the frozen assets for purposes other than the payment of claims. (For more information on this issue, see CRS Report 98-240 F, Iraq: Compensation and Assets Issues. March 10, 1998, by Kenneth Katzman.)

U.S. support for the opposition appears to have strong support in Congress, despite Administration doubts. The conference report on the State Department authorization for FY1998-99 (H.R. 1757) provides $10 million in direct aid to the opposition, and $5 million to establish a Radio Free Iraq under Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. On March 23, a bipartisan group of Senators succeeded in amending a supplemental appropriation (S.1768, funding the U. S. buildup in the Gulf and Bosnia peacekeeping) to provide $5 million in direct aid to the opposition and $5 million for a Radio Free Iraq. The monies would be available provided the Administration submits a plan to Congress, within thirty days of enactment, to aid the opposition and establish Radio Free Iraq.


l Much of the information in this paper concerns U.S. covert operations. The information is derived from press accounts of those activities. CRS has no Bav to independently confirm the- press accounts of these operations

2 Shiites constitute about 60% of Iraq's population but have historically been repressed and under represented in governing bodies by the members of the Sunni Muslim sect. Kurds are about 15% of the population of about 20 million.

3 Tyler, Patrick. Plan On Iraq Coup Told To Congress. New York Times, February 9, 1992.

4 Sciolino, Elaine. Greater U.S. Effort Backed To Oust Iraqi. New York Times, June 2, 1992.

5 The Iraqi National Congress and the International Community. Document provided by INC representatives, February 1993.

6 Baram, Amatzia. From Radicalism to Radical Pmgmatism: The Shiite Fundamentalist Opposition Movements of Iraq, in Piscatori, James, ed. Islamic Fundamentalism and the Gulf Crisis. Chicago, Illinois: The Fundamentalism Project, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1991. Pp. 34-35.

7 An account of this shift in U.S. strategy is essayed in Hoagland, Jim. How CIA's Secret War On Saddam Collapsed. Washington Post, June 26, 1997.

8 Burgess, John and Ottaway, David. Iraqi Opposition Unable to Mount Viable Challenge. Washington Post, February 12, 1998.

9 This Executive order of December 4, 1981 superseded a similar directive issued by President Gerald Ford.

10 Weiner, Tim. CIA Drafts Covert Plan to Topple Hussein. New York Times, February 26, 1998.

11 These claims are not related directly to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf war. The latter invasion-related claims are handled through a separate U.N. process established specifically for the purpose of compensating the victims of Iraq's aggression against Kuwait.