WASHINGTON—President Bush has secretly authorized a major expansion in the number of Iraqi opposition groups that could participate in a possible U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, American officials said.
Bush signed a classified order, known as a Presidential Decision Directive, last month that added at least six groups to the seven already approved to receive U.S. financial aid, humanitarian assistance and military training under the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The move is part of an effort to unify as much of the Iraqi opposition as possible in advance of any invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein. The opposition has been riven for years by ideological disputes, ethnic and religious feuds, periodic alliances with Saddam and personal rivalries.
"We have held out for ourselves the possibility that some groups could be added to the ILA (Iraq Liberation Act)," a senior administration official, who also asked not to be identified, told Knight Ridder. "These people have a big chance and it's up to them to take it."
The Iraq Liberation Act made toppling Saddam U.S. policy and appropriated $97 million to pay for financial assistance, humanitarian aid and military training for opposition groups designated by the president.
Invasion plans being drawn up by the U.S. military call for opposition members to work closely with U.S. forces as translators, guides and scouts. They also may guard Iraqi prisoners of war and help keep the peace between Iraq's disparate religious and ethnic groups after Saddam's ouster.
The new groups receiving U.S. support are relatively minor players among the more than 30 factions within the Iraqi opposition. They are not as strong as the Kurdish groups that have autonomy in northern Iraq or Shiite Muslim Arabs from the south who are backed by Iran.
Instead, their value lies in their ability to promote support for a U.S.-led invasion among military officers, ruling Baath Party officials and key tribal and ethnic leaders inside Iraq with whom they maintain contact.
The Bush administration is seeking the broadest participation of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups in any U.S.-led military operation and in efforts to determine the makeup of a transitional government and a post-Saddam political system. Bush has said he is interested only in eliminating the threat of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, ending his dictatorship and replacing him with a democratic system that represents all of Iraq.
The senior administration official said the administration is still working on its plan for running Iraq once Saddam is ousted. The leading option is to have the U.S. military quickly turn governance of the country over to some kind of international authority that would have Iraqi advisers.
"It will over time shift from outsiders to Iraqis," he said.
One consequence of extending U.S. support to more Iraqi opposition groups may be marginalizing Ahmed Chalabi, the de facto head of the main opposition coalition, the Iraqi National Congress, or INC, who for years has been the leading voice of anti-Saddam dissent.
Chalabi commands strong support in Congress and is close to senior civilian Pentagon officials who are among the foremost advocates of a U.S. invasion. But he is considered a self-promoter and mistrusted by the State Department, the CIA and other Iraqi oppositionists. Nor is he believed to command a significant following within Iraq.
Chalabi and some U.S.-based independent dissidents are feuding with other key opposition factions over a Nov. 22 opposition conference in Brussels on the future of Iraq. They assert that the allocation of seats favors authoritarian groups bent on carving post-Saddam Iraq into political fiefdoms based on ethnicity and religion, and they are urging the State Department to force a re-allocation of seats.
Opposition leaders who plan to attend the meeting deny those charges. They say the conference is a rare opportunity to put aside their crippling differences and unite around a call for Saddam's ouster.
"The world is watching. Those that do not attend will lose out," Qubad Talabani, the Washington representative of the Patriotic Front of Kurdistan, one of two Kurdish parties from northern Iraq, said in an e-mail.
The Bush administration is trying to remain above the fray, anxious to avoid creating the impression that it is orchestrating the conference and its outcome.
The Iraqi opposition groups should resolve their problems "in an open and democratic manner," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday.
The U.S. officials declined to identify the new groups Bush authorized to receive U.S. support under the Iraq Liberation Act.
But several Iraqi opposition activists, speaking on condition they not be identified, said they include two groups of former military officers: the London-based Iraqi National Coalition and the Iraqi National Movement, which has offices in Damascus, Syria and in Washington.
Another is the Iraqi Turkman Front, a coalition of organizations of the ethnic Turkman minority in northern Iraq that is supported by neighboring Turkey. The new groups are believed to also include ethnic Assyrians, a tiny Christian minority.
The groups already covered by the Iraq Liberation Act include the London-based INC, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Iran-based fundamentalist Shiite Muslims from southern Iraq, and the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the main parties in Kurd-dominated northern Iraq.
Also: the Iraqi National Accord, mostly former army officers and officials of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, who are Arabs from central Iraq and members of Islam's Sunni sect; the Constitutional Monarchy Movement; and a party of fundamentalist Shiite Kurds.
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.