WASHINGTON — Just weeks after becoming secretary of State last spring, Madeleine Albright confidently said the Clinton administration was ready to assist any "successor regime" in Iraq after the ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But in the wake of the latest standoff with Hussein, it appears that the United States has greatly curtailed its campaign to destabilize the Iraqi dictator.
The head of a CIA-generated opposition group says he is receiving no assistance of any kind from the United States for what he insists is a continuing effort to topple the Iraqi dictator.
Ahmad Chalabi, president of the exiled Iraqi National Congress, said in a recent Washington speech that his group could mount an effective campaign against Hussein if it could get economic and political help from the administration.
He said the National Congress could establish a "provisional government" in the northern Iraq "no-fly" zone if the United States and its patrolling allies not only kept out Iraqi aircraft but also Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles. To pay for the opposition effort, he called on Washington to turn over frozen Iraqi financial assets being held in the U.S.
"This provisional government, once installed within the existing parameters of the 'no-fly' zone . . . [and] armed with those funds and resources, can very quickly attract large numbers of Iraqi army units and [Republican] Guard units to join them," he told a meeting sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.
Chalabi and his Kurdish allies operated almost as an autonomous government in the northern "no-fly" zone until August 1996, when Hussein crushed their rebellion with a huge show of military force. Most of the National Congress supporters were killed or evacuated to the United States.
Although CIA sponsorship of the National Congress was never much of a secret, Chalabi said the Americans discouraged his group from going too far.
For instance, he said, U.S. officials advised a defecting Iraqi general in November 1995 to flee to Jordan instead of joining forces with the National Congress in northern Iraq. And, he said, U.S. officials threw cold water on plans to declare a provisional government.
U.S. officials deny Chalabi's charge that his group was undercut by the United States. But officials say the National Congress never was strong enough to mount a successful challenge to Hussein.
The official authorization of a covert campaign against Iraq was issued by then-President Bush in 1991 after the Persian Gulf War ended. Clinton continued it.
But U.S. intelligence officials say the plan was never designed to bring about the immediate overthrow of Hussein. It was, instead, designed to cause enough disruption within Iraq so as to make life difficult for the regime. The purpose was to sustain the opposition until a real challenger emerged, probably from within the Iraqi armed forces.
Intelligence sources say leaders of the National Congress understood from the beginning the limits of U.S. involvement.
"The U.S. team was always straightforward with Chalabi," said a source familiar with the covert action program.
CIA officials also made it clear to the U.S. Congress that they did not believe that the Iraqi group could ever take power.
Chalabi complained that the U.S. policy was based on wishful thinking that a military coup would topple Hussein.
The State Department insisted that the administration continues to support Chalabi's group.
"We support the Iraqi opposition of which the [National Congress] is an element and an important element," a department official said. "We have regular contact with a variety of groups, including the INC."
But Richard Haass, the National Security Council Middle East expert in the Bush administration, said Chalabi and his allies never had "the internal strength in Iraq to pose a serious threat to the regime."
"I don't believe that Saddam Hussein can be toppled by support for groups like Mr. Chalabi's," said Haass, now director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Only when the core [of the Iraqi regime] turns on Saddam will he be ousted."