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U.S. Dispute Holds Up Covert Iraq Operation

Policy: Rift between Senate and White House blocks plan to foster opposition to Hussein, sources say.

January 05, 1999|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shelby has been "very disturbed" with the administration over what he considers to be a "reactive" policy toward Iraq, according to sources close to him.

"We react to events that Hussein controls rather than formulating and executing a strategy that would remove him from power. And until the chairman sees that policy, which includes the Iraq Liberation Act implemented at its fullest, then he's skeptical of any single piece being able to do the job by itself," the source said.

In the letter signed by Lott, Shelby, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and two other senators, the Republicans accuse the State Department and Pentagon of refusing to implement the new Iraq Liberation Act.

"Neither the Office of the Secretary of Defense nor the Joint Staff have even begun work on plans for drawdown, equipping or training the opposition," the letter complains. "Your commitment to support the political opposition to Saddam Hussein has not trickled down through the administration."

When he aborted a planned airstrike on Iraq in mid-November, Clinton pledged to work with Congress to implement the new law and "to make the opposition a more effective voice for the aspirations of the Iraqi people." That language was part of a White House effort to appease Senate concerns, despite its serious ongoing reservations about the Iraq Liberation Act, U.S. officials say.

The administration thought its commitment to engage in a dual-track approach would persuade Shelby and other Republican holdouts to approve funding for the CIA program. But it has not been forthcoming, heightening frustration within the administration and the intelligence community.

Representatives of the intelligence community have tried to convince key intelligence committee members that they learned important lessons from the fiasco of 1996, when a spat between the two main Kurdish factions offered Hussein a pretext to intervene militarily in the north. The CIA station based in the Kurdish region was hastily forced to dismantle, its operatives fled, and the effort crumbled.

U.S. officials say they can't have an effective policy without a program that includes covert operations inside Iraq. The stalled program is necessary to collect intelligence inside Iraq as well as to try to destabilize the regime, they say.

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