WASHINGTON – Leaders of the Iraqi opposition have been meeting with Bush administration Cabinet members and other high-level officials over the past week, the highest-level series of meetings ever granted to the dissident groups.
Some see the meetings as proof that things are falling into place for the U.S. initiative of "regime change" in Baghdad. But opposition officials also hope it means the United States is ready to pay long-disputed funding approved by Congress for opposition activities.
White House backing for the opposition's Washington office may be the most tangible sign yet that the United States is serious about going after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and is now willing to help fund the fight inside Iraq.
Fox News has been given an exclusive look at the headquarters of the Iraqi opposition's "information collection program," a network of informants gathering intelligence inside Iraq and spiriting it out to the Iraqi National Congress, or INC, located in Washington.
"It is our opening to the people inside Iraq and it is our message to them and our conduit to the people who are under Saddam's control who want to participate in the liberation of Iraq," said Ahmed Chalabi, head of the INC.
Members of the opposition want to keep a low profile for fear of retaliation by Saddam's government, but until recently they have had a more pressing concern -- paying the bills for the building that houses them and the equipment to monitor activities.
The State Department, the main conduit for U.S. funding for the Iraqi opposition, has refused to support operations inside Iraq, which has resulted in the entire last installment of aid -- $8 million -- to be frozen since April.
But the Pentagon has now agreed to underwrite the information-collection program and the INC believes the disputed $8 million should now be freed up.
"The INC has preserved its mission and as I'm happy to say, come to an agreement for a practical solution with the U.S. government," Chalabi said.
In fact, the INC said its officials were at the State Department on Wednesday working out how to allocate those funds.
Nevertheless, State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker insists the matter is not settled.
"We are still awaiting a formal response from the INC to that offer," Reeker said.
But Chalabi is confident that things will work out. "Our position with the State Department has been that of a difficult ally. We have various points of disagreement on tactics, but they're always supportive of our strategic goal," he said.
As proof of that, even in the midst of their latest disputes with the INC, the State Department launched its own project on the "future of Iraq," setting up six working groups of experts and expatriates to focus on issues like a democratic justice system, public health and the environment.
And despite some possible bureaucratic glitches, Chalabi said last week's meetings with the Bush Cabinet made clear that their most important ally of all is definitely on board.
"President Bush! The president of the United States has declared this policy, the policy is a regime change in Iraq."