WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has "dramatically intensified" planning for military training of Iraqi opponents of President Saddam Hussein, an opposition group leader said Wednesday.
Francis Brooke, Washington representative of the Iraqi National Congress, said the discussions are consistent with the terms of 1998 legislation that authorizes $97 million to "arm and equip" an Iraqi opposition force.
Only about $5 million of those funds has been spent, reflecting administration wariness about the effectiveness of the INC, an umbrella opposition organization.
Brooke said the White House and the Pentagon have recently shown far more interest in dealing with the INC, part of a broader administration effort to lay the basis for an eventual military attack against Saddam.
President Bush has said he has not yet made a decision on whether to try to dislodge Saddam by force. Bush has been studying options on how such an attack might be carried out.
Also on Wednesday, U.S. diplomats at the United Nations were consulting with U.N. Security Council colleagues on the wording of one or perhaps two new resolutions that would spell out terms for the return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq.
The U.S. diplomats were lobbying for language that would authorize the use of military force against Iraq if the Iraqis interfered with the work of the inspectors.
All along, the administration has been increasingly insistent on the need for regime change in Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney said recently the United States could face devastating consequences from any delay in acting to remove Saddam from power.
On Tuesday, Britain bolstered the administration's case by issuing a report alleging that the Iraqis could launch chemical or biological warheads within 45 minutes of an order to use them.
The INC has had substantial support on Capitol Hill but has had difficulty winning the confidence of the current and previous administrations.
Leon Fuerth, who served as Vice President Al Gore's top national security aide, derided the INC earlier this year as a group of exiles "with little internal cohesion and no credibility anywhere in the U.S. government, or among any of the governments in the Middle East."
But the INC's stock seemed to rise in August when its top leaders spent 2-1/2 hours at the White House for a video conference call with Vice President Dick Cheney, who was at his home in Wyoming. After the conversations with Cheney and other administration officials, INC leader Ahmed Chalabi suggested the INC had turned a corner with the administration.
"They told us that they will help us liberate our country," Chalabi said. "This is commensurate with President Bush's policy of regime change and that is what we want to hear. We are very, very heartened."