In Views: Liberty Postponed in Iraq

Sometimes a little history helps us understand the present.

On Jan. 16, 1991, two days after a U.N.-mandated deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait had expired, the United States and our allies initiated hostilities against Saddam Hussein. The attack began with a massive bombardment of Saddam’s military forces and infrastructure throughout Iraq and Kuwait by U.S. and allied ships and aircraft.

On Feb. 23, the allied ground offensive commenced and by 0500 on Feb. 28, 1991, "Persian Gulf War I" was over.

The Iraqi people, encouraged by the horrendous punishment inflicted on Saddam Hussein’s instruments of power, were led to believe that the United States and our allies would support them in overthrowing the despot. But rebellions in 1991 and 1995, launched with the encouragement of U.S. and British intelligence officers, were met with overwhelming force by Saddam and apathy in Washington. Tens of thousands of Kurdish and Shia fighters and their family members were killed and the Iraqi internal opposition was all but crushed. One of those wounded in the futile fight of 1995 described it to me as "the Iraqi Bay of Pigs."

Exactly twelve years to the month that Persian Gulf War I began, the leaders of a reconstituted Iraqi opposition movement arrived in Washington for quiet talks with U.S. officials. Encouraged by six months of heated rhetoric about the need for a "regime change" in Baghdad, a U.N. resolution threatening violence if Saddam fails to disarm and a massive U.S. military build up in the Persian Gulf, the newly unified opposition came prepared, once again, to put it all on the line to liberate their country.

During months of meetings in Europe, resistance leaders have set aside age-old enmities and drafted what amounts to a "Declaration of Independence" and a formula for political power sharing in a "post-Saddam" Baghdad. Despite a lack of funds, Iraqi Army defectors and dissidents arriving in resistance camps along the Iraqi border, out of the reach of Saddam’s Amn Al-Khass special reprisal units and his brutal Republican Guards, have been getting training and equipment in preparation for an uprising.

On Jan. 9, the resistance leaders met at the Pentagon with Department of Defense Officials who approved the opposition’s plan to return to their native land and declare a permanent "Provisional Government for Free Iraq." The following day, President George W. Bush met in the Oval Office with the opposition leaders and gave them his blessing.

The resistance officials I spoke with on condition of anonymity after these meetings said that, "the green light was given." Defense Department participants confirmed this assessment. By Jan.13, preparations were underway for the resistance leaders to announce their Provisional Government from inside Iraq not later than Jan. 21.

Before he left for the meeting in Iraq, I asked Dr. Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, what they would do if Saddam responded to their "Declaration of Independence" by attacking as he did in 1995. He replied, "We will appeal to the international community for help.... We have been assured that the U.S. will respond to our plea for liberation, just like the French answered America’s call in 1781."

I reminded Dr. Chalabi that we started asking Paris for help in 1776, and they didn’t get around to it for five more years. He responded, "It better not take your Marines that long to get to Iraq!" It shouldn’t. But it might.

By Jan. 15, the plan that Pentagon officials and the resistance leadership had been working on for months – and that President Bush had endorsed – was "on hold." This delay isn’t the consequence of some recently discovered vulnerability. It’s not being caused by the opposition getting "cold feet." And it’s not because of "lack of training" or "supply inadequacies" in the opposition’s growing military arm. No, the declaration of "Free Iraq" has been put on hold because the Freedom Fighters are caught in a deadly crossfire – not in Iraq – but in Washington – between the State Department and the Pentagon.

This is nothing new. The Department of State and the CIA have been so reluctant to carry out the provisions of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act that by the end of Fiscal Year 2002, less than $5 million of the $97 million appropriated by Congress to overthrow Saddam had been spent. Radio Free Iraq has yet to come on the air. Last October, concerned at the lack of action, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld urged President Bush to re-allocate the remaining $92 million in funding for the Iraqi Freedom Fighters. He did – and the Pentagon took over.

But that hasn’t solved all the problems for those who would liberate Iraq. They need staging areas, logistics bases and safe-area hospitals. Yet, the State Department has been so reluctant to press Turkey for this kind of support that the issue has been added to Joint Chiefs Chairman General Richard Myers’ agenda next week in Ankara. And now, in a last ditch effort to preempt action by the Iraqi Resistance, the State Department and the CIA are warning against doing anything that would interfere with Saddam Hussein’s rumored plans to abdicate power and seek self-imposed exile in Libya. When I asked one resistance leader about this, he could only say, "Delay for this? Why?"

Yet delay is all we hear these days. Hans Blix and his blind mice weapons inspectors want a six-month delay in any action so that they may "finish their work." France and Germany want to delay military action against Saddam until the U.N. Security Council votes another resolution. And our State Department and CIA apparently want the Iraqi Resistance to delay forever their "Declaration of Independence." President Bush needs to remind them all that delay is not the friend of liberty.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Network and the founder and honorary chairman of Freedom Alliance.