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Opposing Saddam

August 8, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Officially, these armed Iraqis dressed in military uniforms, marching in Baghdad today, were commemorating the end of the Iran-Iraq war 14 years ago. But Saddam Hussein and his government also were responding to increasing war talk in Washington, and asserting their willingness to defend their nation. And on Iraqi national television Hussein denounced those who said were governed by the devil.

PRESIDENT SADDAM HU.S.SEIN (Translated): The forces of evil will carry their coffins on their backs to die in disgraceful failure. They will dig their own graves after they bring death to themselves on every Arab or Muslim soil against which they perpetrate aggression.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hussein also branded as “traitors” the Iraqi opposition leaders now gathering in Washington. They were invited by the Bush administration last month. Washington began looking for potential opponents to Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War ended with him still in power.

The U.S. began funding groups that oppose Hussein, and continued to do so even as tensions developed among the groups. Some in the U.S. government also doubt the groups’ effectiveness in opposing Hussein.

A key opposition group is the Iraqi National Congress. The INC is an umbrella organization led by Ahmed Chalabi, a Shi’a Muslim exile based in London. The U.S. government helped establish the group.

Its members include the patriotic union of Kurdistan, a group of minority Kurds in northern Iraq. Jalal Talabani leads the PUK. The INC also represents: The Constitutional Monarchy Movement led by the exiled Iraqi royal family, which was overthrown by the military in 1958; the INA, a group of Iraqi military officials who have defected and now live outside Iraq; and the Supreme Council of the Islamic revolution in Iraq, a Shi’a group based in Iran.

Shi’a Muslims represent 60 percent of Iraq’s population, though Saddam’s government is largely Sunni. The umbrella INC has received millions of dollars from the State Department and the Pentagon. Some of its funding had been suspended during an investigation of accounting practices.

In Washington today, INC Member Sharif Ali Bin al- Hussein, head of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, appeared at a crowded news conference. Al-Hussein denied the Iraqi opposition is divided, and he said the Iraqi people would not fight to defend Saddam Hussein’s regime. He was asked about what Hussein said today.

SHARIF ALI BIN AL-HUSSEIN: Saddam Hussein believes that he is going to be attacked by the United States. They are behaving inside Iraq as if it’s an imminent attack. He will be defiant to get the sympathy of Arab public opinion, but he will pretend to be conciliatory in diplomatic fields so that he can put off any attack.

KWAME HOLMAN: Al-Hussein and the other opposition leaders will meet tomorrow with senior officials of the State Department and the Pentagon.

MARGARET WARNER: And with me now to discuss their upcoming meetings with the Bush administration and the possibility of cooperating to topple Saddam Hussein are Sharif Ali Bin Al-Hussein, leader of one of the groups in the INC, the Constitutional Monarchy Movement. He’s also heir to the throne of Iraq and a member of the INC Leadership Council.

And Barham Salih, the prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government that controls the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, protected by U.S. and British war planes. He’s a member of one of the two main Kurdish factions: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Both will attend the meetings tomorrow.

And welcome to you both.

Mr. Salih, beginning with you, what do you hope to get out of these meetings?

BARHAM SALIH: Well, we have been invited by the U.S. government to this meeting. We are hoping to hear from U.S. officials about the status of the policy review in Iraq and we certainly hope to hear that the United States is unequivocally committed to a vision of a democratic pluralistic federal Iraq that will restore Iraq back into the civilized community of nations.

MARGARET WARNER: What are you looking for, Mr. Al-Hussein?

SHARIF ALI BIN AL-HUSSEIN: Well, as with the opposition is united, we’re looking for exactly the same thing as Dr. Barham is looking for, that we have a commitment from the United States to a post-Saddam Hussein regime that is democratic and represents the will of the Iraqi people, and that under no circumstances will it be acceptable that one dictator is replaced by another.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Al-Hussein, American officials are saying what they want from this meeting is a commitment from all of you to cooperate better among yourselves if you’re going to be reliable allies and partners for this effort. What are the prospects of that?

SHARIF ALI BIN AL-HUSSEIN: Well, in fact, we have been cooperating for many years now. We don’t see any problem with that. We have the same objectives, removing this regime and establishing democracy. We coordinate our activities. We are members of different coalitions. I mean my colleague Dr. Barham Salih’s party is a member of the American National Congress, as are we.

So there is a great deal of cooperation, coordination and common goals. So we’re hoping to hear from the United States what they’ve got to offer, and if they are willing to commit to promoting democracy in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Salih, same question to you. For instance, American officials point out that, even in this autonomous region, you have two rival Kurdish groups controlling different portions of the territory.

Why would it be any different in an endeavor to get rid of Saddam Hussein?

BARHAM SALIH: Well, Iraqi opposition and Iraqi society, and Kurdish society, are no different to other societies. We have a very diverse range of opinions and interests in our society.

Regrettably, unlike the United States, we do not have strong institutions that can arbitrate those different interests through the ballot box. I hope the day will be near when we have that opportunity. Even you referred to the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, yes, we have differences, we have two major Kurdish groupings and we have differences, but we are learning to live with those differences.

And the facts on the ground speak eloquently to the reality that we have been cooperating on the big issues, cooperating in terms of developing democratic institutions and producing a situation that is in marked contrast to the rest of Iraq.

Here in Iraqi Kurdistan, about 20 percent of the Iraqi territory but home to about four million people. Really a very different situation is emerging. Every indicator of quality of life is improving and contrasting that to the rest of Iraq, I think it shows that the Iraqi opposition, the Kurdish movement, can do better. And Iraq can be a better place.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Mr. Al-Hussein, I think everyone knows that, at least you share the goal of getting rid of Saddam Hussein. And my question to you is:

Do you think that the only way to get rid of Saddam Hussein is for the U.S. to take military action? Do you see any alternative?

SHARIF ALI BIN AL-HUSSEIN: I think, had we had more support from the international community and from regional countries, we could have done the job ourselves.

But the United States’ decision is its own decision. We can’t influence that decision and I think military action is based on the interests of the United States.

We intend to take advantage of that, and we intend to minimize as much as possible casualties to the Iraqi people.

We are going to expect to rise up against Saddam Hussein, both the military and the population once the United States starts attacking. And so we feel that we will be doing most of the work on the ground around Saddam Hussein, with the support of the United States. This is obviously a great advantage to have the United States carry out a military attack. We had wished it wasn’t so — that policy had been different and given the opportunity for the Iraqi people to do the job.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said today at the press conference and you hinted at this now, that you thought that no one, virtually no one within Iraq would actually defend Saddam Hussein. I think you said even the military.

If that’s the case, why hasn’t the military toppled him before now?

SHARIF ALI BIN AL-HUSSEIN: Because he has a formidable rein of terror, that any officer that is suspected of possibly conspiring against Saddam will be tortured and executed. His family will be tortured and executed.

So it’s easy for people outside to ask why doesn’t the military do anything, but when those brave officers do try, their entire family and sometimes their entire clans are wiped out. So it’s a great deal to ask from them, and many have not shirked from that responsibility and they have given their lives and will continue to do so. It’s an ongoing struggle, but we will win in the end, God willing.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Salih, what’s your view of the level of support for Saddam Hussein internally or put another way, the level of military resistance the United States would face?

BARHAM SALIH: I think it’s fair to say that Iraqis of all different backgrounds have had enough.

We have been enduring tremendous suffering, all Iraqis, in southern Iraq, in central Iraq, in northern Iraq, people are looking forward to the day of liberation, are looking forward to the day when the country becomes free and they would have the opportunity to exercise a democratic rights. I think you will find that Iraq is ripe for change, is ready for change, and Iraqis are eager for change.

MARGARET WARNER: And what kind of military support would the U.S. be able to count on from the Kurds and from the Kurdish region?

BARHAM SALIH: We have not been asked specific questions on this matter, but I can assure you that the Kurdish movements are in the forefront of the struggle for democracy in Iraq.

Yes, we have a liberated zone, we have Iraqi-Kurdistan administration or regional government that administers our territory. Things have improved drastically over the years, over the past decade at least. But this is not good enough.

We have a vital stake in bringing about a democratic Iraq that will provide a degree of security and safety for our people. Therefore, our commitment to the cause of democracy is unequivocal, and we want to see a democratic Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: But as you know, there have been reports, persistent reports, that in fact because you have this wonderful protected enclave, you have quite a bit of self-rule, that in fact a lot of Kurdish leaders are wary of this venture, and you’re the head of the — one of these groups said today in fact that you were not committed necessarily.

BARHAM SALIH: Well, we are committed to the cause of democracy. We are not interested in replacing a dictator with another dictator. We are not interested in confrontation for the sake of confrontation. We have seen many of those in the past.

What we are looking for, a real explicit, serious commitment to democracy in Iraq, a democratic Iraq that will provide the Kurds and the other constituent communities of the Iraqi society their freedom and their rights.

MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, you’re saying that you want a commitment from the Bush administration that it isn’t going to want to, for instance, just install another general as the leader of Iraq?

BARHAM SALIH: We definitely will not be interested in that, and I think the history of Iraq is very clear in that regard. The history of Iraq, contemporary Iraq has been that of internal repression and external aggression.

The reason is that because we always had a strong man — a general in Baghdad that was willing to commit all kinds of atrocities and commit the country to all kinds of adventures. That must change.

And the way it can change is to have a broad-based representative pluralistic federal government in Iraq that will be basically relying on the will of the people to govern.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get back to Mr. Al-Hussein. Now you said the United States could count on help from you.

What really would the exile community be able to do militarily to assist in the military effort?

SHARIF ALI BIN AL-HUSSEIN: Well, really it’s the opposition that is seen on the outside is the voice of the opposition on the inside, and basically it’s a supporter logistically and politically and leadership.

So the real role we would be playing would be to coordinate activities on the ground inside Iraq, which I think will be an essential role to play because there are military units and there are armed parts of the population that will rise up against Saddam Hussein once the yoke of tyranny is broken. And we intend to exploit this and to coordinate with them and organize them in a fashion that will shorten an incoming war and to be able to end the regime as quickly as possible.

This is about a regime change; it’s not about occupying a country, it’s not about defeating a foreign army. This is about regime change, and that is why the Iraqi people — both outside Iraq and inside Iraq — should be playing a central role.

MARGARET WARNER: And as you know, Mr. Al-Hussein, one of the concerns here in the United States is that, if this venture goes forward to topple Saddam Hussein that the U.S. would be committed to a long-term presence in Iraq.

Do you think that would be required? What would you be looking for from the United States after regime change?

SHARIF ALI BIN AL-HUSSEIN: Well, we don’t think that’s required at all. It should… the United States should be aware that it shouldn’t change from a liberating power to an occupying power. And it shouldn’t get involved in the administration of Iraq.

Iraq is a modern country with its own national institutions and with personnel in the government that are highly effective and highly capable. And what we need is U.S. support for the infrastructure for Iraq, for rebuilding its institution, integrity and its economic infrastructure.

That’s where we can use the United States’ help, and also in being a moderator or giving us the right environment in which we can work together politically. But the United States should be able to help the Iraqi people achieve their proper ambitions and goals and be able to leave the country as quickly as possible and leave the running of the country to the Iraqi people.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both briefly before we go, beginning with you Mr. Salih.

Many leaders from your opposition groups have expressed some bitterness towards the United States — based on uprisings in the past that the U.S. sort of encouraged but didn’t ultimately support militarily — how comfortable are you now entering into some sort of a partnership with the United States?

BARHAM SALIH: We are obviously very interested in getting an expressed guarantee from the United States, an overt guarantee that the people of Iraq will not be left high and dry. We do not want to repeat the episodes of the past.

We have a real opportunity for democratic transformation in Iraq, and an Iraq that that will be anchored in friendship towards the United States and the international community at large. This is an opportunity that must not be missed.

MARGARET WARNER: And Mr. Al-Hussein, briefly on that point?

SHARIF ALI BIN AL-HUSSEIN: Yeah, I completely agree with that, and as does the rest of the opposition, that this is about returning democracy in Iraq. It should be about nothing else.

Without democracy in Iraq, we will end up with a regime that continues to pursue weapons of mass destruction, that will continue to pursue acquiring a nuclear weapon, that will carry out aggressive policies against its neighbors.

This is the history of dictatorship all over the world, and in particular with regard to Iraq. What needs to be done is to return democracy to Iraq, give the Iraqi people an opportunity to choose their leaders, choose a system of government, and to live in peace and harmony with their neighbors.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Mr. Al-Hussein and Mr. Salih, thank you both.