Saddam Hussein’s assault on the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq has undermined a covert operation by the CIA aimed at overthrowing the Iraqi leader, senior administration officials say.
The handful of CIA clandestine officers overseeing a stepped-up covert operation in northern Iraq fled the country last week as Iraqi forces occupied the city of Irbil, an intelligence official said.
They were the only U.S. spies left in the mountains and valleys north of Baghdad, and they left behind a fragmented cadre of agents - among them Iraqi military defectors and Kurdish rebels.
President Clinton expanded the covert operation in January, signing a secret order directing the CIA to provide weapons, organize some military training and install some intelligence-gathering equipment for the fractious groups seeking to unseat Saddam, the officials said.
But the departure of the U.S. intelligence officers involved in this effort, who left along with State Department and U.S. military personnel, will make the operation in northern Iraq “very difficult” to continue, one official said.
It will be hard for the U.S. officers to return anytime soon to the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq, one of the most important of several staging grounds for the Iraqi resistance to Saddam.
Although his armed forces have left Irbil, which they occupied on Aug. 31, U.S. officials say the Iraqi leader left behind a large secret police force to infiltrate the area, with orders to root out his opponents.
Their list of people to arrest and interrogate would presumably include Iraqis they suspected, correctly or not, of working with U.S. intelligence. They have already arrested and imprisoned some 1,500 suspected Iraqi and Kurdish opposition figures, said a senior member of the Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of resistance organizations.
A state department spokesman, Glyn Davies, said again Friday that Saddam’s secret police had created “a very massive security presence” that remained “very much a factor to be dealt with, in Irbil as well as around it.”
But he said he could not confirm the Iraqi National Congress’ assertion that 1,500 people had been arrested. The fate of the much smaller number of resistance figures actually working with the CIA is unknown.
The Iraqi National Congress is one of the two major dissident groups receiving funds from the CIA. All told, the agency is spending about $20 million this year toward the elusive goal of removing Saddam from power, the administration officials said.
Since at least 1992 the United States has supported the Iraqi opposition groups with money, information, propaganda tools like radio stations and communications gear like encrypted telephones. The sum being spent this year represents an increase of about $6 million from 1995.
That increase reflects the most recent presidential order expanding the covert program, which now includes intelligence-gathering equipment, relatively modest amounts of light weaponry, and coordination of military training provided by senior Iraqi military defectors, the officials said.
One official described this year’s program as “an enhanced effort to get rid of Saddam,” principally directed “at causing more trouble within his own military,” by eroding his support within the senior ranks of the Iraqi armed forces, thus increasing the chances of a military coup.
The aim of the newest program against Saddam, another official said, was “basically to overthrow him with weapons, propaganda and training.” But a Pentagon official said that relatively few Iraqi military officers have defected and signed up for the covert program, and to expect such a force to overthrow the Iraqi leader was “naive” and “ludicrous.”
The stepped-up covert program has accomplished little, administration officials said, due to deep divisions within the Iraqi and Kurdish opposition groups.
Click here to comment on this story »