Inside the Secret Campaign to Topple Saddam

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A large statue of Saddam Hussein looms over workers at a sculptor?s studio in Baghdad

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Is the message getting through? Exile groups insist that the traffic from within Iraq to their offices has reached a new high. An official with the Iraqi National Congress (I.N.C.) in London says, "We are getting a significantly higher level of contacts from regime insiders, including very senior ones in circles around Saddam." Sometimes, this official claims, such contacts have been in telephone calls direct from Iraq, something the I.N.C. hasn't seen before. Ghassan Atiyyah, a former Iraqi diplomat who edits the Iraq File, a monthly newsletter, in London, says his answering machine has taken messages from people inside Iraq telling him of the movement of weapons.

The exile groups, however, remain at loggerheads with one another. Kurds, Shi'ites, Sunnis, former officers, monarchists and the London-based I.N.C., led by Ahmad Chalabi—the longtime favorite of hard-liners in Washington—continue to jockey for advantage. Last week, for the third time, a conference designed to bring all the opposition groups together so they could agree on the shape of a post-Saddam Iraq was canceled. The various groups still can't agree on how many delegates should be at the meeting (rescheduled for London in December) or how they should be chosen.

After Bush signed the Presidential Decision Directive authorizing the training of thousands of Iraqis for reconnaissance and other missions, the Pentagon asked the six main opposition groups for the names of 10,000 potential recruits. The I.N.C. has taken the lead in supplying the names, but few have been received so far. "The names just aren't coming in as quickly as we would like," says a State Department official. "And to be honest, we always asked for 10,000 with the hope that 1 out of 8 would be a valid candidate." One problem: checking the records of those nominated. "We have to make sure no one is a terrorist or double agent," says the State Department official. "You don't want to be training anyone who's going to wind up running back to Baghdad giving the full names of everyone he was in some training class with." Even when trust is not an issue, background checks are important; some of the most useful recruits—those with military backgrounds—are likely to have unsavory histories as Saddam henchmen.

The I.N.C.'s Chalabi continues to divide the allies. Even his supporters in Washington were annoyed when he began crowing about the release of money for a secret spy program in Iraq. "He got a call from (the Pentagon)," says the State Department official, "saying 'Cease and desist—you're going to screw this deal.'" Chalabi may live in London, but he is not a favorite of British officials. "The I.N.C. has precious little influence inside Iraq," says one. "People see them as corrupt and Chalabi as a bit of a fraudster." The Kurds dominate in the north and are often at odds with Chalabi. In the south, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, led by Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and backed by Tehran (southern Iraq, like Iran, is mostly Shi'ite), has more clout.

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