NEAR NASIRIYAH, IraqMore than 620 Iraqi opposition fighters have arrived in southern Iraq and been authorized to perform limited functions with U.S. special operations troops. In addition, the Pentagon has flown in Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), who has been pushing U.S. officials to create an interim Iraqi government led by the INC. The deployment of the opposition fighters represents a bid by the exile-dominated INC to stake out a central role in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
But even as the recruits for the self-proclaimed 1st Battalion of the Free Iraqi Forces (FIF) gather at a derelict facility near Nasiriyah, the deployment is already provoking controversy. Chalabi told U.S. News that local resistance forces began to seize control of local government offices Sunday in and around the southern town of Amarah. He identified the local leader as Abu Hattam, who he says has been secretly fighting Saddam inside Iraq for two decades and is a longtime INC ally. But the British forces controlling the area apparently objected. British troops sent an interpreter into Amarah on Monday and warned the opposition forces to vacate the offices in one hour or they would be considered hostile forces.
The incident in Amarah is only the latest chapter in a protracted struggle over the Iraqi opposition. The civilian leadership of the Pentagon has long lobbied for the INC to play a leading role in a future Iraq. But the State Department, the CIA, and many U.S. allies including Britain have opposed such moves in the past, arguing that the INC has little credibility inside Iraq.
INC officials say they hope that the new force will be armed soon and take part in combat with U.S. special forces. "This is part of a new Iraqi army," says Francis Brooke, an American adviser for the INC who accompanied the FIF to southern Iraq. "We want a relationship of equals."
But only a third of the Iraqi forces have any combat experience, and U.S. special operations troops on the ground currently envision a much more limited role for them. None of the FIF have yet been issued weapons.
The initial plan is to position some of these forces at U.S. checkpoints to help identify regime leaders who might be trying to flee. "We got permission from CFLCC [Coalition Forces Land Component Command in Kuwait] to begin low-level, nonlethal political contacts in Nasiriyah and Amarah this morning ," Col. Ted Seal, the U.S. political and military liaison to the Free Iraqi Forces, said Monday. The second mission will be to use them as part of the military's psychological operations aimed at convincing the Iraqi people that the United States is planning to stay. "The goal is to persuade Iraqis that Saddam and the Baath Party are going, root and branch," says Brooke.
The FIF troops were airlifted to southern Iraq by the U.S. military. The first recruits arrived on Saturday and were issued green camouflage uniforms, deliberately distinctive from the desert camouflage of U.S. troops. The FIF was originally envisioned as a force of 3,000 men and was slated for U.S. military training in Hungary. But the plan was scrapped after the security clearance process bogged down. Instead, the recruits gathered in northern Iraq in December and underwent a 40-day basic training course. About half are expatriates, while the other half had been working with opposition forces in northern Iraq.
This group is separate from the several dozen so-called Free Iraqi Forces membersunconnected to the INCwho are serving as interpreters for the U.S. military. According to some U.S. officials, Chalabi has sought to appropriate the Free Iraqi Forces name for his fighters, though the Pentagon has preferred the name Free Iraqi Fighting Force specifically to differentiate them from the pre-existing, U.S. military-sponsored FIF group of interpreters. Further confusing matters, some military officials in the region had taken to calling them Free Iraqi Freedom Fighters. However, the INC-backed fighters are going with FIF, even emblazoning the initials FIF on their shoulder patches.
With the deployment of the INC-backed fighters, the Pentagon appears to have gained the upper hand in the internal debate in Washington over how to administer post-Saddam Iraq. "Iraqis do not want to be governed by a foreign power," Chalabi said in an interview near Nasiriyah. "Meetings should be convened to choose an interim authority in conjunction with the U.S. government to turn over authority immediately to Iraqis."
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy to the Iraqi opposition, has told officials he hopes to convene a meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders at Tallil airfield near Nasiriyah as early as Saturday. White House officials have insisted that they plan to create an interim administration that would function under the guidance of American government advisers. However, President Bush's main ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, envisions a leading role for the United Nations. This debate is a major topic of Bush's meeting with Blair in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
(Linda Robinson reported from Iraq and Kevin Whitelaw from Washington.)