Part one of a two-part series

While generals and administration leaders wrangle over just how difficult a war with Iraq would be to win, some exiles from the country predict victory at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s own troops and opposition groups.

“Don’t forget — Iraq’s armed force is a conscript force, not a volunteer force,” said Khidir Hamza, Iraq’s chief nuclear weapons scientist until his escape in 1994. He added that many of the soldiers are practically enslaved, made to serve 20 years on low pay that is often stolen by officers.

“They absolutely have no loyalty to the regime. Not just no loyalty, they hate the regime. So anyone who comes in will be a liberator. Anyone will be heaven-sent.”

Hamza predicts that Saddam Hussein would fall within days of an allied attack. He envisions a campaign fronted by exiled Iraqis taking on Baghdad from the ground, with the American-led alliance protecting them via airpower.

Hamza believes defectors from within Iraqi’s military would join these exiles.

“A lot of people are ready to turn around,” he said.

Similar to Afghanistan?

Though cynics abound, Hamza is not the only one prophesying such a victory. And it wouldn’t be entirely unlike the U.S. war in Afghanistan, where members of the Northern Alliance — rebels opposed to the Afghanistan regime — were used to take on the Taliban.

“Definitely, at the end of the day, the Iraqi people, including the Iraqi army, are the ones who will take Saddam out of Baghdad,” said Faisal Qaragholi, operations officer for the Iraqi National Congress, the largest opposition group, based in London.

Qaragholi acknowledges that thousands of exiles were referred to the United States military for training in preparation for an attack.

Last week, Hungary approved a U.S. request to train 3,000 exiles at Taszar air base early next year. Peter Matyuc, spokesman for Hungary’s Ministry of Defense, said his country demanded that those in training not be armed with anything more than handguns, and that they not be deployed with combat units.

Qaragholi said he wants exiles trained as military translators rather than fighters.

“We don’t want Iraqis fighting Iraqis.”

But he, too, predicts a swift fall for Saddam if American and British air power supports mutineering Iraqi soldiers and citizens, which was not the case in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Then- President George H.W. Bush urged the people of Iraq to overthrow Saddam, and the Kurds and Shiites tried. But Saddam’s helicopters quickly quenched those rebellions, and the revolutionaries received no help from the West.

“They stood aside watching the Iraqi gunships and heavy artillery oppressing our people,” Qaragholi said of the Gulf War coalition.

Kurds: Ready to fight

Kurds in northwest Iraq claim to have 60,000 soldiers ready to fight Saddam, while those in northeast Iraq claim they can wrangle 100,000. Weapons expert Hamza believes this latter figure is exaggerated, but believes the Kurds are serious, nonetheless.

Qaragholi, an opposition umbrella group lieutenant, sees all of Iraq alight with revolution, if only its people could be certain of Western assistance from the air.

“When you paralyze the heavy equipment of Saddam Hussein, the people will [revolt] by themselves.”

The Pentagon has, in the past, shown interest in the idea of Iraqis fighting to oust Saddam. In October, Defense Department officials said the president approved $92 million to train exiles as soldiers, specialized scouts and interpreters.

Now, officials are silent on the plan.

“No decision has been made on this, or even where [training] would be,” said Army Maj. Tim Blair, a Defense Department spokesman. “Our hands are kind of tied up at this point on what we can say.”

In October, Iran announced it is preparing to unleash a force made up of as many as 12,000 exiled Iraqi Shiite fighters on the occasion of a U.S.-led attack on Saddam.

Strategy experts, meanwhile, are skeptical as to how much stock the United States should invest in the expectation that Saddam’s opponents will dethrone him.

“It’s fairly clear it would be a token role at most,” Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the exiles’ role.

‘Too divided’

“In general, they will be too divided and have too many conflicting goals on the post-war Iraq to play a significant role.”

At the same time, Cordesman believes they could be helpful in establishing ties in a new Iraq, such as handling cultural sensitivities in the areas from which they hail.

And while Cordesman said he would be surprised if there were no revolts in Iraq if war arrives, he wouldn’t bet on that as an easy way to oust Saddam.

“Most Iraqis have spent their entire life under Saddam Hussein’s control,” Cordesman said. “It is an effective dictatorship.”

That — combined with the varying agendas of exiled groups ranging from Islamists to monarchists — makes the war scenario extremely complex, he argues, and certainly no cinch to predict.

“It’s a highly-divided country, with various levels of loyalty within,” Cordesman said. “If you don’t deal with Iraq in terms of nuance, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Earlier this month, Iraqi opposition leaders met in London to plan for a future Iraq without Saddam. They established a 65-member committee to rule in the wake of his ouster. That committee plans to meet again next month in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

The exiles believe that with help from the skies their victory is at hand, regardless of the course Saddam takes.

“Knowing Saddam, he thrives on conflict,” Qaragholi said. “But I think his time is coming very soon.”

— Tomorrow: Would Iraq use chemical weapons against the United States?

Opposition in exile: How many troops?

Iraqi groups against Saddam Hussein claim they can muster thousands of troops or military aides to help the United States dethrone the dictator. Though they often don’t agree on the specifics of a postwar regime, they seem to agree that Iraqis can take on Baghdad — with Western help.

The six most notable groups are offering to volunteer exiles for military training, already have forces of their own, or predict internal revolt once an attack starts:

¶ Iraqi National Congress: an umbrella organization of several anti-Saddam groups, based in London. Though it maintains no military, it recently forwarded the Pentagon the names of some 5,000 Iraqi exiles seeking military training from the United States.

¶ The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq: a Shiite faction that has sought refuge from within neighboring Iran. Estimates are that its Badr Brigade boasts from 4,000 to 12,000 troops commanded by Iranian officers. Iran recently announced it would allow them to enter Iraq to fight if a war starts.

¶ Kurdistan Democratic Party: self-governing group in northwest Iraq protected by the U.S.- and British-enforced no-fly zone. These Kurds claim to have 60,000 troops, both active and reserve.

¶ Patriotic Union of Kurdistan: another self-governing group of Kurds protected by the no-fly zone, this time in northeast Iraq. The group claims it could muster 100,000 soldiers, though experts doubt the figure. The group also boasts tanks and anti-aircraft weapons.

¶ Iraqi National Accord: a group originally organized by military and security officers who defected from Iraq, with offices in London and in Jordan. It claims to maintain operatives throughout Iraq. In 1996, Baghdad arrested 100 military officers and executed 30 others allegedly tied to the group, but an INA spokesman has denied the charges, calling the group “the most infiltration proof of all political parties inside Iraq.”

¶ Constitutional Monarchy Movement: wants to restore the monarchy that was toppled in 1958 with the execution of King Faisal II. His heir and cousin, Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, has called for Saddam’s ouster at the hands of his oppressed subjects, and points to 1991’s revolt as evidence such would happen if only they had Western support. The would-be monarch has said he believes that the United States is ready to help revolutionaries this time.

Sources: Security analyses, media reports and Iraqi opposition.

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