Originally created 02/04/03

Iraqi fighter-cleric: war to oust Saddam 'inevitable'



TEHRAN, Iran -- A U.S.-led attack on Iraq appears "inevitable," but any ground battles must be spearheaded by Iraqi opposition forces, the leader of the biggest Iraqi dissident faction said Monday.

Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite Muslim opposition group based in Tehran, suggested that his forces would enter Iraq from neighboring Iran if war comes.

"Our preferred solution is that the international community - including the United States - provide support, including air support, and let the Iraqi opposition do the job of toppling Saddam Hussein," al-Hakim told The Associated Press.

"It is the Iraqis who have the responsibility of changing the regime."

The United States, though, has shown little interest in working with the Iraqi opposition in the way it coordinated with Afghan militias already fighting the Taliban when the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan began. The U.S. reluctance may stem from past internal rifts among the anti-Saddam exile groups and al-Hakim's close ties with Iran's vehemently anti-U.S. leadership.

The United States on Monday began training Iraqis at a camp in Hungary to play combat support roles in a possible war. The few dozen volunteers recruited from Iraqi opposition groups around the world at the camp were the first of up to 3,000 that Hungary has said it would let train at a base on condition they not receive combat training.

Some Iraqi opposition leaders fear a full-scale American invasion would give Washington overwhelming leverage to shape a post-Saddam government. Al-Hakim's group could suffer under such a scenario because of its close ties to Iran's leadership.

Al-Hakim said a large U.S. military presence on Iraqi soil could unleash anti-American guerrilla fighters and fray the newly repaired alliances between the Iraqi opposition groups.

"We could see a social breakdown," he said.

Al-Hakim believes U.S. military preparations have passed a critical threshold and now war was likely.

"There's a weak possibility that Saddam will go without war ... There could have been a possibility of averting war, but now it's too late," said al-Hakim. "War appears to be inevitable."

Al-Hakim's power remains a significant element in any post-Saddam equation.

He declined to give precise details on the strength of his militia, but said most fighters were already in Iraq. Shiites, concentrated in southern Iraq, represent about 60 percent of the population but have been suppressed by Saddam's Sunni Muslim-led regime.

Al-Hakim, however, hinted that his forces could cross from Iran if war comes. Iranian officials - trying to avoid being drawn into Pentagon war strategy - have refused to clearly define whether they would permit cross-border attacks.

"Iraqis from all over the world will return either through Iran or other neighboring countries," al-Hakim said.

Al-Hakim, too, appears to be preparing for new surroundings - and political allies.

He has softened his criticism of Washington, which Iraqi Shiites accuse of failing to come to their aid during a rebellion crushed by Saddam after the 1991 Gulf War.

But al-Hakim is careful not to upset Shiite-led Iran, which has funded and armed his faction for two decades. For the moment, al-Hakim serves as a bridge between Iran and the United States on efforts to oust Saddam, who is hated by many Iranians for a 1980-88 war with Iran that claimed 1 million lives.

Last month, al-Hakim hosted a meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders in an apparent bid to ease friction between his faction and Western-backed opposition groups.