Bush approves $92m to train Iraqi militia to take on Saddam
Ewen MacAskill and Ian Traynor
The Guardian - December 11, 2002:
President George Bush has formally approved $92m (£60m) to train a pan-Iraqi militia to help fight a war against Saddam Hussein. Over the past few weeks the Pentagon has been scouring countries looking for bases. A Nato airbase in southern Hungary emerged yesterday as the favourite site.
Zaab Sethna, an adviser to the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the biggest of the Iraqi exile groups, said yesterday in London: "We expect a decision from the Pentagon within days" to begin training.
Mr Sethna said the INC has submitted a list of more than 5,000 names to the Pentagon of those ready to take up the gun, and he expected that other groups too had put people forward.
"We have volunteers from all over the world," he said. "We are appealing for anyone who is willing to participate. There will be some physical fitness and age requirements."
Creation of an Iraqi militia marks a cranking up of the war planning that contrasts with the softer tone from Washington in recent days as its officials analyse the Iraqi declaration on weapons of mass destruction.
The issue of military training is contentious, and has created divisions within the Iraqi exile community and the US administration. The Pentagon favours the creation of an Iraqi force and the US state department is opposed.
It will come to the fore this weekend when about 350 representatives from Iraqi exile groups meet in London to try to thrash out a common front.
The Hungarian government confirmed yesterday that it had received a formal request from Washington to train up to 5,000 Iraqis at Taszar, near the Serbian border, a base that was used by the Americans during the 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia and also used as a rear base for Nato peacekeeping operations in Bosnia since 1995.
The Hungarian news agency MTI said that the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had personally made the request to the Hungarian government and that the Iraqis would be trained as interpreters and administrative personnel for assisting the Americans in the event of Iraq coming under US or international military governance after a new Gulf war.
But Mr Sethna said the objective was to train a militia for war in Iraq. The rationale was that the officers in President Saddam's army would be more inclined to join an Iraqi exile force than to surrender to US-led forces. "It is not being designed to confront the Iraqi armed forces but to act as a magnet to encourage them to surrender," Mr Sethna said.
Mr Bush, in a memorandum on Monday, said he was ordering the furnishing of up to $92m from the Pentagon for "military education and training" for five Iraqi exile organisations. He named them as Iraqi National Accord; Iraqi National Congress; Kurdistan Democratic Party; Movement for Constitutional Monarchy; Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; and Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
The creation of the force will be hotly debated when the key Iraqi dissident groups meet under the auspices of the US administration. The US has told the notoriously divided Iraqi community that this weekend represents their last chance to reach an agreement on a range of issues, primarily the shape of a post-Saddam government.