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Behind the Headlines Jews Forge Ties with Iraqi Dissidents As the Possibility of a War Intensifies

October 16, 2002
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The old saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” appears to have resonance for American Jewish groups and the Iraqi dissidents seeking to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein.Jewish groups have privately met with Iraqi opposition leaders in the past, but today some groups are forging a broader, more public relationship.

In the last two weeks, two Jewish organizations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, have sponsored discussions with members of the Iraqi National Congress, a prominent Iraqi opposition group that is financially supported by the U.S. government. With the Bush administration pursuing a policy of regime change in Iraq, both the INC and Jewish groups say they have something to gain from a strong bond.

The INC sees a way to tap into Jewish influence in Washington and Jerusalem, and drum up increased support for its cause.

The Jewish groups, for their part, see an opportunity to pave the way for better relations between Israel and Iraq, if and when the INC is involved in replacing Saddam’s regime.

“It’s important for Jewish groups to have a relationship with anyone who is a problem for Saddam,” said Tom Neumann, JINSA’s executive director.

Still, the relationship is a complicated one, which some are approaching with caution and others are warning will work against Jewish interests.

“It’s not too wise to get involved with them,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

He and others worry that alliances with the Iraqi opposition will revive the notion put forth during the 1991 Persian Gulf War that American military action in Iraq is intended to help Israel. But the Jewish groups that are working with the INC say that they share a common interest — removing Saddam from power — for the benefit of Iraq, the United States and Israel.

The INC was founded shortly after the end of the Persian Gulf War, combining several smaller opposition forces within Iraq. It currently operates a newspaper, television station, regional offices and a center for humanitarian relief. It is based in Salahuddin in Iraq, and lists its external base as London.

The United States has given the INC more than $18 million over the past three years and is expected to give the INC another $8 million for the second half of this year, as part of a new cooperative agreement.

U.S. aid to the INC was suspended in January because of the INC’s mismanagement of funds, but resumed a month later.

The United States has also given a smaller amount, $315,000, to another opposition group, the Iraqi National Movement, and $1.5 million to the Future of Iraq Project, which brings together numerous opposition groups, including the INC.

Against this backdrop, with the INC finding favor in Washington — and seeking more — Ahmed Chalabi, the INC president, was invited to a JINSA dinner on Oct. 9 on Long Island.

Entifadh Qanbar, the INC’s Washington office director, spoke at an Oct. 7 gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Atlanta.

Jewish leaders say they are able to garner a new perspective from their talks with Iraq’s opposition leaders.

“With so much attention focused on Iraq and its future post-Saddam Hussein, we felt it was important for our members to get some insight in to the prospects for bringing democracy to the Iraqi people,” said Josh Block, an AIPAC spokesman.

Although there is only a possibility of them being pro-Israel, “they won’t be anti-Israel,” Neumann said of a new Iraqi government led by opposition forces.

“How close they are to Israel is up for conjecture, but they won’t be like this government is.”

For his part, Qanbar says the INC is reaching out to the Jewish community because it is the best avenue to get to the Israeli government, which he believes should be reaching out to the INC and getting more involved in creating political change in Iraq.

“The Jewish groups in Washington have some influence in Israel,” he said in an interview with JTA.

Qanbar told JTA that he believes that good relations with Israel are possible under a new regime because, he said, Saddam is the one who has a problem with Israel, not the Iraqi people.

He also said that the INC’s platform urged the resolution of all regional conflicts without violence.

Chalabi told the JINSA audience last week that Saddam is the source of all terrorism in the Middle East, and a governmental change in Iraq would change the dynamics for the whole region, to the benefit of the United States and Israel.

He also said that the United States will not be able to effectively deal with Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden until it deals with Saddam.

Observers say the INC is also trying to tap into the strong alliances that Jewish organizations have with Congress, hoping that highlighting the prospects for Israel under a post-Saddam Iraq will sway more pro-Israel lawmakers to support U.S. action.

While JINSA has had a relationship with Chalabi for 10 years, according to Neumann, other groups are supporting him publicly for the first time.

Observers say the more public relationship is now possible because Jewish groups are coming out publicly with positions on Iraq.

Jewish groups seem to be entering this new relationship with trepidation. Last week, several Jewish organizations were scheduled to appear at a Capitol Hill news conference with Senate Republicans and Iraqi defectors to express support for the congressional resolutions on Iraq.

But when Jewish groups realized they would be the only special interest participating, they bailed out.

“We shouldn’t be the only ones doing it,” said Neumann, whose organization was supposed to participate, along with B’nai B’rith International, the Orthodox Union and the American Jewish Congress.

“It’s not a Jewish agenda, but an American agenda.”

Some observers worry that a public relationship could work against the mutual interests of Jewish groups and the Iraqi opposition.

Michael Amitay, the executive director of the Washington Kurdish Institute, says Jewish groups might run into problems by working only with Chalabi and Qanbar, because the INC is not strongly supported in Iraq, where there are numerous opposition groups.

Perceived U.S. Jewish support for Chalabi could “drive a wedge between Chalabi and other forces in the Iraqi opposition,” said Amitay, whose father, Morrie, is vice chairman of JINSA’s board of directors.

Calling the Jewish approach “short-sighted,” he said that it would be “much more helpful if Jewish groups reached out to other groups, such as the Kurds” as well.

Qanbar disputes that claim. He says Jewish groups have been among the first to form an alliance with the INC because they realize support for his organization is growing within the Bush administration.

“Jewish groups have a strong understanding of American politics,” he said. “It’s an indication that there is a new phase of policy.”

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