The Iraqi National Congress (INC) is an umbrella Iraqi opposition group led by Ahmed Chalabi. It was formed with the aid and direction of the United States government following the Gulf War, for the purpose of fomenting the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In May 1991, following the end of Operation Desert Storm, then-President George Bush signed a presidential finding directing the CIA to create the conditions for Hussein's removal. The hope was that members of the Iraqi military would turn on Hussein and stage a military coup. The CIA did not have the mechanisms in place to make that happen, so they hired the Rendon Group, a PR firm run by John Rendon, to run a covert anti-Saddam propaganda campaign. Rendon's postwar work involved producing videos and radio skits ridiculing Hussein, a traveling photo exhibit of Iraqi atrocities, and radio scripts calling on Iraqi army officers to defect. ClandestineRadio.com, a website that monitors underground and anti-government radio stations in countries throughout the world, also credits the Rendon Group with "designing and supervising" the Iraqi Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) and Radio Hurriah, which began broadcasting Iraqi opposition propaganda in January 1992 from a US government transmitter in Kuwait. According to a September 1996 article in Time magazine, six CIA case officers supervised the IBC's 11 hours of daily programming and Iraqi National Congress activities in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Arbil.
A February 1998 report by Peter Jennings cited records obtained by ABC News which showed that the Rendon Group spent more than $23 million dollars in the first year of its contract with the CIA. According to ABC, Rendon came up with the name for the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition coalition of 19 Iraqi and Kurdish organizations whose main tasks were to "gather information, distribute propaganda and recruit dissidents." ABC also reported that the INC received $12 million of covert CIA funding between 1992 and 1996.
The INC represented the first major attempt by opponents of Saddam to join forces, bringing together Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Arabs (both Islamic fundamentalist and secular), as well as democrats, nationalists and ex-military officers.. In June 1992, nearly 200 delegates from dozens of opposition groups met in Vienna, along with Iraq's two main Kurdish militias, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In October 1992, the major Shiite groups came into the coalition and the INC held a pivotal meeting in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, choosing a three-man Leadership Council and a 26-member executive council. The three leaders included moderate Shiite Muslim cleric Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum; ex-Iraqi general Hasan Naqib; and Masud Barzani. Ahmed Chalabi, a secular Iraqi Shiite Muslim and mathematician by training, became head of the group. Chalabi had previously served as chairman of the Petra Bank in Jordan, where he engaged in various cloak-and-dagger operations that ended abruptly in August 1989 when he fled the country "under mysterious circumstances" and was convicted in absentia for embezzlement, fraud and currency-trading irregularities.
The INC's political platform promised "human rights and rule of law within a constitutional, democratic, and pluralistic Iraq"; preservation of Iraq's territorial integrity, and complete compliance with international law, including U.N. resolutions relating to Iraq. However, many observers noted that the INC might not act as a democratic body if it came to power, because most of its groups have an authoritarian internal structure.
Differences within the INC eventually led to its virtual collapse. In May 1994, the two main Kurdish parties began fighting with each other over territory and other issues. As a result of the growing difficulties within the INC, the United States began seeking out other opponents who could threaten the Iraqi regime, such as the Iraqi National Accord (INA), headed by Iyad Alawi. The rivalries between the Kurdish parties prompted the KDP to seek armed support from Saddam Hussein for its capture of the town of Arbil from the rival PUK. Iraq took advantage of the request by launching a military strike in which 200 oppositions were executed and as many as 2,000 arrested. Six hundred fifty oppositionists (mostly INC) were evacuated and resettled in the United States under the parole authority of the US Attorney General. The lNC was subsequently plagued by the dissociation of many of its constituent groups from the INC umbrella, a cutoff of funds from its international backers (including the United States), and continued pressure from Iraqi intelligence services. In 1998, however, the U.S. Congress authorized $97 million in U.S. military aid for Iraqi opposition via the Iraq Liberation Act, intended primarily for the INC.
In March 2002, Seymour M. Hersh reported in The New Yorker that "exile groups supported by the INC have been conducting sabotage operations inside Iraq, targeting oil refineries and other installations. The latest attack took place on January 23rd, an INC official told me, when missiles fired by what he termed 'indigenous dissidents' struck the large Baiji refinery complex, north of Baghdad, triggering a fire that blazed for more than twelve hours." However, Hersh added, "A dispute over Chalabi's potential usefulness preoccupies the bureaucracy, as the civilian leadership in The Pentagon continues to insist that only the INC can lead the opposition. At the same time, a former Administration official told me, 'Everybody but the Pentagon and the office of the Vice-President wants to ditch the INC.' The INC's critics note that Chalabi, despite years of effort and millions of dollars in American aid, is intensely unpopular today among many elements in Iraq. 'If Chalabi is the guy, there could be a civil war after Saddam's overthrow,' one former C.I.A. operative told me. A former high-level Pentagon official added, 'There are some things that a President can't order up, and an internal opposition is one.'"
Notwithstanding these concerns, Hersh reported that "INC supporters in and around the Administration, including Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, believe, like Chalabi, that any show of force would immediately trigger a revolt against Saddam within Iraq, and that it would quickly expand." In December 2002, Robert Dreyfuss reported that the administration of George W. Bush actually preferred INC-supplied analyses of Iraq over analyses provided by long-standing analysts within the CIA. "Even as it prepares for war against Iraq, the Pentagon is already engaged on a second front: its war against the Central Intelligence Agency.," he wrote. "The Pentagon is bringing relentless pressure to bear on the agency to produce intelligence reports more supportive of war with Iraq. ... Morale inside the U.S. national-security apparatus is said to be low, with career staffers feeling intimidated and pressured to justify the push for war." Much of the pro-war faction's information came from the INC, even though "most Iraq hands with long experience in dealing with that country's tumultuous politics consider the INC's intelligence-gathering abilities to be nearly nil. ... The Pentagon's critics are appalled that intelligence provided by the INC might shape U.S. decisions about going to war against Baghdad. At the CIA and at the State Department, Ahmed Chalabi, the INC's leader, is viewed as the ineffectual head of a self-inflated and corrupt organization skilled at lobbying and public relations, but not much else."
"The [INC's] intelligence isn't reliable at all," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former senior CIA official and counterterrorism expert. "Much of it is propaganda. Much of it is telling the Defense Department what they want to hear. And much of it is used to support Chalabi's own presidential ambitions. They make no distinction between intelligence and propaganda, using alleged informants and defectors who say what Chalabi wants them to say, [creating] cooked information that goes right into presidential and vice-presidential speeches."
In February 2003, as the Bush administration neared the end of its preparations for war, an internal fight erupted over INC's plan to actually become the government of Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Chalabi wanted to "declare a provisional government when the war starts," a plan that "alienated some of Mr Chalabi's most enthusiastic backers in the Pentagon and in Congress, who fear the announcement of a provisional government made up of exiles would split anti-Saddam sentiment inside Iraq."
NOTE: A version of this article appears in the Disinfopedia.