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As US targets Iraq, key rebels balk

In rare interview, Iraqi opposition leader rejects the "Afghan model" of intervention.

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The Bush adminstration is accelerating development of plans to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But the leader of one of the few credible armed Iraqi opposition groups says he doesn't want Washington's help.

"There is no need to send troops from outside to Iraq," says the black-turbaned Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakkim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). "It could be seen as an invasion and could create new problems."

Though courted for months by American diplomats to join in their effort to overthrow Mr. Hussein, Ayatollah al-Hakkim - also commander of the 10,000-strong Badr Brigade militia - urges caution in a rare interview. The chief reason is President Bush's declaration that SCIRI'S host and sponsor, Iran, is part of an "axis of evil," as well as the past experience of the Iraqi opposition with "unreliable" US support.

The "Afghan model" of backing proxy forces, as the US did against the Taliban late last year, does not apply to Iraq, al-Hakkim says. One Pentagon option includes a pincer operation toward Baghdad, with 50,000 American troops moving from the south with SCIRI's Shia Muslim guerrillas and 50,000 more moving from the north with Kurdish fighters.

Such plans are "very far-fetched" and a "bad idea," al-Hakkim says, his cleric's face framed by a gray beard. "The best thing the US can do is force the regime not to use its heavy weapons against the people, like they did in Kosovo. Then the Iraqi people can bring change--it must be done by the Iraqis themselves."

Few doubt growing American resolve against Iraq, though no evidence has emerged that Baghdad was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, or in any terrorist act for the past decade.

But Iraq is clearly a target. US Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday there are no "plans" to attack North Korea or Iran, but that Iraq was a special case.

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