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As US targets Iraq, key rebels balk

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Powell said a "regime change" in Iraq, however, "would be in the best interests of the region." He says Mr. Bush is considering "the most serious set of options one might imagine." Vice President Dick Cheney is to make a nine-nation Mideast tour in March to solidify allied support for any moves against Iraq.

Few armed opponents of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein have suffered as much as Iraq's southern Shia Muslims. They have seen their religious leaders assassinated, their marshes - both their economic lifeline and hiding place - drained, and their 1991 uprising put down mercilessly with a toxic cocktail of chemical weapons.

So few might be so willing - after spilling blood for years to topple the Iraqi leader - to embrace Washington's growing plans to do just that.

Contacts between SCIRI and US officials outside Iran had warmed during the Afghan campaign, like those between the US and Iran. American diplomats had been increasing contacts for months.

"They were making good progress. It even looked like SCIRI might take US money for the first time, as a gesture of good will," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "There was a minor love-fest going on in London, until the 'axis of evil' speech. We can forget about that now - it's not going to happen."

The SCIRI is now warning that US troops in Iraq would be a "mistake."

But as a serious threat to Baghdad, SCIRI has "petered out" in recent years, says Mr. Dodge.

SCIRI is not a fighting force - like the Iran- and US-backed Northern Alliance in Afghanistan - that could hold front lines. "It was always a hit-and-run organization," Dodge says. The role it could have played in US strategy may remain a mystery because " 'axis of evil' has now alienated any support that may have been building in Tehran [to help the US topple Hussein]."

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