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Monday, 17 February, 2003, 17:42 GMT
Who's who in Iraqi opposition
Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein - can the opposition unseat him?
Internal and external opponents of the Iraqi regime have much to gain from the US-led military action against Saddam Hussein's regime.

They include semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish groups in the north, Shia Muslim groups in the south, senior army officers who have defected, and the Iraqi National Congress (INC) which says it acts as an umbrella for numerous other exiled opposition groups.

BBC News Online examines the main opposition players.

Click below for details on each group

Iraqi National Congress

The Iraqi National Congress is the best known of the exiled Iraqi opposition groups.

It was founded in 1992 as an umbrella grouping of mainly Kurdish and Shia opposition members.

In its heyday, the INC had a stronghold and small army based in the US-protected Kurdish territory in northern Iraq.

It saw itself as a government in waiting and had influential friends in America.

Ahmed Chalabi
Ahmed Chalabi has friends in the US
But in 1995, an INC attempt to co-ordinate an offensive against the Iraqi army ended in failure with hundreds of deaths. The group had help from the CIA and American and British aircraft patrolling the 'no-fly' zones set up after the Gulf War.

A year and a half later, the INC was routed from northern Iraq after Saddam Hussein's troops overran its base in Irbil.

A number of party officials were executed and others - including its head Ahmad Chalabi - fled the country.

Mr Chalabi, a Shia Muslim intellectual and scion of a wealthy banking family, eventually ended up in America, where he was feted by some US officials. He has strong backing in Congress and parts of the Pentagon.

However, some US politicians favoured supporting other opposition groups such as the exiled defectors from the Iraqi army.

Mr Chalabi subscribed to the "three-city plan", which called for defectors to capture and numbers of key areas that would isolate and surround the Iraqi president.

This plan had little support from Arab governments, which said they would not allow Mr Chalabi to run a liberation army from their soil.

In 1998, US President Bill Clinton approved a plan to spend almost $100m to help the Iraqi opposition - principally the INC - to topple Mr Hussein.

But only a fraction of the money was ever spent, and the INC suffered leadership problems. Mr Chalabi was accused by some opposition figures of using the INC to further his own ambitions.

The INC leader is said to have little grassroot support in Iraq and a number of opposition groups have sought to distance themselves from the INC.

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Iraqi National Accord

The Iraqi National Accord consists mainly of military and security defectors and supports the idea that the US should try to foster a coup from within the Iraqi army.

Some estimates put the number of former Iraqi officers living in exile in Europe and America at1,000.

It was set up in 1990 by the Iraqi-born Shiite Ayad Alawi. Reports say the group has received financial support from US, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Britain.

Baghdad demo
Demonstrations against US strikes are being organised in Baghdad
The INA prospects for success were boosted in 1995, when Mr Hussein's son-in-law General Hussein Kamil al-Majid defected to Jordan. He was responsible for helping to build Iraq's arsenal and reported to have provided intelligence about Iraq's evasion of weapons inspections.

It appeared that the Iraqi president's grip on his regime was weakening.

But the INA suffered a set back a year later when the president's intelligence services were reported to have infiltrated the group's operations. Up to 100 officers inside Iraq were rounded up and some were executed.

The INA was one of the opposition groups earmarked for US funding in 1998.

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Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan

The two main Kurdish parties operate in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KAR) of northern Iraq.

Between them they have about 40,000 troops and constitute the main armed threat to Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi Kurd
Kurds account for 19% of the Iraqi population
Some Americans have suggested recruiting the Kurds and giving them a similar role as the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan - as a bridgehead to toppling the regime.

But the Kurds enjoy unprecedented freedom within the KAR, which they may not want to jeopardise.

The factions depend on Baghdad for cheap fuel and cream off taxes from the oil smuggling business encouraged by the regime across northern Iraq.

Leaders of both groups say they will not help topple the Iraqi president unless they are certain who the replacement would be.

They are currently protected by 'no-fly' zones set up after the Gulf War and patrolled by British and American fighter planes.

The Kurds, which nationally account for about 19% of the Iraqi population, have not always enjoyed such freedoms.

British plane
British aircraft patrol the no-fly zones
The Kurdish Autonomous Region was set up in the 1970s after an agreement between the KDP and the Iraqi Government but the region has often been the scene for attacks and counterattacks.

During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Kurdish guerrillas stepped up their opposition against the regime, with help from Iran. The Iraqi president deployed troops in the north in response.

In 1988, he unleashed a seven-month campaign of vengeance against strongholds belonging to the Kurdish Democratic Party, involving use of chemical weapons affecting thousands of villages.

And, in 1991, after the Gulf War Kurdish nationalists persuaded the local army auxiliary force comprising Kurds to change sides and take part in a rebellion. But the insurrection was crushed, causing an exodus of about 1.5 million Kurds into Iraq and Turkey.

Baghdad regained control of the autonomous region, only to be forced to withdraw its troops when Western troops were deployed in the 3,600 square mile security zone created by the US-led coalition.

Elections in 1992 led to a semi-independent administrative political entity being established. But this power-sharing between the former rivals has proved fragile in the past.

In 1996, the KDP invited in Iraqi forces in an attempt to wrest control of PUK territory.

The two parties are currently cohabiting.

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Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq

Along with the main Kurdish groups, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) is the main armed opposition to President Hussein.

It is made up of exiled members of Iraq's Shia community - which is based in the south and represents about 60% of Iraq's 22 million inhabitants.

The group enjoys the backing of Iran. Its spiritual and political leader, Mohammed Baquir al-Hakim, is based in Tehran.

SCIRI claims to have a sizeable guerrilla network inside Iraq. Western governments estimate that the group has a force of between 7,000 and 15,000 men.

According to reports, the group's leadership does not agree that a US strike against Iraq is the best way to topple Saddam Hussein. And it is unlikely that its Iranian backers will agree to work with America.

There are other Shia opposition groups operating within Iraq.

The Shia community was involved in a failed uprising against the Iraqi president in 1999, partly in response to US urgings.

But America did not give the rebellion any military backing and the insurrection was suppressed. Thousands were killed.

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