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Iraqi Opposition Pleased at Bush's Criticisms of Baghdad - 2002-01-30

The Iraqi opposition coalition, the Iraqi National Congress, is welcoming the sharp criticism by President Bush in his State of the Union address, of the Saddam Hussein government in Baghdad. The INC also says it is on the way to resolving a dispute with the Bush administration on its use of U.S. aid money.

Officials of the INC are calling the Bush remarks very encouraging and say the speech augurs well for new cooperation with the United States aimed at ousting Saddam Hussein.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush said states like Iraq, Iran and North Korea and terrorist allies constitute what he termed an "axis of evil" that is seeking weapons of mass destruction to threaten the peace of the world.

Mr. Bush, who said the U.S. war against terror is only beginning, warned that his administration would not stand idly by and allow, as he put it, "the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

The president's remarks were welcomed by leaders of the London-based INC who held talks here with the State Department's third-ranking official, undersecretary for political affairs Mark Grossman.

In a talk with reporters afterward, INC spokesman Sharif Ali said Mr. Grossman assured the group that regime change in Iraq is a U.S. foreign policy priority.

"I think the message was very clear that as long as Saddam Hussein's regime supported terrorism, either as weapons of mass destruction or as international terrorism, that the United States would not tolerate that," he said. "And we regard that as a very good position for us, because it is the Iraq people themselves that suffer from the terror of Saddam Hussein and we look forward to greater and stronger cooperation with the United States on this."

Mr. Ali also said an understanding had been reached with the State Department for an early resolution of what he termed a "minor" accounting dispute that has curtailed U.S. financial aid to the opposition group.

The Bush administration has suspended all but basic operational funding to INC because of concerns about financial mismanagement raised after a U.S. audit of its activities last year.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, for his part, said there had been good progress on what he said had been "serious" questions raised by U.S. auditors, but said it was unclear whether an agreement would be reached before a Thursday U.S. deadline for a full cut-off of funds.

The United States has underwritten INC satellite television broadcasts into Iraq, human rights activities and war crimes investigations. But it has thus far withheld funding for anti-Saddam military operations even though nearly $100 million was approved by the U.S. Congress for that purpose in 1997.