Dr. Ahmad Chalabi on the past, present and future of Iraq.
HH: Thank you for joining us on the Hugh Hewitt Show, Dr. Chalabi, former deputy prime minister of Iraq, and now head of the Iraqi Services Committee. Is political reconciliation occurring in Iraq, Dr. Chalabi?
AC: Yes, it is occurring, but on…hello?
HH: Yes, we can hear you.
AC: Okay, it’s occurring on levels that are more subtle and basic than what is advertised. It is occurring at neighborhood levels, and it is occurring at community levels, which is very, very important.
HH: And is there movement within the Iraqi Parliament to pass some of the legislations that the American media have been reporting for a long time are necessary to reconciliation? Or is that a sideshow?
AC: Well, those are issues that are mainly of concern to the United States, and that have taken on a life of their own in the United States. The Iraqi Parliament is probably, will pass some form of this legislation, and…but that’s not really the issue that is hampering reconciliation here.
HH: What is the key to the next year in Iraq? What do you think has to happen most to advance reconciliation even further?
AC: We have to…first, to provide services for the people of Baghdad, and second, we have to resolve the problem of internally displaced people, and that’s attempting to return people to their homes in the various parts of Baghdad. These are the two key issues.
HH: Do you think the stability in the country is going to endure?
AC: Well, what we have now is a fragile quiet, and we must reinforce it by making the people invested in maintaining this peace and quiet by reassuring everyone that the government is on their side, and that there’s not going to be…that there are benefits, tangible benefits from the peace.
HH: Are you optimistic about the prospects for that, Dr. Chalabi?
AC: I am realistic.
HH: What does that mean?
AC: It means that I see challenges, and I see opportunities to resolve issues, and to overcome the problems.
HH: And is the stability in Baghdad replicated in other major urban areas like Basra? Or is Baghdad the first among many to become stable?
AC: The fact in Baghdad is different from other Arab provinces. There is a kind of stability in Basra, but Basra, the ratios in Basra are not the same as in Baghdad. So that might count as apples and oranges.
HH: And what is the situation in Basra?
AC: In Basra, the situation is that since the withdrawal of the British from the city, they have not been subject to any attacks, almost. There are some issues between the Sadr movement and some government commanders on the ground over there. And we’re working to resolve them with the help of British forces.
HH: What is the role of Muqtada al Sadr now, Dr. Chalabi? And I don’t think Americans understand it very well. If you could expand on it for us, that would be helpful.
AC: Yes, Muqtada al Sadr is the son of a man who was revered, continues to be revered by many, many millions of Iraqis in the south and Baghdad. And he is the symbol for them of the legacy of his father. People coalesced around this, and they were receptive to his calls. Now, the situation now is that the fighting of the Iraqi Army has subsided, and he himself has called on them to desist from being visible for six months, and he will probably extend that. The political leadership in various communities of the Sadr movement is emerging. They are dealing with local issues, primarily, but they still hold to their basic political line of Muqtada al Sadr. They can develop into part of the solution after being part of the problem.
HH: Well, that’s what interests me. How do they do that? Do they do that by abandoning their weapons and becoming a parliamentary bloc? Or do they do that…
AC: Well, they have. They are already, they’re the largest parliamentary bloc in the parliament. But you see, the parliamentarians of the Sadr movement are not the strongest elements in the Sadr movement. And the political leadership in the various communities around the country, in Baghdad, for example, of Sadr City, or on the west side of Baghdad in Shu’ala, are a lot more important than the parliamentarians. Those leaders now want to sustain the peace and establish some modicum of understanding with the Coalition forces in Iraq, and move on with the development and provisional services for their communities without contradicting the political line of Muqtada in general, which is that he wants a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and he wants to preserve the unity and the territorial integrity, and the independence of Iraq.
HH: Do you meet with Muqtada al Sadr, Dr. Chalabi?
AC: I do.
HH: Do you think he has the best interests of all Iraqis at the center of his agenda? Or is he purely looking after the Shia population?
AC: You know, Muqtada al Sadr started out as being in alliance with many, many Sunnis in Iraq. And in fact, many Sunnis joined him, or joined his forces in the defense of Najaf, as they saw it, back in 2004. The rift between the Sunnis and the Sadr movement took place after there were attacks on the Samarra Mosque. It was then that the fury was unleashed. But now, it is evident that they are now, they want to come to some further understanding after they saw the limits of the use of force in Iraq, and they want to come to terms with each other, and enter into some agreement on how to proceed. They all have similar political motives, which is a timetable for the U.S. withdrawal, unity in territorial integrity, and independence of Iraq.
HH: Do you meet, Dr. Chalabi, with Grand Ayatollah Sistani?
AC: Yes, I do.
HH: Is he an optimist about the stability expanding and enduring?
AC: Ayatollah Sistani is a man of deep wisdom. He is detached from the political scene, and he observes it very keenly. And he’s also followed developments. He is working very hard to promote peace and understanding between the communities, and he has played a very constructive role in trying to alleviate sectarian tensions in Iraq. And he has, despite the various eruptions at some point in the past year, he has been a force for moderation and understanding among Iraqi communities.
HH: What…Dr. Chalabi, what is the role of Iran in the future of Iraq? What’s your assessment of that?
AC: We have 1,450 kilometers of borders with Iran, extending from Turkey down to the Gulf, with only our country which borders Iran. And I would say to you that 90% of Iraq’s population lives within 120 miles of the Iranian border. These geopolitical facts must be taken into consideration. We are Arabs, by and large. Iran is a Persian country. We share with them Islam, and a lot of Iraqis share their same sect with the Iranian Shia. And furthermore, many Iraqi political movements, especially the Islamic Shiite ones, were headquartered in Iran during Saddam’s time for over 25 years. All these things have an important consequence for the relationship now between Iraq and Iran. And the Iraqi government now is composed mainly of friends of Iran, the prime minister, the president, one of the vice presidents, the second vice president, also. The ministers are also friends with Iran. So Iran had not shown influence in Iraq. Due to the tension that exists between the United States and Iran, Iranian influence has taken various covert forms. What we want to do is we want to bring this out into the open, and we want to quantify the relationship between Iraq and Iran, which is at an issue of respecting the territorial integrity and independence of each country, and not interfering in internal affairs, and also a relationship of cooperation and good neighborliness.
HH: Do you think Iran has been smuggling improvised explosive devices and Revolutionary Guards into Iraq for the purposes of killing American troops?
AC: I don’t know. I don’t think that there are any Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iraq. About the weapons, I don’t know. I have no idea. The U.S. says they have, and they have produced various pictures of them. But I can’t tell, but I don’t think that this is the issue.
HH: All right. Can you…what’s your advice to America concerning Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Dr. Chalabi? You know the Iranian leadership, you’ve been to Iran, and met with them. If the United States should strike at those nuclear facilities in concert with France or Great Britain, what will the region, what will the reaction be? What will happen, in your view?
AC: Surgical aerial strikes in the Middle East have not been very effective for the most part. Look at the experience of Israel in Lebanon last year, in the summer of 2006. They struck very heavily at the centers of power and influence of Hezbollah, and after 33 years of these types in the use of military might, none of the leadership of Hezbollah up to the second level was killed by these strikes, and Hezbollah emerged politically stronger in Lebanon. And we’re having the crisis in Lebanon because of the developments of the war until today. Iran is much larger than Lebanon, and of course, the United States is much bigger and stronger than Israel. But however, the military, an aerial campaign will hurt Iran, will hurt the infrastructure of Iran, but I do not believe that it will seriously shake the regime. The consequences will be, should be considered carefully. Iran has a large coastline on the Gulf. Most of their oil gulf is within striking distance of Iran. And Iran has the ability to do military operations against U.S. forces in Iraq. All these must be weighed and taken into consideration. And from my point of view, I believe that a strike on Iran will be counterproductive, ultimately.
HH: Does the prospect of Iran…
AC: As for your question what to do about the nuclear weapons, I think that international consensus should be developed, and U.N. process should be developed and focused on keeping the Iranian nuclear program to its peaceful purposes, and making the Iranians stick to that commitment in words that they are going to use that nuclear energy for peace.
HH: Do you think the Iranians are attempting to weaponize their nuclear capabilities?
AC: I…again, I don’t know. I mean, I’ll give you an opinion, which is were I to say yes or no based on what I read in the newspapers. I don’t think that is useful at this time. What is useful is to make the Iranians stick to their peaceful intentions, and watch this carefully within the international and U.N. system.
HH: You mentioned the troubles in Lebanon last summer. Since then, we’ve seen Syria attempting through a policy of assassination to reduce the numbers of opposition there, so that Hezbollah can rule. Is Syria an ally of Iraq? Is Iraq worried about Syrian meddling in Lebanon? What’s your general take on this, Dr. Chalabi?
AC: First, you made a sweeping statement that Syria’s responsible for the assassinations of parliamentarians. I don’t know that. I mean, this is…no one was arrested, no one was investigated, and the Hariri case is pending, and there are many difficulties with proving that Syria was responsible. Syria may have been responsible, but there is no proof to that effect at this time. And some people may get angry by hearing this, but I’ll tell you that it is very, very important to stick to the facts, and stick to verifiable statements at this time. As for Syria in Lebanon, look, when Lebanon was independent and Syria became independent, too, in 1943, the Syrians fought with Lebanon, was part of Syria, and was taken away from them by the French. So there is a lingering sense that among the Syrians that Lebanon is part of Syria. However, as things developed, many divergent roots were taken by both countries, both economically and politically and socially, and Lebanon developed a society and its identity. At this point, Syria intervened in Lebanon in 1976, to stem the Palestinian efforts to control them at that time. Since then, they’ve sent their army, with Arab and international agreement, and U.S. agreement in 1991. That was the fight for Syria participation in the first Gulf War with Kuwait. Subsequent to that, the Syrian military presence in Lebanon during Hafez Assad’s time, became a burden on Syria. And it was many, many problems within Syrian that enough of their presence of their military troops in Lebanon. The Syrian troops withdrew, and Syria exercises its influence in Lebanon through its friends, through its intelligence apparatus which is strong and effective, and also was not very particular about what methods they used. Syria has influence in Lebanon. And Syria cannot fail to detect threats to itself and Lebanon, and I don’t think it is useful to threaten Syria within the Lebanese political system for any international power. I think it’s important to come to an understanding with Syria about Lebanon, and I think that this is possible. And I believe that the United States can deal with this issue through an agreement that can be negotiated with Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran and Lebanon.
HH: Let’s move back to Iraq. Generally speaking, four years after the invasion, Dr. Chalabi, has the cost of removing Saddam been worth the price?
AC: The answer is yes, unequivocally.
HH: Can you explain that to the American audience?
AC: Yes. Saddam was a dictator who had destroyed the lives of two entire generations of Iraqis. He managed to drive the country into a backward state. Iraq was the leading Arab country in terms of development and hope and progress fifty years ago. After 35 years of Saddam’s rule, Iraq was a devastated country, its infrastructure was primitive, and its people had been reduced to a standard of living which is entirely dependent on a failing state with no accountability for the revenues of the country that were spent at the whim of Saddam. The Iraqi people deserved to be liberated from Saddam, and the international community, led by the United States, had the moral responsibility to help Iraqis liberate themselves from Saddam, because they played the role in strengthening Saddam’s rule and hold over the people of Iraq during those 35 years for their own reasons. I would mention to you that the Iraqi people did not defend Saddam when the U.S. forces arrived. And the Iraq army did not defend Saddam when the U.S. forces arrived. It was only when the United States, I think without any very serious thought, decided to change their role from liberators to occupiers, through Resolution 1483, towards the end of May of 2003, that they lost the moral high ground in Iraq.
HH: Have they regained that moral…have they regained that moral high ground, in your view, Dr. Chalabi?
AC: Not yet. What has happened is…Bush, the United States managed to turn most of Iraq into their adversaries. The Sunnis and the Shia, the masses became disillusioned with the United States, each for their own reasons. And the United States provided fuel for each. Now, the Sunnis found the folly of their ways. By going along with al Qaeda, they empowered elements of society which were of no need and irresponsible. They humiliated the traditional and social structure within the Sunni community, and as predicted, several years ago, I mean, two years ago, Sunnis turned on al Qaeda, and found it expedient now to deal with the United States directly. And the same people who were actually fighting the United States and supporting being sort of a haven for al Qaeda became associated and became auxiliaries paid by the United States in Iraq now. That is not gaining the moral high ground, but it is something that has happened, and it is a very good lesson for these people that violence against the United States in Iraq will not be beneficial. The United States is here, and the United States could be a force for good in Iraq, and now they are willing to deal with those, with the United States.
HH: What do you make of…
AC: At this time…
HH: What do you make of attempts by Democrats in the United States Congress to force America to leave quickly?
AC: I think that the United States will eventually leave Iraq. And hurrying up the process unnaturally will destabilize the situation unnecessarily. I believe that all Iraqis now believe or think that the United States will eventually leave Iraq, but it’s a question of when they will do so. And I think that it is important to note that the surge in Iraq has achieved the almost elimination of al Qaeda, and also has achieved a very great reduction in the activities of the Mahdi army. And we note now that I think in November, the number of U.S. combat casualties in Iraq is less than seven, seven, maybe, which is an important reduction. Also, the number of Iraqis dead as the result of violence has been reduced. However, this is contingent upon a presence of some, a credible presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. I believe that starting next month, that a planned reduction will take place, and I think that we are now challenged with taking advantage of the current peaceful situation to move forward to stabilize this fragile peace into something more permanent.
HH: What is your confidence level in the new Iraqi army and its leadership, Dr. Chalabi?
AC: The Iraqi army, the new Iraqi army, is formed mainly by some officers of the old army. Many, many officers of the old army, in fact, the top leadership of the army, all of them, up to battalion commanders, were in the old army. But we have a new army composed of all the old army officers, with new ideas of organization. Unfortunately, the way the army was established was established on sectarian grounds. We are now working to integrate the units at all levels, and we’re working to remove the sectarian stigma from each unit being a Shia or Sunni unit. And we want to empower further the Iraq army officers. I believe that major mistakes were committed initially in 2004 in providing weapons and equipment to the Iraqi army. However, this has been rectified by Iraq joining the FMS program of the United States, foreign military sales program. And I think the training of that Iraqi army is improving, and we are moving forward with our command and control centers. There is major improvement in Iraqi army units. But of course, we are nowhere near our goal of an Iraqi army that can defend the country against internal and external threats. But we are making good progress, and my confidence in their leadership and their performance of the Iraqi units has improved steadily.
HH: I want to look backwards before we look forwards, Dr. Chalabi. What’s your assessment of George W. Bush?
AC: President Bush had the courage to take on Saddam and remove him from power. By this, he did a great service to the Iraqi people, and he did, I think historically, a very important thing by showing that a country which is ruled by dictators in the Middle East can move forward towards a constitution and democracy, and a pluralistic system of government. But then Bush committed also a major mistake, subsequent to the liberation of Iraq, and earlier, also. I believe that making the weapons of mass destruction issue the focus of the American military action in Iraq was a mistake. I believe that the occupation was a major mistake. And I believe that the various choices that were made in choosing Iraqi leaderships, also, were somewhat erroneous. But now, President Bush, I think, has learned something from the past, and he has a more realistic assessment of the capabilities of Iraqis in doing various things. And I think that the legacy of President Bush in Iraq, historically, will be positive.
HH: What did happen? What’s your opinion of what happened to Saddam’s WMD, Dr. Chalabi?
AC: This issue is false. And it is not useful to get involved in speculating at this time on this issue. There are so many myths regarding, now, the WMD of Saddam, and it’s an issue that has become so visceral. I don’t think it’s useful for me to comment on it now.
HH: Okay. What do you think…did Saddam have relationships with terrorists, al Qaeda or other, that it was legitimate for the United States to worry about him arming them…
AC: Yes, the answer is yes. Saddam…it was demonstrated that Saddam had links to Osama bin Laden prior to 1991. And his intelligence service did. It is also a proven fact that Saddam sent emissaries to Osama bin Laden as late as 1998. And it is also a proven fact that Saddam responded positively to requests of Osama bin Laden to put programs on the Iraqi radio focused and beamed into Saudi Arabia. There are the extent of further relations of Saddam that should be investigated. Also, Saddam had Zarqawi in Iraq in 2002, and he had him enter a hospital, which was the result from an elite Baathist leadership. Furthermore, Saddam encouraged jihadists, which were, prior to that, to come to Iraq and train, to be trained in Iraq in various facilities. And also, he brought many thousands of them into Iraq at the start of the war in 2003, March. So Saddam had the relationships, and Saddam also had effective contacts with the operational terrorist units who are fanatic, Islamic fanatics in throughout the first Kuwait war period.
HH: Has the radical nature of the Takfiri jihadists waned now? I know al Qaeda in Iraq is on the run, but is Iraq in the Sunni areas still a breeding ground for al Qaeda sympathizers? Or is that over?
AC: I think if it’s not over, it’s severely declined. And I don’t think it is this experience of the Sunnis in Iraq with al Qaeda that bodes well for al Qaeda in the future. They humiliated the tribes, they humiliated prominent families, and they did the most terrible things in their dealing with them, and the most primitive and disgusting things in treating the communities. They were only tolerated because they thought that this community was sort of shell shocked, and thought that these people can win the battle of Baghdad against the United States and the government of Iraq. But the balance became to them so stark that the transgressions of these people, and their behavior was so bad, that they had…again, they rejected them and threw them out. And I don’t think it is…you should hear the stories of some of the Sunni leaders who had been dealing with al Qaeda, and what they had done to them, and their resentment to them at this time. I don’t think it is possible for them to restore the situation in any serious way.
HH: That’s good news. Can you, as we’ve got about five minutes left, Dr. Chalabi, can you look ahead in Iraq in ten years and give me what your assessment of what it will look like will be, and what the American role will be in that country a decade hence?
AC: I think Iraq is the only country in the world now that can actually produce 8 million barrels of oil a day from here until the end of the century. Iraq is rich. Iraq also has a very, very competent and smart population. We have high levels…(Call dropped)
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HH: Dr. Chalabi, when we got cut off, you were saying that Iraq is a rich country, capable of producing 8 million barrels of oil a day from now until the end of the century. What’s the implication of that for Iraq ten years from now, and for America’s role there?
AC: Well, this means that Iraq is a country rich in resources, rich in money. And also, Iraq is a country rich with talent. We have a high level of education, and we have a very high level of professional and artistic capabilities in Iraq. And Iraqis can develop into a very prosperous society. One of the major issues now with the period since the fall of Saddam is the failure of the success of administrations in Iraq to do anything serious to reduce the role of government in lives of the people. We must encourage the private sector, we must reduce the role of government in education, in the provision of food, in oil products, downstream oil products, and in industry and agriculture in Iraq. The United States can be very helpful to us by providing expertise in that, especially with regards to programs to reduce unemployment. Such programs, for example, would take the form of developing housing and industry in Iraq with the private sector to provide homes for the people of Iraq, fueled by seed funds from the government. And Iraq…
HH: Will religious…Dr. Chalabi, will religious minorities be protected there? Will Christians, for example, be able to return, and Shia be able to live aside Sunni and Kurd?
AC: The answer is yes. The past forty years are not an indication of how Iraq would look like, because these communities lived with each other, including the Jewish community, up to 1960, for centuries. There were problems, but there was nothing similar to what had happened now. Everybody is sort of startled by the extent of the cruelty and the destruction that had taken place, and everybody’s pulling back from the abyss at this time. Yes, the answer is that Iraqi communities can live with each other, and the Christians can return. There are still many, many Christians in Iraq. It’s only in certain communities that they have been threatened. And…
HH: Will they be able…how long will it take to heal from that year and a half of bloodletting?
AC: I would say five years would be ample time. Iraqis get angry very quickly, but they also are ready to forgive, and within the tradition of the society, to make peace and accommodation quickly. And this is something that is socially prevalent in Iraq, and there are mechanisms to do so. And in fact, they’re being put into place now.
HH: Two final questions, Dr. Chalabi. One of three people will be the successor to George Bush: Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani. Do you see that Iraq has a favorite among those, or who would be better for the country?
AC: I think that any U.S. president who has knowledge of the situation, and is able to understand the historical and political depth of the relationship with Iraq, would be best for Iraq. I cannot make any judgment. I have not met any of those candidates.
HH: And the last question is that a lot of people don’t think the Arab world is ready for democracy. I dispute that, as does our mutual friend, Christopher Hitchens. We think parliamentary democracy can take root and grow there. And by the way, Hitch said to say hello to you. What do you say to the Americans who say Arabs just can’t do democracy?
AC: I think they are misguided and ignorant of the reality and the conscience of the people. Hitchens is right. Arabs are capable of democracy. And there is nothing in the Arab world…that I would remind everyone that both Iraq and Egypt had parliamentary governments for half a decade in the early 20th Century. And it was only the intervention of the military that disrupted this process, and produced dictatorships with the consequent social conflict in the country. And I believe Arabs can have democracy, and can handle democracy. In Iraq, we have a democracy in Iraq now, only the Parliament is not doing a good, and the parliamentarians are not the best. But we actually have democracy, and people await on laws for the Parliament to enact, and there are things which are legal and not legal, according to the laws in our constitution. And I think this, it’s very difficult to dislodge this from Iraq now, despite the yearning of some for coup de tats and military interventions, which will not be realistic in Iraq now.
HH: Dr. Chalabi, do you expect to be prime minister of Iraq someday?
AC: I hope not.
HH: (laughing) Why not?
AC: Well, because it is a thankless task.
HH: Well, I want to thank you for spending so much time with us. I hope we can do this again in the future. And thank you for your time today, Dr. Chalabi.
AC: Okay, thank you very much.
HH: Bye bye.
End of interview.