After Saddam…then what?

Leader of exiled Iraqi opposition group talks about war—and peace

Editor's note: Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the exiled Iraqi National Congress (INC), is mentioned as a potential leader of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. With the founding of the INC in 1992, Chalabi set up an armed base in the U.S.-protected Kurdish territory in northern Iraq—waiting for the right moment to unseat Saddam Hussein. In 1995, the INC led an offensive against the Iraqi army, and, in the absence of U.S. support, suffered a disastrous defeat. Chalabi was forced to flee the country. Mariya Rasner, a student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and editor-in-chief of The Fletcher Forum, a world affairs journal, interviewed Chalabi at the INC office in Washington, D.C. The following are excerpts from her report.

FORUM: The Iraqi opposition, and specifically the INC, has had mixed relations with the U.S. government, the State Department and the intelligence community. Can you explain that?

CHALABI: The INC was founded on the platform that was pretty straightforward—the overthrow of the dictatorship in Iraq and the establishment of a democratic, pluralistic government with federal structure. We called for a government that respects human rights and renounces weapons of mass destruction as well as war as state policy in general. The INC was formed by a group of Iraqi representatives of various communities and political trends. In general, we are seen as an Iraqi patriotic organization.

These values have a natural affinity with the values espoused by the United States. However, that is no guarantee that various departments of the United States that deal with foreign affairs would support such an organization. We are first and foremost created in the interests of Iraq and the Iraqi people, and sometimes there are conflicts and contradictions between what we view to be in the interests of Iraq and the Iraqi people and what agencies of the U.S. government that deal with us view to be in the interests of Iraq and the Iraqi people.

You must remember that U.S. foreign policy is concerned with the interests of the United States. So, naturally, there are differences that arise between us. I don't think that we've ever come into conflict with the values and positions of the United States, but some in the United States do think that our interests, our timetable and our agenda are not satisfactory, and that this agenda is not what they want to support.

I have sometimes been accused of trying to drag the United States into a premature war with Saddam. My position is very clear. I went to Congress in March 1998 and stated that the Iraqi people call for open cooperation with the United States in the overthrow of Saddam. And I have worked openly toward this purpose.

FORUM: How does the U.S. agenda in Iraq differ from your agenda?

CHALABI: The U.S. Congress has supported my agenda entirely when it passed the Iraq Liberation Act. The Clinton administration did not agree with this. The administration thought that Iraq was to be contained and that Saddam was not a threat. The national security adviser once used a very strange analogy when he said, "We will treat Saddam like a whack-a-mole: Any time this whack-a-mole puts his head up, you whack him." He thought that Saddam could not possibly be a threat to the United States and that interference in Iraq is not its business. However, it was in the interests of the United States to contain Saddam—regardless of either the cost to the Iraqi people or the long-term interests of the United States. So in the end, President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, but immediately deflected it.

FORUM: In other words, the money wasn't forwarded where it was supposed to go?

CHALABI: It's not the matter of the money not being forwarded. The Congress provided for training and supply of equipment from the stocks of the Department of Defense. You would think that the Department of Defense stocks are mainly concerned with waging war, but they immediately said that there was no lethal training to be provided and no lethal equipment to be given. We, of course, opposed this view, but we had to cooperate and accept whatever we were being given.

However, things have changed. The Republican platform for the 2000 election said very prominently that the Republican Party and the president, if elected, stand for the full implementation of the Iraq Liberation Act and the removal of Saddam Hussein.

FORUM: What role, if any, did 9/11 play in the formation of U.S. policy toward Iraq?

CHALABI: September 11 made it very clear to the American people what havoc a group of supposedly stateless terrorists could bring onto the United States. It also made the comparison and the parallel easy: It showed what a state, even a weak one, could do if it is controlled by terrorists and a man bent on developing weapons of mass destruction. President Bush had a great idea. He said, "Saddam is a terrorist, and he has weapons of mass destruction. If he combines his terrorist skills with his weapons, he poses a serious threat to the United States. Therefore Saddam must go." This happened to be the position of the U.S. Congress and is also what the Iraqi people have been passionately calling for.

FORUM: There were times when Iraq was a friend—the U.S. supported Iraq in its war against Iran in 1980-88, and as we now know, transferred to Iraq a lot of the same weaponry that now threatens American lives.

CHALABI: Well, this is not a new thing in history. First of all, I don't think anybody in the U.S. government ever considered Saddam a friend. They always considered him a son-of-a-bitch, but he was your son-of-a-bitch. That was the attitude.

This argument could also be applied to Stalin. The United States provided huge quantities of lend-lease equipment to Russia, largely through Iraq by the way, during World War II. Of course, Stalin helped win that war, and then the Soviet Union promptly went and used this procured equipment against the United States during the Cold War.

During the Korean War, much of the equipment used against U.S. forces was of American origin. However, in the case of Stalin, it was in the U.S. interest to supply him with technology because Hitler was seen as the bigger threat. In turn, when Stalin continued to pursue an expansionist policy and sought to spread revolutionary communism around the world, the United States had to confront him, despite the fact that a few years earlier they had supplied him with hardware.

A similar situation applies to Iraq. It is how people view danger and interests of a country that determine their behavior at a specific point in time. This is what you learn when you take courses in international relations and history. If you read Kissinger's book on the Treaty of Vienna, he goes on to elaborate how [Prince Klemens von] Metternich and [Viscount Robert Stewart] Castlereagh were urging Napoleon, before the Battle of Nations, to accept a settlement because they thought that Czar Alexander was becoming a bigger threat as Napoleon was being weakened. They went so far as to engineer a defeat of their forces to demonstrate that it was in their interest to accept peace with Napoleon. States do these things. Kissinger thought that it was a neat effort.

FORUM: And yet, it seems that in 1991, just as President [George H.W.] Bush declared a ceasefire, there was a great opportunity to topple Saddam by supporting an internal revolt in Iraq, but the United States was afraid of Iran at the time. Do you consider that a sign of shortsightedness in how the U.S. government sees the world and conducts its foreign policy?

CHALABI: The United States, in dealing with the situation in Iraq after the first Gulf War, came to erroneous and disastrous conclusions, largely due to both the ignorance of the situation in Iraq and lack of political planning for its future following the enormously successful military planning that accompanied the war. This is an example of how a great power can easily win the war and then somehow lose the peace.

The people who urged President Bush to stop the war and pull out of Iraq and who argued that U.S. forces shouldn't get involved in further military conflict, ended up embroiling the United States for more than a decade in combat operations in Iraq. This miscalculation, you could say, was the root cause of the hostility that Osama bin Laden bandied about against the United States. Bin Laden's main claim is "let America leave the holy places of Islam." But America is there to protect Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries against Saddam. So, by not finishing him off in 1991…

People said that the United States shouldn't get involved in military operations. As a result, the United States ended up flying combat missions to enforce no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq. Now the United States finds itself involved in further military operations because Saddam has violated every resolution of the United Nations dealing with the initial war aims and the ceasefire resolution.

So, the advice about Iraq that President Bush received was faulty. It presented an erroneous portrayal of Iraq as a society of violent, querulous people who can only be kept in check by the steady, strong hand of a dictator. That portrayal was the order of the day, and it was a miscalculation.

Ahmad Chalabi © Associated Press

Basically, what the people who argued this wanted was Saddam without Saddam. They thought that a victory for the people in Iraq would involve several dangers. The first danger was that they thought the Kurds would split off. Second, they feared that the Shi'a would introduce Iran to control Iraq. Of course, nobody had talked to the Kurds or the Shi'a in any substantial way. Rather, they made these assumptions on the basis of impressions largely influenced by Saddam's propaganda.

You have to remember that the bulk of the Iraqi army that fought Iran in the eight-year war between 1980 and 1988 was composed of Shi'a. The Shi'a of Iraq certainly do not want Iranians, or Turks, or Americans, or British or Russians to rule their country. They are Iraqis.

No Kurdish leader had called for separation, and no Kurdish leader had called for independence. After all, the Kurds do possess some intelligence and political sophistication. In fact, they possess a lot of intelligence and political sophistication. If you compare the Kurdish regions on the map, the Kurdish areas in Iraq contain the smallest part—smaller than the Kurdish areas in Iran or Turkey—and have far less population than in Iran and Turkey. Besides, they are landlocked. So, how can anybody in his right mind—a responsible political leader in Kurdish areas of Iraq—call for an independent Kurdish state when he is immediately going to confront far stronger forces that are all hostile to him? How could he survive? Turkey would oppose it. Iran would oppose it. Iraq would oppose it, and Syria would oppose it. What's the point?

But, of course, this impression [of a Kurdish drive for independence] had prevailed. The final decision was taken on erroneous grounds. There was no political plan. Few people talked to the Kurds themselves. In fact, there was a ban in the United States at the time against talking to the Iraqi opposition!

This time, President [George W.] Bush is doing things differently. Of course, the Iraq Liberation Act outlines the entire body of relations between the Iraqi opposition and the United States. There is the experience and the platform of the INC. And there is much dialogue, as well as a great deal of understanding of how the Iraqi people will behave and react in the face of American military action against Iraq. As a matter of fact, you do not see a single Iraqi opposition group of any significance opposing American action in Iraq, except the Communists.

FORUM: So how will the people of Iraq react?

CHALABI: With great jubilation. The people of Iraq will be celebrating the fall of Saddam in the hands of the United States.

FORUM: And what will happen then?

CHALABI: In our view, what should happen is that an interim coalition government should be established as soon as the United States forces commence operations, and we gain access to any Arab part of Iraq. This coalition government would enjoy the support of the United States and be in charge of the military force that we expect to be trained under the Iraq Liberation Act. By the way, the Iraqi military units in the army will be called to join this force.

Subsequently, the coalition government would deal with the problem of law and order in Iraqi cities and with the issue of humanitarian relief, providing food supplies in any emergency situation that may arise.

FORUM: Who are the constituent members of this coalition?

CHALABI: The coalition is composed of the political forces in Iraq that we think represent various constituencies in Iraqi society.

FORUM: So you are here in Washington talking to the U.S. government. Are the Kurds here in Washington talking to the U.S. government? Are the Shi'a here in Washington talking to the U.S. government?

CHALABI: We all came together back in August 2002 to talk to the U.S. government. I came here to attend the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] meeting.

FORUM: And you have developed a joint framework of operation?

CHALABI: The opposition will work together in alliance with the United States.

FORUM: Has it happened before where all of the Iraqi opposition groups joined forces? For instance, the Kurds broke into civil war just as there were signs of greater cooperation.

CHALABI: Review your history. The INC was formed in June 1992 right after the Kurdish elections. Both Kurdish parties worked together with the INC, and the INC established its own headquarters in the north, in Kurdistan. The Kurds worked for two years with the INC together, and started the conflict only when they discovered that, contrary to earlier expectations, the U.S. government was not going to support the INC in an effort to overthrow Saddam. So at that point, local considerations and the struggle for wealth became more important than working together. But initially, the Kurds came together. Everybody was in the INC, and they all subscribed to the INC platform.

Then there is the issue of exile politics. There is a cardinal law that does not get violated very often, and that is: The more remote the possibility of success in the country, the more disunited various factions of an exiled opposition. Upon seeing that prospects of achieving victory increase, opposition forces very quickly coalesce and come together. This dynamic has worked in many places. Take, for example, the struggle against the Nazis in France. There were 47 different resistance factions that were killing each other. However, when they saw that the Allies were going to land, they all came together.

FORUM: The United States has always insisted that the overthrow of Saddam had to come from within his own circle. The alternative to that, from the U.S. standpoint, was a silver-bullet approach—an assassination. You, on the other hand, have advocated some sort of mutiny in the army and within Iraqi society. Can you explain your point of view?

CHALABI: The position of the INC has been that any change in Iraq could happen only by the will of the Iraqi people gathering support from the Iraqi military with the assistance of the United States. This position had come into conflict with the view of people who thought that they could generate a coup d'état in Baghdad, using the Iraqi army officers from Saddam's inner circle who were disloyal to him.

Anybody who thought that this could be done had seriously misunderstood the nature of Saddam's regime. Saddam is a far better conspirator than any agency of the U.S. government. When Saddam found out that the United States was trying to topple him through a military coup d'état, he did not sit still. He began to send the so-called conspirators to provoke military plots. The result of this tactic is a decade of failure for the United States. Any Iraqi from military circles who had worked with the United States in a conspiracy against Saddam is either dead or, if he is lucky, in exile.

So our view is the correct view. The Iraq Liberation Act speaks to that, and I hope that this will be the policy of the U.S. government. Even when Saddam's son-in-law fled the country—and his son-in-law is no ordinary person; he is the one who established the Republican Guards [Saddam's elite forces] and was in charge of the weapons program—he could not generate any support for the overthrow of Saddam. What he did was ask the United States to provide him with two armed divisions and have the U.S. Air Force take orders about targets in Iraq. That did not happen.

FORUM: Does the INC have any relationship with the United Nations?

CHALABI: The United Nations is a club of states. We are not a state, so we are not admitted to the club.

FORUM: What is your current opinion of the UN?

CHALABI: The UN is the body where the world resolves its differences and agrees on a common position. But the UN is very nervous about regime change. It works to preserve regimes, rather than change them.

FORUM: Would that not go against international law?

CHALABI: No. If so, how did they achieve regime change in Germany in 1945? Or regime change in Japan? The United Nations was actually based on regime change, but over the years, it developed into a club of nations that became something of a cover for a multitude of sins.

The United Nations, under the guise of non-interference, became a false witness to genocide, repression and deportation, not only in Iraq, but all over the world. It has had limited success resolving these types of issues that beset tens of millions of people. And it is, of course, a tragedy to put the concept of state sovereignty above all other affairs taking place on that state's territory. The principle of non-interference becomes hypocrisy when confronted with totalitarian regimes that destroy the very fabric of civil society in their own countries. Saddam is the prime example of that. Repression at home is the other side of the coin of aggression abroad.

FORUM: But Saddam has been smart over the years, inviting the UN weapons inspectors in to see limited resources, then throwing them out, and letting them back in again at the height of international outcry and a threat of military action. And then he does the same thing all over.

CHALABI: This remark is not a comment on the intelligence of Saddam. Rather, it is a comment on the fecklessness of the United Nations.

FORUM: Do you put the U.S. in that same category of fecklessness?

CHALABI: Under the Clinton administration, yes, but not now. President Bush, in his speech on September 12, 2002, laid down what he is going to do. He very, very adroitly said that the United Nations, if it does not meet the challenge, would devolve into the fate of the League of Nations. It is a very important and historic comment, and it is true. He said that the United States would not stand for that and that the United States has a duty under Article 51 [of the UN Charter] to defend itself.

People say that the United States does not contemplate preemptive strikes. That is false. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy was about to launch a strike on Cuba to destroy missiles deployed by the Soviet Union—although no missile was fired or contemplated of being fired at the United States. But nevertheless, he invoked the right of self-defense to destroy the strategic threat present in Cuba against the United States. That is a preemptive strike! So, the principle of preemptive strike is not alien to the foreign policy of the United States. The United States will preempt threats to its national security.

How is the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Cuba different from the ability of Saddam to use chemical and biological weapons, and even nuclear weapons, on U.S. territory? It is not any different.

FORUM: The build-up of tensions with respect to Iraq has provoked a debate in the United States, certainly in the intellectual circles, about the nature of U.S. power. The talk is about unilateral as opposed to multilateral use of power, and about U.S. hegemony in the world. There are even comparisons being drawn between the United States and the Holy Roman Empire. Empires, it is being argued, have a historic tendency to collapse when acting unilaterally. Therefore, the multilateral argument is that the United States should act in concert with Europe and the UN. Are you a participant in this debate? Do you find it useful?

CHALABI: This debate is interesting and would make a good subject for a thesis in history. I enjoy participating in this debate, but it is not relevant to our situation. It would be very amusing to try to identify a future Caligula in the United States, or a future Claudius, or indeed a future Nero. But it is not relevant to our case. And I should just mention that the Roman Empire was brought down by barbarians. In turn, the September 11 attacks were carried out by barbarians.

FORUM: So what does history hold for us? Will the United States be faced with the same threat that the Roman Empire faced centuries ago?

CHALABI: Marx said that when history repeats itself, it becomes a farce.

Today's challenges are different. The world is different, and the United States is all too aware, I think, of the limitations of its power.

FORUM: Do you care whether the United States acts unilaterally or multilaterally?

CHALABI: We want to liberate our country, and we want to construct democracy in Iraq. In our view, the more the United States has influence over this process, the better it is for us politically, economically and in terms of human rights for the people of Iraq.

FORUM: But the United States does not care about human rights for the people of Iraq, does it?

CHALABI: The Iraq Liberation Act does. It provides for human rights, for democracy. Also, there are two joint resolutions passed by Congress calling for the trial of Saddam as a war criminal. Moreover, the statement of President Bush at the United Nations on September 12 began not with weapons, but rather with the plight of the Iraqi people. The first resolution he mentioned was Resolution 688. So I think the United States cares about human rights in Iraq.

That having been said, the U.S. record of supporting human rights in the Third World has not been the most brilliant since the Cold War. But again, most of the operations conducted by the United States in Third World countries were secret intelligence operations that involved covert action. By its definition, covert action restricts the universe of people available to participate, and you generally take who you can and deny that you knew them later. This is not the situation in Iraq. When the United States has acted in a public way in foreign counties, they ended up, by and large, embracing freedom, human rights and decency, as they did in Germany and Japan after the Second World War.

FORUM: The humanitarian situation in Iraq was largely caused by economic sanctions. How do you reconcile that with what you say is the United States' concern for human rights?

CHALABI: The economic disasters of Iraq are entirely of Saddam's making and are not the function of the sanctions. The Iraqi people have been suffering from shortages throughout the period of Saddam's rule, even though Iraq had huge oil revenues. Shortages of food in Iraq were commonplace throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Furthermore, the UN sanctions specifically excluded food and medical supplies from the list of prohibited items. Immediately upon the passage of the resolution that imposed sanctions on Iraq, the UN passed two resolutions, Resolutions 706 and 712, which enabled Iraq to import food and medicine. Saddam refused to accept those resolutions.

Then the United Nations started its oil-for-food program, which is far more adequate to meet the needs of Iraqi people than what Saddam was prepared to accept. This is not a claim based on statistics or analysis, but it is based on the actual fact—the experience of the Northern Kurdish region. In Kurdistan, where people receive a specific percentage from the share of the total goods that Iraq gets based on the population proportion (13.5 percent), the level of prosperity and well-being of the people is unprecedented. Why is that the case, while it is not the case in the areas controlled by Saddam?

But of course, as usual, the United States and the Western powers lost the propaganda war, and Saddam won the propaganda war. And everybody in the West and in the Arab world believes now that sanctions are the cause of the tragedy in Iraq. No, Saddam is the cause of that tragedy. Saddam had forgone…more than a hundred billion dollars in oil revenue—just because he wanted to keep his weapons of mass destruction.

FORUM: How could Saddam, being who he is, win the propaganda war against the West? Why were the human rights groups more likely to believe him?

CHALABI: Saddam thrives on the contradictions of his enemies. Have you seen the movie "The Truman Show?" Saddam is the Truman Show, and the United States and the United Nations is the man sitting in the middle. Saddam can create an atmosphere in Iraq which is entirely theatrical—it looks real, but it is not.

Saddam is able to demonstrate to the UN and to any humanitarian organization, no matter how sophisticated it is, that there is suffering and there is death in Iraq. He causes it, and he engineers it.