Ahmad Chalabi is the leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC). He was born in Baghdad in October 1944 to one of Iraq's most prominent families. (His father, 'Abd al-Hadi, was president of the Iraqi senate.) The Chalabis were forced into exile by the 1958 revolution, and moved briefly to Lebanon. At age sixteen, Chalabi won admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1969, he completed a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Chicago and accepted a position at the American University in Beirut the following year. In 1977, he and his wife Leila moved to Amman where Chalabi founded the Petra Bank, the first Jordanian bank to use computers, issue credit cards, and operate ATMs. It quickly rose to become Jordan's third-largest bank before its 1989 seizure by Jordanian authorities who charged Chalabi with embezzlement.
Following the end of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Chalabi founded the INC. In 1992, he returned to Iraq and settled in the portion of Iraqi Kurdistan protected by the no-fly-zone. In 1996, Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Mas'ud Barzani, fighting an internecine war with Kurdish rival Jalal Talabani, invited Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards into the region. Saddam's forces executed a number of INC supporters; Chalabi returned to London. However, in the months before the liberation of Iraq, Chalabi returned to Iraqi Kurdistan. He has remained in Iraq since, serving on the Interim Governing Council (IGC) until its June 2004 dissolution. Michael Rubin conducted this interview by e-mail with Chalabi in Baghdad on July 2, 2004.
The Future of Iraq
Middle East Quarterly: Does the interim government in Iraq, in office since June 28, 2004, have any legitimacy?
Ahmad Chalabi: The interim government is a stage on the road to a full-fledged, elected and legitimate government.
MEQ: Should there be elections in January 2005?
Chalabi: Elections are a prerequisite for peace and security in Iraq now. The Iraqi people feel that too many promises have been broken. Delaying elections would be an extremely unwise and dangerous move. The INC has been calling for elections to be held as quickly as possible so that we can have a legitimate government. It was a mistake to delay elections, and they must be held at the latest by January 2005. The Iraqi people expect and demand this.
MEQ: Should they be by party-slate or by single-member constituency? The first implies a single, national election based on proportional representation while the latter would be a system somewhat akin to U.S. congressional elections in which candidates represent districts.
Chalabi: We must have single-member districts because the people of each district must identify with their representative and know them, just as the members must be accountable to the people of their district. The United Nations [U.N.], with the support of the Arab governments, is trying to impose party lists in order to limit the representation of the majority in the elections and ensure the election of people with high name recognition. They feel that this would lead to a government that does not disturb the Arab order.
MEQ: Some high-profile American analysts, such as Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, have called for Iraq to be split up into three states. Are they right? Should Iraq be broken up? Why shouldn't the Kurds have independence?
Chalabi: All peoples have the right to self-determination and that includes the Kurdish people. Why should they be any different? If the exercise of that right leads them toward independence, then so be it. We will negotiate with them. The days of using violence to hold this country together are over.
MEQ: What's the best way to kick start the Iraqi economy?
Chalabi: We need to take immediate steps to give each Iraqi family a monthly cash stipend from oil revenues. This would immediately kick start the banking system and consumer spending, so allowing for capital accumulation. The monthly food ration and fuel subsidies can be phased out and a cash stipend introduced. This would take money out of the hands of the government and put it into the hands of Iraqi families.
MEQ: Is Iraq ready for direct foreign investment?
Chalabi: Foreign investment is an important element of a modern economy but no foreign investment will come until we have adequate security. The Baathist dictatorship led to a slow and steady decline in Iraq's state-centered economy.
MEQ: Looking back, what were the United States' biggest errors? Should the United States have liberated Iraq?
Chalabi: The biggest error was occupation. Of course, the United States should have liberated Iraq, but it should never have occupied Iraq and tried to run this country along the lines of a colony. Many times before and during the war, I said that the Iraqi people would welcome liberation but reject occupation. And that is exactly what happened. The insurgency only started after the United States and United Kingdom passed U.N. resolution 1483 in which they called themselves occupiers. All the coalition's problems have stemmed from that. Why would Iraqi police and security forces risk their lives for an occupation? Were they expected to die for America? The stain of occupation is well known in the Middle East.
There should have been an Iraqi provisional government as part of the coalition, ready to take over as soon as Saddam was gone. This government could have been expanded to include indigenous forces, and its main task would have been planning elections as fast as possible. But the State Department did not let this happen because the other Arab countries were petrified of what might come. President Bush promised the Iraqi people liberation and democracy, and instead they got occupation and delayed elections. Now we have an interim government in which all its senior members were outside the country. The only members of this government who were not in exile are Baathists who served Saddam. So what did fourteen months of occupation achieve? The electricity still doesn't work; thousands are dead; the United States has lost the moral high ground in the Middle East, and the U.N., which opposed the liberation of Iraq, has been allowed to impose Baathists back on the Iraqi people.
MEQ: Shortly after Iraq's liberation, mobs allegedly directed by radical cleric Muqtada as-Sadr killed renowned cleric Majid al-Kho'i in one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest shrines in Najaf. A year later, Sadr dispatched his followers to kill American soldiers. Rumor has it, you are now brokering a deal between Sadr and Grand Ayatollah 'Ali Sistani and advocating that Sadr join the political process. Why should anyone forgive Sadr? Shouldn't someone whose first inclination is a turn to violence be disqualified from the political process?
Chalabi: No one is calling for forgiveness for Muqtada. He has agreed to submit to a judicial process of a sovereign Iraqi government. However, it is questionable whether serving an arrest warrant on one individual was worth 2,000 lives lost. Bremer would come into the IGC every day and talk about how many hundreds of Muqtada supporters the U.S. had killed the day before. This was outrageous. These are young Iraqis who stayed in Iraq and fought Saddam, and now they were becoming U.S. cannon fodder. I stopped all dealings with Bremer at that time, and I never spoke to him again.
The Shi'ite caucus, of which I am a member, made an initial attempt to stop the killing in Najaf, Sadr City, and elsewhere. Muqtada responded, and the fighting has stopped, and many lives have been saved, both Iraqi and American. Stopping this conflict was a worthy cause. President Bush said that he had no objection to Muqtada taking part in the political process. Muqatda's father, Sayyid Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, was greatly respected by many people who have gravitated toward his son. They are a legitimate political constituency that deserves an opportunity to take part in Iraqi political life. The U.S. government, especially [National Security Advisor] Condoleezza Rice, has always called for indigenous Iraqi political forces to take a leading role in post-Saddam Iraq. It has always been my intention to bring forces that fought Saddam and the Baathists into the political fold. It is disappointing that such internal forces did not have a role in the Governing Council or the interim government.
MEQ: Many pundits label you a Pentagon favorite, an exile, and someone with no legitimacy on the ground. Do you believe that Iraqis support you?
Chalabi: It is a strange Pentagon favorite who has his house raided by U.S. troops. Our legitimacy in the INC comes from leading the struggle against the Baathist dictatorship. The Iraqis know who worked against the regime.
MEQ: When the Pentagon flew you to Nasiriya at the end of the war, what did you do? What did you find? How did Iraqis react to you?
Chalabi: I want to make it clear that, contrary to what is published in the media, I entered Iraq on my own in January 2003 two months before the war started. The Pentagon flew the Free Iraqi Forces [FIF] from northern Iraq to southern Iraq in early April. Actually they did not want me on the plane with the FIF. Gen. John Abizaid called me from CENTCOM HQ [Central Command Headquarters] in Doha and said I should not get on the plane. I did it anyway, and he was very angry. When we got to the south, we were taken in U.S. military trucks and dumped in a derelict military base out in the desert. Saddam had abandoned the camp in the first Gulf war thirteen years before. There was no food and water, no sanitation, not even any habitable buildings. We had no tents, so we slept on the ground.
The FIF did very well working alongside the U.S. Special Forces. They found significant arms caches and captured a number of Saddam Fedayeen. Lt. Gen. David McKiernan later disbanded the FIF on the advice of the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], depriving the U.S. of a valuable Iraqi ally.
MEQ: How come we don't see crowds of people shouting your name?
Chalabi: In Nasiriya, I addressed the first political rally to be held in post-Saddam Iraq. Ten thousand people came to hear us. The enthusiasm was tremendous, and the people called out for democracy and the rule of law. It was very moving to see Iraqi citizens yearning for democracy after so many years of brutality.
MEQ: The de-Baathification procedure instituted by Bremer and the Governing Council applied only to the top four levels of the Baath Party, affecting perhaps 70,000 out of two million party members. The new prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has said he will scale back the scope of de-Baathification, bringing back a number of party members who did not have blood on their hands. Could Baath party members achieve such high ranks in the Baath party without direct complicity in the system? Was de-Baathification responsible for the insurgency or insecurity? Will Allawi's plan bring calm?
Chalabi: De-Baathification is enshrined in the Transitional Administrative Law [TAL]. This cannot be changed without the consent of the president and both vice-presidents. De-Baathification was actually responsible for saving the lives of individual Baathists. It must be understood that one of the primary purposes of de-Baathification is to have a systematic and legal process to deal with Baathists and to prevent people from taking the law into their own hands. A great danger of ending de-Baathification is that acts of violence and retribution will take place. Bringing predatory Baathists into government certainly will not bring stability. They are only interested in establishing their control again. Bringing back Baathists will inflame the great majority of the Iraqi people.
MEQ: Many pundits and policymakers say the decision to disband the army contributed to insecurity by placing 400,000 armed, unemployed men on the streets. Was the decision a mistake? Shouldn't the army have been used for security and to help reconstruct Iraq?
Chalabi: When Bremer issued the order to disband the army there was no army. There were no barracks, no equipment, no stores. Everything had been looted, and the soldiers had gone home. He simply issued a death certificate to a dead man. The Iraqi army was mostly made up of Shi'ite conscripts. They hated the army and took the first opportunity to go home. To bring them back and force them to serve in the institution they hated under officers who abused them would have been counterproductive. The U.S. should have trained Iraqis as military police before the war and had them accompany coalition troops into liberated areas to keep order. We proposed this idea in 2001, but it was never implemented because the State Department blocked it.
MEQ: The December 18, 2003 issue of Al-Mu'tamar, the newspaper of the INC, shows you meeting with Saddam Hussein after his capture a few days earlier. What was it like meeting the former president? Did he recognize you? What did you say to him? What did he say to you?
Chalabi: I met Saddam in his cell one day after he was captured. When I met him, I thought only of the pain and suffering he had caused so many people and the devastation he had caused to Iraq. He recognized me. I had no interest in speaking to him, but I did introduce the other Iraqis in the room with me. Some of them engaged him in debate, but I did not want to dignify him by speaking to him. He demanded that I and another colleague stay and speak with him and the others leave. At this point I got up and left because I wanted him to know that he will never give orders again.
MEQ: The New York Times reported that Saddam has suggested that his intelligence had infiltrated the INC. Do you believe the INC was infiltrated?
Chalabi: We know from the files we have found in Baghdad that a tea boy and a receptionist at the INC in London had made some reports to Iraqi intelligence. That is the extent of Saddam's penetration of us, still making him more successful than the CIA in their attempts to penetrate the INC.
What is illustrative about this story in The New York Times is how the CIA continues to try to leak stories about the INC to divert attention from their own failures and how journalists lap them up without any attempt at critical analysis. Saddam penetrated every coup plot the CIA ever tried against him with hundreds of deaths resulting, yet The New York Times does not mention it. Saddam also penetrated the CIA's attempts to kill him in March and April 2003, but the Times didn't mention that.
MEQ: You have been accused of everything from embezzling money from a Jordanian bank to fabricating intelligence to being a spy for Iran. Let's go through the charges one-by-one.
In 1992, a Jordanian military tribunal convicted you in absentia of embezzlement leading to the collapse of the Petra Bank. How do you respond to the charges?
Chalabi: The charges against me in Jordan are false, and the legal proceedings that convicted me were blatantly unfair and did not meet basic standards of due process. No judge anywhere in the world has sought to uphold the decision of this military tribunal that met in secret and where I was not represented. The only fair and impartial legal proceeding over Petra was in Hong Kong in 1994 where I was completely vindicated, and the British judge said the Jordanians had no case. Much new evidence in the Petra case has come to light recently, and there will be some action taken against the Jordanians.
MEQ: What political motive do you ascribe to Jordan's King Hussein?
Chalabi: As for King Hussein's motive, it is very simple. During the 1980s, the Jordanian economy grew increasingly dependent on trade with Iraq. All of Iraq's weapons purchases during the Iran-Iraq war were channeled through Jordan. Huge commissions accrued to King Hussein, Prince Abdullah, his son, the current king, and other high-ranking Jordanians. Saddam had essentially bought the services of the Jordanian government and that included Sa'id Nabulsi, the governor of the Central Bank, who initiated the action against Petra. Petra was solvent when Nabulsi took it over, but he ran it into the ground while his cronies made off with large profits.
MEQ: If you are innocent, why not go to Jordan to face the court?
Chalabi: I left Jordan because two senior Jordanian officials told me that King Hussein planned to deliver me to Saddam. A team had already arrived from Baghdad to take delivery of me. I will not go to Jordan because there is no chance of a free and fair legal proceeding there. The U.S. State Department's human rights report on Jordan states that the judiciary is independent in name only and is subject to interference and political pressure from the government.
MEQ: The CIA has accused you of fabricating reports that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The Daily Telegraph says that you told them, "We are heroes in error." Did you feed the Bush administration false information?
Chalabi: The INC did not give false, exaggerated, or misleading information on WMD [weapons of mass destruction] or any other matter to the United States. The CIA is trying to shift the blame away from themselves on the WMD issue. After all it was [Director of Central Intelligence] George Tenet who told President Bush that his evidence on WMD was a "slam dunk," and it is well known that the CIA would not take any information from the INC. Tenet and his team thought the INC would be an easy target, but they are finding that it is not as easy as they thought. The truth will come out through congressional investigation, and I have repeatedly offered to testify to the U.S. Congress on this matter. As for The Daily Telegraph, this is a false quotation. I did not give any interview to The Daily Telegraph, and it has misrepresented my views.
MEQ: Has the U.S. Senate accepted your offer to come and testify?
Chalabi: No, we have not had any communication from the U.S. Congress on this matter although Senator Hillary Clinton [Democrat of New York] said she thought it would be a good idea to hear me.
MEQ: You referred earlier to the May 20, 2004 raid on your compound in Baghdad. The warrant that the Iraqi police held accused members of your organization of kidnapping and corruption. Is there any truth to the charges?
Chalabi: Paul Bremer ordered a raid on my home and office on the premise of serving arrest warrants on some individuals in the INC. It is strange that they invaded my home, and even my bedroom, to look for these people but never went to their homes. The actual reason they raided us was simply as an act of political intimidation. The charges are spurious, and there is no evidence to support them. The court that issued these charges was an illegal court set up by the occupation authorities in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
MEQ: How so?
Chalabi: Occupying powers have the right to form their own courts but not to tamper with the judicial systems of occupied countries and create extrajudicial bodies that are nominally independent but actually under their control. The court that issued these warrants is outside the Iraqi judiciary system and was answerable only to Bremer with no right of appeal. Bremer appointed the judges on the basis of their loyalty to the Americans. It is reminiscent of the revolutionary courts that the Baath party set up after they took over in 1968. The so-called judge who issued the warrants, Zuhayr Johan Maliki, is not a real judge. He was a not-very-successful lawyer who became a translator for the occupation forces. They made him a judge of the first rank. It usually takes a minimum of fifteen years to achieve this rank and is only awarded after judicial examinations and references from peers. However, Maliki got it with a stroke of Bremer's pen. Bremer signed a contract to spend $70,000 of the Iraqi people's money every month on Maliki's protection. Senior judges and lawyers are exasperated by his lack of knowledge of the law and judicial procedure.
MEQ: You stand accused of telling the Iranians that Americans had broken their codes? On May 23, 2004, you said on Meet the Press that the CIA allegations that you spied for Iran were "false, nonexistent." Please explain.
Chalabi: Let us examine the charge that the CIA is making against me: that I supposedly told the Iranians that their code had been compromised by the United States. In what way was it compromised? Which code? Do they have only one code? And why would the Iranian intelligence office I was supposed to have told, then send a message in the same code to Tehran? Why would they do this unless they did not believe me? And if they did not believe me, then why did the CIA leak this story and tip them off? The whole thing is ridiculous. I did not give any such information to the Iranians, and no U.S. official told me classified information. George Tenet instigated a witch-hunt in Washington to cover his own failures, and innocent people are being picked on. The FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] should investigate who leaked all this to the press and tipped off the Iranians.
MEQ: Have you met with Iranian intelligence officials? If so, why?
Chalabi: I have met with intelligence officials from many countries including all of Iraq's neighbors.
MEQ: You accused "George Tenet and his CIA" of fabricating the charges. Don't you think the CIA-is-out-to-get-me line sounds a bit paranoid? Why would the CIA want to target you?
Chalabi: The CIA has an unbroken track record of failure in Iraq. Over the years with our limited resources, we have demonstrated better capability inside Iraq than the CIA, time after time. We have also been able to make our case in the United States, and this has infuriated them. We were right, and they were wrong on many occasions. It is documented that I warned the director of Central Intelligence that Saddam had penetrated the agency's 1996 coup effort. Tenet insisted that it was not. Three months later, Saddam arrested the CIA conspirators and over 100 Iraqi officers were killed. Tenet never forgave me for being right and embarrassing him, especially in the media and on Capitol Hill.
MEQ: And today?
Chalabi: The current CIA efforts to set up the new Iraqi intelligence service are also proving to be a failure.
The United Nations
MEQ: As chairman of the IGC's finance committee, you led an investigation into corruption in the U.N.'s oil-for-food program. What did the investigation find?
Chalabi: What we found is that the oil-for-food program is one of the most corrupt enterprises known to mankind. There were massive cheating, bribery, and corruption on a worldwide scale involving billions of dollars.
MEQ: What will happen to the audit now that the council has been disbanded?
Chalabi: Bremer stopped the IGC investigation and put it into the hands of the Supreme Board of Audit and gave extra powers to this board. It is a body that existed under Saddam, the officials there are Saddam holdovers, and many are Baath party members.
MEQ: Why would Bremer stop your investigation?
Chalabi: The Bush administration decided to bring in the U.N. to sanctify the transfer of power and placate domestic U.S. public opinion. For this reason, it was important that the U.N. not lose further credibility in Iraq. The continuation of a high profile audit would have been devastating when the facts came out about U.N. culpability and connivance in bilking the Iraqi people and continuing Saddam's reign of terror.
MEQ: Do you have proof of this?
Chalabi: Yes, Bremer and U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi gave ministerial jobs to two of the most senior Saddam-era officials who were responsible for the scandal. Muhammad Jiburi is a Baathist who was in charge of oil marketing under Saddam; this means he was directly responsible for the massive bribery and illegal oil sales and coupons that were handed out as favors. Bremer and Brahimi made him minister of trade; so now he is in charge of one of the key ministries that has relevant documents on all Iraq's imports during that period. Another of Saddam's top oil officials has been made minister of oil. This is clearly an attempt to block any meaningful investigation.
MEQ: Have you given up on this matter?
Chalabi: Not at all. We have faith in the U.S. Congress. It is only through a congressional investigation that the truth will emerge.
 Leslie H. Gelb, "The Three State Solution," The New York Times, Nov. 25, 2003.
 Financial Times, Apr. 11, 2003.
 Los Angeles Times, May 28, 2004.
 White House news briefing, at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/04/print/20030408-10.html.
 July 2, 2004.
 Feb. 19, 2004.
 Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), p. 249.
 The Washington Post, May 21, 2004.
 Meet the Press, May 23, 2004, at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5045125/.