Interview With Ahmed Chalabi
He talks of Iraqi culture, SOFA, and downplays rumors that the CIA is after him
Today, we go to the office of Ahmed Chalabi, a colorful character indeed.
He is most commonly referenced as the man who provided most of the erroneous intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s WMD, on which the Bush administration based its justification for the invasion of Iraq.
Chalabi is a published mathematician, founded a bank and a political party(the Iraqi National Congress), and has held the positions of Iraqi’s deputy prime minister, oil minister, and head of the Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification.
He sat on stage behind Laura Bush at President Bush’s 2004 presidential inauguration, and was slated by some in the administration to be Iraq’s prime minister, before he was accused of being a double agent for Iran, and fell out of favor with them. He has a knack for getting himself in and out of tough situations, and for staying in the news.
This week is no exception. His harsh condemnation of the U.S. cross-border attack into Syria, and of the current draft of the U.S./Iraq security agreement were well publicized. Also this week, there was the dismissal of a lawsuit he filed against the Kingdom of Jordan, which was related to their seizure of the bank he ran (Petra Bank) and the subsequent charges of embezzlement that were brought against him.
Lastly, on the day of publishing, Chalabi was all over the Iraqi television news stations after an announcement by Iraq's intelligence service that it intended to sue him, because of his criticism of the nondisclosure of the agency's funding.
He covers plenty of topics and has some interesting views, but if you’re just looking for intrigue (or are an intelligence agent from any number of countries),
start at the second half of the interview, about where the small photo is.
IRAQSLOGGER: Give us an update on Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, particularly in reference to the upcoming provincial elections?
AHMED CHALABI: Well, we plan to contest the elections, and we plan to field candidates who have popularity and credibility and competence in the various districts. It is important that the elections are not on the basis of lists, exclusively – that they are on the basis of choosing candidates. That’s very important, and I think that’s a useful development.
IRAQSLOGGER: As far as choosing candidates and building coalitions?
AHMED CHALABI: First, we have invited several of them, in fact many of the lists who are together on election issues that are of common interest to them.
IRAQSLOGGER: Such as?
AHMED CHALABI: Such as the dialogue and understanding of the monitors on all the lists, also the prevention of fraud in the election at various levels... and at the same time, getting the vote out, because a lot of people are disenchanted with the results that they had after the last elections. They are saying “We voted last time and we didn’t get very much, so we do not want to vote,” so we are trying to get all the lists together, to get the vote out.
IRAQSLOGGER: On actual issues, what do you see as the correct direction for Iraqi to go? Which issues are most important?
AHMED CHALABI: For the local elections, we have three issues. The first is full sovereignty and independence, the second is the transfer of wealth from the government to the people, and the third is the improvement of the quality of life for the Iraqi people. These are big issues that will guide any efforts we have regarding the election.
IRAQSLOGGER: How so?
AHMED CHALABI: There are several programs. The first program is the issue of housing, which has two major problems – first is land, and second is funding. The government owns 95 percent of the land, so this is not a problem, and we believe that the government, working through the local banks, can subsidize the interest rate of housing and development for loans of up to 30 years. For agriculture, the government should be able to subsidize farmers to be able to produce, and have a capital base for further improvement. We want to help private industry sector get new plants and new equipment, so that they can actually be competitive in the international market. We don’t want to subsidize industries, but we want to help people gain capital, and help them maybe with raw materials. We want to establish a foundation for the humanities so artist of various sector of art such as painters, sculptors and TV producers can get a chance to use public funds in a way to promote artistic development.
IRAQSLOGGER: What about the first issue you mentioned for the elections, that of full sovereignty. It’s a pretty big issue these days, particularly in reference to the SOFA agreement.
AHMED CHALABI: Of course, we think that sovereignty is control over one’s territory – a country’s territory by its people. It is control of regulating the various procedures through the constitution of the country, not through extraneous factors. The freedom and the constitutional rights of the people should be safeguarded by the state itself, and not subject to arbitrary restrictions imposed by anyone. Also, the state should have control over its foreign affairs and its alliances and its armed forces. And, very important, the state should have total and absolute control of the funds that belong to the state.
IRAQSLOGGER: Most of the discussion of Iraqi sovereignty these days obviously has to do with the future role of America in Iraq’s affairs. What role, if any, do you think America should have in the coming years?
AHMED CHALABI: I think that it is very important for Iraq to have a strategic relationship of friendship with the United States. We need that very much, and feel it is a benefit to the Iraqi people to have such a relationship. One of the fields that has been very important for Iraq is the help that the Iraqi government got from the United States in resolving the debt issues from Saddam’s regime. We had debts of maybe 140 billion dollars. The United States helped us through the Paris Club and through bilateral discussions with these countries. The United States was instrumental in helping us get a debt reduction of 80 percent, which is a very significant thing. I mention this because it is one of the things that we need to cooperate with the United States on. We need to cooperate on cultural things, we need to cooperate on common scientific developments. We need to cooperate on informatics and projects that spread the use of information technology in Iraq and to find employment opportunities with people in that field. We need to cooperate on communications, and, again, on culture.
I’ll tell you that, in the last five and a half years, since the fall of Saddam Hussein, very few Iraqis have gone to the United States to study. I think that, even with all the tension between the United States and Iran, that it is easier for an Iranian to go to the United States to study than an Iraqi. This is a huge shortfall. There has been very little cultural exchange between the two countries, and this is a very skewed aberration that we are going through. I tell you, if you go online and try to buy software, Iraq is listed along with all the countries that are considered to be terrorist countries by the U.S. and having restrictions on the purpose of software and other items. It seems to me a ridiculous situation.
The current focus is on security issues. I really don’t want the United States to be a policeman in Iraq, that’s not what it’s about. If you think about it, in the past five and a half years, over two million Americans went through Iraq. That’s a lot of people. How many Iraqis went through America? It’s time to think about these issues. How many Iraqi officers from the military have gone to West Point or Fort Leavenworth? We are not here to just squibble and squabble and argue about rights and security and defense contractors shooting up people in the streets. That’s not what the relationship is about between Iraq and the United States.
IRAQSLOGGER: There’s going to be a new administration coming into the White House. You’ve mentioned some positive things you’d like to see happen, such as cultural exchange.
AHMED CHALABI: I would say that people should see Iraq as a country with an active and energetic and creative people. The focus of the U.S. government in Iraq has almost been entirely on security. Iraqis are capable of the same things that other populations are capable of. Look at the furniture you’re sitting on here. It’s all entirely made in Iraq. It’s tasteful, it’s well made, and it will last a long time. People don’t notice that. The interaction of many Americans with Iraqis has been at the other end of a gun. There was good interaction when they first came here, but who do they meet?
Yesterday, I went to a ceremony at Baghdad University commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Law School. So, we’ve had a college of law for a hundred years, now, teaching modern law.
IRAQSLOGGER: And there’s some famous laws that come from this area, a little bit before that.
AHMED CHALABI: (laughs) Well, we don’t have to go back that far, but if you want to - People remember Hammurabi’s code, but even that is late. There were codes of law in what is now Diala that were five hundred years before Hammurabi’s code.
The point I wish to make is that this land, this country has the ability to generate and regenerate talent and power over the centuries, for the long term. I would strongly suggest that people in the United States who are in a position of authority bear this in mind in a very substantial way, when dealing with Iraq.
IRAQSLOGGER: Your own personal relationship with the American government has had its ups and downs, to put it mildly. You went from being in very good standing and playing a significant role in the events leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to having communication cut off with them and being called an Iranian secret agent. I’m hearing that there is a lot of chatter among people connected with U.S. intelligence groups that, basically, some people are after you again, and that your arrest is on the table. Can you comment on this?
AHMED CHALABI: We’ve heard rumors, sure.
IRAQSLOGGER: What have you heard?
AHMED CHALABI: Reports and rumors, that some people are upset with me, that some people think that I’m too close to Iran – various things like that. This is common practice. It’s happened before and it can happen again. We don’t know what will happen. We are living in dangerous times now, but I feel that these are issues that come about because of the U.S. government. It is a matter of frustration with various U.S. officials. They get pieces of information which they think is substantial, and lead to something which is deep and sinister. Well, there’s no such thing.
In 2004, the CPA even raided my house. It was instigated by the CPA, and then they tried to pass it off on the Iraqi authorities while Iraq was under occupation. They actually induced a judge to issue an arrest warrant for me, on the grounds of false currency – all of three dollars were involved, and there was no charge at all, because the currency was not in circulation. It was there, and we had brought it in under my capacity as chairman of the finance committee of the governing council.
They tried that, it didn’t work. The judge was dismissed from the Iraqi judicial system later over various corruption charges. As far as I understand, he’s working in some American outfit here. So, all these things happened in the past. It could happen again, but I think it’s counterproductive.
IRAQSLOGGER: Are you in contact with anyone in the American government?
AHMED CHALABI: I meet them – I’m not in contact with the embassy in any significant way.
IRAQSLOGGER: What kind of way, then?
AHMED CHALABI: I meet them at parties that are given by the president or the prime minister, or various government officials, and we exchange greetings in a friendly way.
IRAQSLOGGER: And that’s the extent of it?
AHMED CHALABI: Yes. Also, when there was an assassination attempt – a suicide bomber, basically targeting me – I was in the convoy – I got a call from a senior MNF-I general to warn me about another attack. So, that was a friendly act. And, yesterday, and American officer came with the Iraqi general who is in command of this entire area to discuss joint security arrangements with our guards’ battalion.
IRAQSLOGGER: What was his name?
AHMED CHALABI: It was a colonel. I forgot his name. He gave me a card that I have somewhere. He came here and asked to see me, so I sat with them to do arrangements with our security people. Also, I attended the meeting of the National Political Security Council to discuss the security agreement recently. I pointed out the importance of good ties to the United States with regards to our funds.
IRAQSLOGGER: What has been your involvement in the negotiations of the security agreement?
AHMED CHALABI: For official involvement, only that, in that meeting. We have views on the security agreement that we have published – it is part of the record. We were the first to point out some of the problems, back in January.
IRAQSLOGGER: Which problems in particular are of most concern to you?
AHMED CHALABI: The problems of jurisdiction of American soldiers, of authority to use Iraq as a launching point for action against any of its neighbors, the issues of detaining Iraqis without reference to Iraqi constitutional law, the issue of control of our airspace, the issue of tax exemptions, of bringing in third party nationals without the knowledge of the Iraqi government. These are some of the issues that we’ve pointed out over the past several months, and I think they’ve had an impact on the thinking of the Iraqi negotiators.
IRAQSLOGGER: What is your current contact with the Iranian government?
AHMED CHALABI: Nothing official. Again, like the Americans, mostly friendly meetings. Iran is one of our neighbors, and Iranians have contact with many people in Iraq. That’s it, really.
IRAQSLOGGER: When national elections come around, what part are you hoping to play? What coalitions are you involved with, and to what extent?
AHMED CHALABI: Well, there have been active discussions with people who are in the government now.
IRAQSLOGGER: Who would you most like to be allied with?
AHMED CHALABI: I don’t want to discuss this in detail now, but we have been involved in active and prolonged discussions with many people in the government now. They are quite open to making a coalition with the INC.
IRAQSLOGGER: Do you see yourself working only through the INC, or as an official member of the government again?
AHMED CHALABI: I’m not eager to be in any given position, but I would like to be helpful in transferring wealth from the government to the people, and in improving the quality of life for the people.
IRAQSLOGGER: Thank you, Dr. Chalabi.
AHMED CHALABI: Thank you.