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Ahmad Chalabi and a New Iraq

May 7, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: President Bush’s naming yesterday of retired diplomat Paul Bremer as his new special envoy to Iraq was taken as a signal that the administration wants to accelerate the formation of an Iraqi-led interim government.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: He’s a person who knows how to get things done. He’s a can-do type person. He shares the same values as most Americans share, and that is our deep desire to have an orderly country in Iraq that is free and at peace, where the average citizen has a chance to achieve his or her dreams.

MARGARET WARNER: Bremer’s appointment came just two days after the current U.S. administrator in Iraq, Retired General Jay Garner, told reporters that the nucleus of an interim Iraqi government was emerging around five opposition leaders.

LT. GEN. JAY GARNER (Ret.), Postwar Iraq Administrator: We begin now to see what we hope will be the emergence of a government — not a government, that’s wrong — a leadership that we can work with towards a democratic government process.

MARGARET WARNER: The five figures leading the process are: The two top Kurdish leaders of northern Iraq: Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK; and Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP; also Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Iran-based Supreme Council for Revolution in Iraq; Ayad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord, a group of defectors from Saddam Hussein’s forces; and London banker Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, or INC.

Chalabi is the most high-profile and controversial of the group. He’s an Iraqi Shiite, son of a wealthy Baghdad family that was exiled in the late 1950s. Educated at MIT and the University of Chicago, Chalabi worked in family financial businesses. In 1977 he founded the Petra Bank in Jordan. In 1992, a Jordanian court convicted him, in absentia, of embezzlement, a charge he’s denied. After the ’91 Gulf War, Chalabi became a familiar figure in Washington, advocating the overthrow of Saddam’s regime.

AHMAD CHALABI, Iraqi National Congress: Helping the Iraqi people regain their country is the only solution.

MARGARET WARNER: In 1992, he became head of the new U.S.-funded INC. In 2001, State Department auditors charged the INC with sloppy accounting and misuse of U.S. Funds. But he’s a favorite at the Pentagon. In April, the U.S. airlifted him into Iraq, along with hundreds of other exiles. Chalabi set up quarters in Baghdad, but insists he is not a candidate for permanent office.

AHMAD CHALABI: The Iraqi interim authority will be formed by Iraqis, chosen by Iraqis, and it will consist of Iraqis only.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on Ahmad Chalabi, we turn to Randy Scheunemann, executive director of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. He’s known Chalabi since the ’90s, when he worked as foreign policy advisor to two Republican Senate leaders. Adeed Dawisha, a professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio, who’s written widely on the Middle East. Born in Iraq, he’s an American citizen. And Eric Davis, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. His forthcoming book is, Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq. Welcome to you all.

Professor Dawisha, why is Ahmad Chalabi such a controversial figure?

ADEED DAWISHA: Because he, as your report said, he was involved in the founding of Petra Bank and it’s — in the late 1980s it dissolved and he was — he was seen as a main figure in the dissolution of the bank. The relationship that he had with King Hussein of Jordan was not very smooth and indeed he had to leave Amman in the trunk of a car, basically being whisked away from Amman. He of course denies the charges as your own report says but that baggage is still with him. A lot of people feel that he was involved, and it’s not very clear which side to believe. So that even if in reality he was not to blame, nevertheless what is important about that is that the perception of a lot of people in the Arab world and Iraq and the rest of the world was that he was involved. I doubt very much whether he will ever be able to get over this particular kind of perception.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, Randy Scheunemann, that the taint of this scandal, this sentencing is really what is behind the controversy?

RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: No, I have to disagree. I mean, the Petra Bank scandal, if our criteria were any allegation of corruption would require us to distance ourselves from Middle Eastern leaders, we wouldn’t have many countries we deal with the Middle East starting with Saudi Arabia next door. The court that convicted Dr. Chalabi was in fact a special security court set up under martial law, considered the evidence for a grand total of 24 hours and issued a 223-page judgment against Dr. Chalabi — interestingly enough only several weeks after he had gone on an American television show and detailed documents showing arms deals with King Hussein and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. You have to remember in 1992, the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, King Hussein and Jordan allied themselves with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, so there are far more politics behind this than any financial irregularities.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Davis, what would you add to this in terms of why he is so controversial? I mean, there are a lot of critics out there who never talk about the Jordan situation still and find him — are still very critical of the idea that he might be going back to help lead Iraq.

ERIC DAVIS: Well, I think there are three other reasons which have not been mentioned so far. Two of Iraq’s powerful neighbors, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, do not want to see an Iraqi Shiite to be the head of a democratic Iraq. Secondly, I think there’s a perception among many Iraqis that Mr. Chalabi has not come from the political process itself within Iraq, but rather is being imposed by the United States government. And thirdly I think that many Iraqis feel that he has not articulated a vision of an Iraq — Mr. Chalabi has emphasized civil society, democratic values. I think we should respect him for that. But I followed the INC, the Iraqi National Congress Web site for many year years, and I have yet to see him articulate a vision for Iraqis, the average Iraqi who today is not just concerned with issues of participation, transparency, accountability but also with health care, jobs, education, and housing. We need an Iraqi leader who is going to speak to that type of vision.

MARGARET WARNER: Prof. Dawisha, before we go on and debate Chalabi himself, give us also a little history here. Out of thousands of exiles, hundreds of would-be leaders, how did he become the favorite of at least a certain group at the Pentagon and on the flip side not well respected by the folks at the State Department?

ADEED DAWISHA: I think he became kind of part of the bureaucratic kind of struggles that occurred in Washington. He was always from the very beginning an entrepreneur. He was a banker. Of all the other leaders, he was the most visible. And I think this is his personality. He has to be visible and in a sense played on that. For example, Ayad Allawi, the head of the National Accord, who had started his group earlier than Chalabi, nevertheless had contacts with the American governments but generally speaking you don’t find him on TV a lot. In fact, many people don’t know what he looks like.

MARGARET WARNER: You couldn’t see our tape but we couldn’t even find a picture of him so you are absolutely right.

ADEED DAWISHA: Precisely.

MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead.

ADEED DAWISHA: Precisely. I can’t see your tape but I just listened to you. But precisely — many people don’t know what he looks like even though he had continuous relationships with both the CIA and the State Department. Chalabi is a different person. He is flamboyant. He is an entrepreneur. He wants to be in the public eye and in a sense use that to his own benefit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They are different personalities.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Randy Scheunemann, he was a great proponent of some kind of U.S. intervention in Iraq and funding Iraqi exiles and trying to topple Saddam Hussein.

RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: This is an individual who has enemies for institutional reasons and for ideological reasons; for institutional reasons, because he wasn’t willing to ride off into the sunset and just live quietly in exile after he was abandoned by the Clinton administration and the CIA, for ideological reasons because –

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean by that, I’m sorry?

RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: In 1996, the Clinton State Department and the CIA abandoned the effort that they had going in northern Iraq where Dr. Chalabi, in fact, was leading Kurdish groups and many others and took the American government’s word when we told him we were there to help him overthrow Saddam Hussein. When he actually made some progress, they decided that might be too difficult; we might be forced to react if Saddam did something. Chalabi didn’t just simply fade away. He did go to the media, he did go to Congress. He did build support for the liberation of Iraq to end the suffering of the Iraqi people. For ideological reasons, as Dr. Black pointed out, he does have enemies, not just because the Turks and Saudis don’t want a Shiia in control, because there are many who don’t want a secular democracy in Iraq, including some in the State Department and the CIA.

MARGARET WARNER: Eric Davis?

ERIC DAVIS: Well, I think the problem is we have to be careful. Everyone among us wants to see the same end — the recreation of civil society in Iraq and the establishment of a functioning democratic regime or democratic administration. But the problem is I think Mr. Chalabi is really a creation of American government, someone who does not by any criteria enjoy the popular support of the Iraqi people.

My position vis-a-vis Dr. Chalabi is more nuanced than to say I’m either for him or against him. I think what you have seen since he came back to Nasiriyah, is he has not been actively involved in a very overt way. He has lost an important window of opportunity and I would suggest that he would be better served to perhaps be head of the Iraqi central bank, head of the ministry of economics or foreign trade or industry, and perhaps at a later date to work into a position where he could run for prime minister or president.

But again, he has not articulated the type of vision which is going to engender the support of the Iraqi people. And what ultimately counts when the day is done is not what the United States wants, but what the Iraqi people want and are going to support. That’s what is going to lead to stability.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Dawisha, what have you seen from him both in his writings and what he says about where he would like to lead Iraqis? Or course, we should say he keeps saying he doesn’t want to, but we can get to that.

ADEED DAWISHA: As far as that is concerned, my position on that is it’s really too early to figure out where these people are going to be. I agree with the notion that we are going to have at some point democratic elections. We’re going to have at some point political parties being formed. All of these particular leaders including Ahmad Chalabi are going to in a sense be part of this political process. At some point in the future is where he is going to articulate his ideas. So far all we’re talking about is an interim administration that is literally going to be decided by the coalition forces and the American administrators. But within six months down the line hopefully when a constitution is presented, when we put forward plans for political party formations, that’s when all of these individuals, including Ahmad Chalabi are going to come up with their programs, are going to articulate ideas, are going to show the Iraqi people where they want Iraq to be within the next two, three, four years. Then it’s the Iraqi people who are going to be deciding.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Davis back to you. He is — his supporters say on the one hand he is Shiite on the other hand he is from a sort of secular wealthy Baghdad family. Knowing Iraq as you do and as you have studied it, all these different ethnic groups, is that something of an advantage that he might be able to bridge distance among different groups?

ERIC DAVIS: Yes, I think many people have pointed out the fact that he does now how to work his way among different tribal groups, religious groups. And I think the fact that he is a Shiia should not be seen as a problem – quite the opposite. The Shiites, as we know, are a majority of population in Iraq. Again, I think he is the favorite of the American government because he has the type of ideological vision, lack of state involvement in the economy, which may in the long term be what we want to arrive at but in the short term we have to have a government which is just not going to focus on norms of democracy and civil society but that is also going to focus on norms of social justice that is going to deal very effectively with these issues that I mentioned before that the average Iraqi faces because, let’s face it, if they don’t have a solid foundation, jobs and so on and so forth, that’s the situation in which they can be radicalized by say Islamists who would like to set up a theocratic state and perhaps ex-Ba’athists who would like to see some type of reversion to the rule we had under Saddam Hussein.

MARGARET WARNER: Randy Scheunemann, bottom line question is do you think it’s either likely or desirable for Iraq — for a leader to emerge, sort of father of this new country the way, say, Hamid Karzai has in Afghanistan. Is that the model that the U.S. administration would like to see?

RANDY SCHEUNEMANN: Well, I think there may be some unfortunately in the U.S. government that are looking at an Afghan model. They don’t understand that Iraq is not Afghanistan. It’s not a primitive tribal civilization. It’s a highly educated, urbanized population, and as for Dr. Chalabi’s activity, all I think that we should be seeking and striving for in Iraq is a level playing field. He does in fact have a vision for Iraq. He has expressed it many times including the United States in exile conferences and bridging the differences, and his group has exhaustive contacts inside Iraq. Many of the surrenders or captures of the officials including some who made the CENTCOM playing card deck, have been facilitated or negotiated by the INC under Chalabi’s leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Dawisha, your view briefly on whether we should be looking for a single leader like Hamid Karzai –

ADEED DAWISHA: Briefly, I hope we get away from this model. This has been the curse not only of Iraq but of all Arab countries. We always look for one person to unite the Iraqi people or the Egyptian people or the Syrian people. I hope that when we go about creating a democratic structure, we will in fact have a split executive where we’ll dilute power from the hands of people — create a president and a prime minister, probably both elected by different branches of the parliament. And in this way they can share power, they can compete for power, and by doing so the end result will be never again should we have the possibility of someone coming to power who will then become a second Saddam Hussein.

MARGARET WARNER: Professors Dawisha and Davis and Randy Scheunemann, thank you all.