Ahmad Chalabi: Keeping the Peace in Postwar Iraq
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JIM LEHRER: Now, a conversation with Ahmad Chalabi, the co- founder of the anti-Saddam opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress. We begin with some background on the current situation in Iraq, narrated by Kwame Holman.
KWAME HOLMAN: There have been daily attacks on U.S. troops in western and central Iraq. The assaults and ambushes have killed nine American soldiers in the past two weeks, even as U.S. commanders have stepped up patrols and sent in reinforcements. Yesterday, traveling in Portugal, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blamed the violence on fighters still loyal to Saddam Hussein.
DONALD RUMSFELD: The remnants of the Iraqi regime, the Fedayeen Saddam and the Ba’athist, and some very likely Special Republican Guard folks, are still there, and they are the ones that are periodically attacking coalition forces — sometimes successfully. Do I think that’s going to disappear in the next month or two or three? No. Will it disappear when some two or three divisions of coalition forces arrive in the country? No. It will take time to root out the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime, and we intend to do it.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Americans also intend to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But so far, they’ve come up empty, and there’s still no sign of Saddam Hussein.
Another flash-point in postwar Iraq: Who eventually will be in charge? In April and May, the U.S. administrator at the time, Jay Garner, helped organize at least two meetings of Iraqis that were to begin the process of choosing an interim government. That idea since has been quashed by Garner’s replacement, Paul Bremer, and that means U.S. and British occupying forces could stay in power much longer than originally thought. What Bremer wants is an Iraqi advisory council to be appointed by U.S. officials.
Also in question: The future role of handpicked Iraqi exiles including Ahmad Chalabi. The 58-year-old banker heads the Pentagon-supported Iraqi National Congress. In early April, the Pentagon flew Chalabi into southern Iraq from his base in London, where he’d been in exile for four decades. Chalabi then moved his operations to Baghdad, where he participated in various meetings on future Iraqi governance.
AHMAD CHALABI: But Iraqis don’t like foreign troops on their territory, and we want to be sovereign our territory, we want to exercise sovereignty over our territory, and we will build democracy on this basis. The United States does not want to occupy Iraq.
KWAME HOLMAN: Since then, news reports say Bremer has sidelined some Iraqi exiles from the governing process on grounds they’re disorganized and not representative of the country.
JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: And with me now is Ahmad Chalabi.
Welcome, Mr. Chalabi.
AHMAD CHALABI: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: Let’s start with something rather remarkable you said yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, which is that Saddam Hussein himself is behind these recent assaults, attacks and killing of U.S. soldiers.
AHMAD CHALABI: Saddam did not have a military plan to confront the U.S. but he apparently had the post defeat plan. Saddam has organized a network of his supporters whom he can amply to pay to make operations against United States forces and they are doing it. They are doing it in areas where his supporters are based, and they are moving as they become more successful moving to do it in Baghdad, and I was disturbed by the report that the U.S. soldier was killed in an ambush in Baghdad.
MARGARET WARNER: When you say he is paying for it, you mean he is paying a bounty?
AHMAD CHALABI: He is paying a bounty for the killing of U.S. Soldiers
MARGARET WARNER: How do you know he is alive?
AHMAD CHALABI: We had reports of sightings of Saddam several times since the report of his death was broadcast after the decapitation attempt.
MARGARET WARNER: How recently?
AHMAD CHALABI: The most recent report was about three weeks ago.
MARGARET WARNER: And where is he?
AHMAD CHALABI: We believe that he is moving in an arc northwest of Baghdad across the Tigris around the Tikrit area and towards the West. It’s a large area.
MARGARET WARNER: Who are his forces? Who does he have with him?
AHMAD CHALABI: He has one of the groups that were close to him guarding him from his Special Republican Guards — all of them members of his clan. And then the access to him is through his secretary, Abid Hamid. His son, Qusay, is also out there but not with him, we believe and we believe that he communicates to his networks through the people that also guard him.
MARGARET WARNER: Have you shared all this with U.S. Officials?
AHMAD CHALABI: Yes, they know that.
MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think they are unable to find him?
AHMAD CHALABI: I don’t know. But the point — there must be faster response time and faster and more extensive operational cooperation between Iraqis and the U.S. forces. You see, the Iraqi people are the allies of the United States. The Iraqi people — there is a huge energy against Saddam, against the Ba’ath Party. This must be mobilized and channeled in the right direction to be helpful to the main goal of capturing Saddam and finding the weapons.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, there’s also a lot of negative energy there of course. There are some 150,000 U.S. Troops, as we know, there have been all kinds attacks; there’s still crime, disorder, looting. What size U.S. force will it take and for how long to restore order?
AHMAD CHALABI: It’s a mistake to think that more U.S. Troops will produce better order. It is not a matter of quantity and heavy weapons. It’s a matter of intelligence and ability to actually keep the peace in the cities and on the roads of Iraq. We had proposed for several years the training of an Iraqi military police force to go along with U.S. Forces in Iraq because we predicted the collapse of the Iraqi army, the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police. This force would go with U.S. Forces alongside to prevent looting, destruction and acts of random revenge. Now it is possible to deploy a trained Iraqi national security force that will be trained, equipped paid by the United States forces and will be under the command of CENTCOM and will be accompanied by U.S. Forces in the ratio of one to ten to keep security in the cities and on the roads.
MARGARET WARNER: But, as you know, I mean, the U.S. says that is just what it’s doing. It’s trying to both recruit and train an Iraqi police force and also an Iraqi army, but that they have to vet; they have to train the people. What are they doing wrong, in your view?
AHMAD CHALABI: This process, the way they are doing it takes a long, long time. The record in Afghanistan is not good. They have to change the ways. They have to rely on Iraqis to provide the recruits and to vouch for them. There is no danger here. The point is that Iraqis know who is a Ba’athist, who was a criminal element. But the fact that they are recruited by Iraqis does not mean that they will obey Iraqi commands. They will be recruited, and that’s the end of it. They will be handed over to the national security force, which will be trained by the U.S. If the U.S. cooperates with Iraqi political leadership, such a force can be deployed all across a country within a matter of weeks. And that is the way to keep security
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask you about another problem: weapons of mass destruction. Why do you think no weapons have been found?
AHMAD CHALABI: I think the focus on the search should be made much better. For example, they are focusing on the national monitoring commission. Those people don’t know where the weapons were. They never knew where the weapons were. Their job was to talk to the foreigners
MARGARET WARNER: You are talking about U.N. inspectors.
AHMAD CHALABI: U.N. inspectors. And therefore they knew nothing of where the weapons were because Saddam has compartmentalized; these people are persuaded there are no weapons and that’s what they have to tell the inspectors. The focus should be on the concealment mechanism that Saddam employed in the weapons program. These are the same people who kept him in power and it is the people who are now working with him and maintaining his current position are a subset of those. Saddam and the weapons in Iraq are synonymous
MARGARET WARNER: As I’m sure you know, there’s a big controversy here in the states, also in Britain about the prewar intelligence, about Saddam Hussein’s weapons program. Was it flawed intelligence or was it hyped by the administration? What was the INC’s role in providing either this intelligence or the defectors who provided the intelligence in the months leading up to the war particularly?
AHMAD CHALABI: I will tell you precisely what the INC did. We precisely introduced three defectors to the United States authorities. One of them was an engineer. His name was Adnan Haideri. We interviewed him for ten days after he left Iraq. We thought that he would be useful and we introduced him to U.S. authorities. They took him on the 17th of December 2001, and we have not seen him since. They thought he was so good they put him in the witness protection program. He was not a man to provide operational data on the weapons. He was an engineer who was an expert in concrete injection and his task was to build shelters for biological weapons manufacturing facilities and storage facilities.
The second defector we introduced to the U.S. — and he was the man who described the mobile biological labs who — biological weapons lab and those are the only thing that has been found so far. The third one was a young physicist who was involved in the separation side of nuclear program. They interviewed him and they didn’t want to speak to him and he is with us still; that’s the end of our contribution to the intelligence. And we have provided no intelligence that is uncorroborated of any kind beyond those three defectors. And we, furthermore, did not provide any information to the British and we were not participants in any way, shape, or form in the British weapons program report
MARGARET WARNER: So the news stories that say for instance, that the INC was a key source of information for this special intelligence unit that was set up at the Pentagon, that’s just wrong?
AHMAD CHALABI: It is false and has no truth in it at all
MARGARET WARNER: That said, Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld, U.S. Officials all say that in fact they thought their best intelligence came from defectors. And many over the decade have come through the INC. In hindsight how would you grade the information and intelligence that has come from defectors about weapons?
AHMAD CHALABI: The intelligence that has come from defectors would be useful if it was made use of in a timely basis. Saddam has developed a concealment mechanism, which included a very rapid capability to deploy and move weapons and weapons sites from place to place. Intelligence has to be used in a timely way. And I think the defectors have been very useful in providing intelligence about what went on. We found records in the files of intelligence service about the defectors and how concerned they were about the information the defectors would provide
MARGARET WARNER: Finally on the issue of Iraqi self-government is it fair to say you are not happy with Paul Bremer’s decision to pull back on the early plans to get an early elected interim Iraqi government
AHMAD CHALABI: President Bush said this is liberation not occupation, before the war. And the Iraqi people received American forces as liberators and welcomed them. Then the United States co-sponsored a resolution saying no this is occupation; this was a shock to the Iraqi people. The high moral ground on which the United States came into Iraq as liberators has been undermined. We believe an Iraqi political process must be started. There is no substitute for an Iraqi political process. Mr. Bremer did something great for Iraq; he started a program of de-Ba’athification; he dissolved the security services and he also abolished the ministry of information — all great moves. Now what remains to be done is the beginning of an Iraqi political process to give a legitimacy to a provisional government
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you know, U.S. officials say Iraq isn’t ready for elections; that the only forces organized enough to win elections are the Shiite religious — that community – many of them backed by Iran. Is that a justifiable concern?
AHMAD CHALABI: No, that is not an accurate assessment of the situation. I myself am a Shiite. Most of Shiites are not fundamentalists. Maybe 65 percent of the population of Iraq is Shiite. They must be engaged in the political process and I believe they will vote for a democratic government in Iraq. I think that just to say that Shiites are feared because the fundamentalists will control them is not useful or accurate.
MARGARET WARNER: Will the INC, however, and yourself cooperate with Bremer in this advisory council he wants to set up?
AHMAD CHALABI: We will not oppose the U.S. in Iraq. We are grateful for President Bush and for the administration for liberating Iraq. The question of participation in this advisory council, we will decide our position jointly and as a united decision of the Iraqi Leadership Council, the political leadership of Iraq now. And we will take a common stand on this issue
MARGARET WARNER: Ahmad Chalabi, thanks very much.
AHMAD CHALABI: Thank you.