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JUDITH MILLER: The delegates who gathered this past weekend in London are the unelected representatives of some seven million Iraqis — over one fourth of the population. They live either in exile or in the Kurdish part of northern Iraq, which Saddam Hussein does not control. For these dissidents, the struggle to overthrow Saddam is not just political, it’s personal.
AHMAD CHALABI: Saddam is an insult to my being.
JUDITH MILLER: Ahmad Chalabi is the head of the Iraqi national congress.
AHMAD CHALABI: He’s an insult to my country, he’s an insult to our history, to our culture, and he is the man who has usurped an entire history of the country which has been in the cradle of civilization.
JUDITH MILLER: Abdalaziz al-Hakim was the representative to the London meeting of the Iranian- based Shiite opposition to Saddam.
ABDELAZIZ AL-HAKIM ( Translated ): Saddam has captured more than 100 of my family. He executed more than 50 of them; the rest of them they were in prison. Some of them are still in prison. He killed six of my own brothers. The seventh was still in prison. And he was released under house arrest, and then he died.
JUDITH MILLER: Hakim represents the largest and one of the most influential opposition groups in Iraq, the Shiites. Led by his brother, they claim over 100,000 fighters poised on Iran’s border with Iraq. Other groups, like the Kurds in the northern zone outside of Saddam’s control, have their own army. But some dissidents in London have only their voices and their pens.
SPOKESMAN: …The idea of Iraq…
JUDITH MILLER: Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi exile, is a professor at Brandeis University. He acknowledges that at times the opposition’s worst enemy is itself.
KANAN MAKIYA, Brandeis University: The story of the opposition is a difficult one. Many terrible things have happened. It’s a fractious opposition. Its differences are laid out there. They fight bitterly. But that, it seems to me– not the infighting, not the blowing up certainly– that, it seems to me, is part of the learning experience of politics here.
JUDITH MILLER: Professor Makiya says that learning experience includes something truly new in Middle East politics.
KANAN MAKIYA: What Arab opposition group… they’ll take money till the end of the earth from Saudi Arabia, from Libya, from Iraq, from Syria, you name it. That’s how Arab opposition groups function, by taking money from these nasty regimes. The Iraqi opposition is boycotted, is cut off from these regimes. Iraqi opposition turns to the west, it turns to the United States, unheard of before. It openly says it’s taking money from the United States. It celebrates the fact. It’s not an issue in Iraqi politics anymore, at all. And that’s something new. That’s something truly new.
JUDITH MILLER: Also new is a fierce debate, both among these delegates in London and within the Bush administration in Washington, about what kind of government will be established in a post-Saddam Iraq. That debate is about whether democracy is possible at all in a region where autocratic government is the norm.
AHMAD CHALABI: There are some people who claim to love Arabs, but all they prescribe for them is killing. There are some people in the United States Government now. We are very encouraged, they believe democracy is possible, that Arabs are capable of democracy, and they’re going to help establish democracy in Iraq.
JUDITH MILLER: The Iraqi opposition is embracing the U.S. Government, despite a 25-year history that includes support for Saddam and then betrayal by both Democratic and Republican administrations.
LOWELL BERGMAN: You know, the U.S. Government tacitly supported the government of Saddam during the 1980s.
AHMAD CHALABI: There is no tacit about it. The United States provided Saddam with intelligence of a military nature, about Iranian troops’ position in the war, and there was an effort to look the other way or sometimes to assist Saddam in acquiring any kind of weapon he wanted.
LOWELL BERGMAN: In 1991, the Shia were rising, the Kurds were rising, the President of the United States said we would back a rising of the people. We did nothing.
AHMAD CHALABI: That is true, you did… the American forces in the Gulf War were standing on the actual mass graves of the Kurds who were machine gunned in the Anfal campaign and the genocide that Saddam committed against the Kurds.
LOWELL BERGMAN: And now you trust them?
AHMAD CHALABI: I trust the American people, I trust Congress, I trust President Bush .
JUDITH MILLER: Ahmad Chalabi is a controversial leader of the Iraqi opposition with powerful connections and powerful enemies. A banker by profession, he’s been accused of embezzlement, a recipient clandestine U.S. Government financial support, he has probably denounced the CIA.
LOWELL BERGMAN: The CIA, they’re obviously not happy with you.
AHMAD CHALABI: I’m not happy with them.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Because?
AHMAD CHALABI: Because they have… I think they have made an error in their relationship with the Iraqi opposition, and I think they have made an error in their estimate of what Iraq is like, and how the Iraqi people respond to various initiatives to remove Saddam. I think that that pursuit of course of action which has brought grief to the opposition and relief to Saddam.
LOWELL BERGMAN: What is it about Chalabi that’s got these people so angry? It infuriates them.
KANAN MAKIYA: They can’t own him. And he’s his own person, and he will fight back, and he knows how to fight back in the corridors of power in Washington, which is something very few of our politicians know how to do.
JUDITH MILLER: His critics in the State Department say that Chalabi has no following inside Iraq, but he does in Washington. In 1998, he helped persuade Congress to endorse regime change in Baghdad. And after September 11, his allies in the Pentagon and the white house made overthrowing Saddam Hussein the President’s top foreign policy priority. And last week, before the conference opened, he went to Tehran to help cement the Iraqi opposition’s new alliance with its neighbor, Iran, something that even the State Department told us was vital to regime change. Chalabi also helped persuade the Iranian-backed Shia group to send Hakim to this weekend’s conference in London.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Is this a case of you joining an alliance with the United States because the enemy of your enemy is your friend?
ABDELAZIZ AL-HAKIM (Translated): There is one target. And anybody comes to an agreement with our target, we will work with him.
LOWELL BERGMAN: So we shouldn’t fear that you will, with your 100,000 fighters, create an Islamic republic in Iraq once the Americans invade?
ABDELAZIZ AL-HAKIM (Translated): You shouldn’t fear from us. We don’t want to force anything on anybody. We want to people to decide their government, and the number is more than 100,000. It’s hundreds of thousands.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Iran is part of the axis of evil, as is Iraq, according to U.S. Policy. Are they our allies?
AHMAD CHALABI: I don’t think the Iranians view themselves as an ally of the United States by a long shot. But the Iranians have been victims of Saddam. Saddam attacked Iran.
LOWELL BERGMAN: So the alliance with Iran is just a temporary alliance?
AHMAD CHALABI: Our alliance with Iran is not temporary. We will not be either a base or a transit point for any kind of adverse activities against Iran. We need to have very good relations with Iran.
JUDITH MILLER: Even Chalabi’s rivals agree with him about Iran.
HOSHYAR ZEBARI, Kurdish Democratic Party: Nobody should underestimate the influence Iran has on Iraq.
JUDITH MILLER: Hoshyar Zebari is a Kurdish opposition leader.
HOSHYAR ZEBARI: The Iraqi regime is one scenario. Some Iranian cooperation with the opposition or with the United States, that is Saddam nightmare.
JUDITH MILLER: Zebari and his Kurdish group may compete with Ahmad Chalabi, but Chalabi’s ability to talk to both the Pentagon and to Tehran has earned their grudging respect. With all these complex alliances, one place Chalabi has failed to penetrate is America’s oil-rich ally, Saudi Arabia.
LOWELL BERGMAN: In 1993, according to two people we’ve interviewed, when your delegation went to Saudi Arabia, they said, “we’re behind you, we want to overthrow Saddam, just don’t mention democracy.”
AHMAD CHALABI: An intelligence chief in the Saudi government, deputy to the director of intelligence, told us, “our leadership wants to help you. The condition is you abandon democracy, human rights; then we’ll help.” The Saudis have not talked to us for a while. In fact, we have not had a substantial conversation with the Saudi government since that trip.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: If he chooses not to disarm, we must disarm him.
JUDITH MILLER: As war looms, many believe that it is not just the threat of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction that motivates the Bush administration, but access to Iraq’s vast energy reserves. Here in London, some key Iraqi opposition leaders told us that in a post-Saddam Iraq, at least some of the country’s vast national wealth, its oil, would definitely be in private hands.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Would you support privatizing, allowing U.S. oil companies or other oil companies to come in?
JALAL TALABANI, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan: Yes, yes.
JUDITH MILLER: Jalal Talabani is the leader of the other key Kurdish group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Has any U.S. oil company talked to you?
JALAL TALABANI: Of course, they did talk and we are welcoming and asked them to come.
LOWELL BERGMAN: You know, many in the United States think this maybe this war is just about oil and that’s what we want.
AHMAD CHALABI: You have all the oil you want from Iraq now, you are the biggest oil buyer of oil from Iraq right now. You can get the oil from Saddam; Saddam is prepared to give you the oil on great terms. I don’t think so. I don’t think that the United States is seeking control of oil.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Can American corporations hope to be favored partners of the new government in Iraq?
AHMAD CHALABI: If the United States helps liberate the Iraqi people, from Saddam, I expect that the new government would look favorably on the United States’ interests.
JUDITH MILLER: While there are many issues that divide the Iraqi opposition, there is one subject on which we found consensus: The reaction to reports that the United States wants to install an American general to rule Iraq after the fall Saddam.
ABDELAZIZ AL-HAKIM: The intervention of the United States of America is something, and the leadership of Iraq is something else. We refuse the United States should appoint a leadership.
HOSHYAR ZEBARI: To have a military, a U.S. Military administration, a military ruler, I don’t think that oh will be a wise move and it will not be acceptable.
KANAN MAKIYA: There’s not an Iraqi yet that I’ve talked to that wants that or thinks that’s a good idea. It’s the President now who has to sort this out, a Presidential decision has not been made on this question. The Presidential decision has been made on the question of war. The question of the United Nations on this issue of Iraqi opposition, the President is still silent.
JUDITH MILLER: The U.S. State Department says that the White House is just now trying to devise a timetable for a transition to civilian rule after Saddam is overthrown. They want the Iraqi opposition to hold off from creating a national assembly or a government in exile until then.
KANAN MAKIYA: We want more. Iraqis need more. Perhaps all the United States wants is this great big circus out there with everybody clapping and cheering for the liberation of Iraq. Fine – I’m happy to do that. But Iraqis need something else. Iraqis need a government. Iraqis need to know where their country is going. They need a platform, they need a program; they need to have some idea of what’s happening, they need that in order to rally around. They’re rightly full of fear at the mom, anxiety about the future.