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Iraq Questions: Ahmad Chalabi

November 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: By coincidence, Ahmad Chalabi’s trip to the United States has come amidst renewed congressional battles over the intelligence behind the Iraq war. Chalabi and his exile group were among the key providers of intelligence to the administration before the war. Chalabi fell out of favor briefly with the administration last year, but on this trip has had private visits with Secretary of State Rice, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and Vice President Cheney, among others. Some of his appearances, such as one last week at a conservative think tank, the AEI, were greeted by anti-war protesters. Chalabi recently created a new political party that will be competing in the December parliamentary election.

Mr. Deputy prime minister, welcome.

AHMAD CHALABI: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, right now, as I’m sure you’re aware, there’s a lot of debate in the United States Senate about how things should proceed after much conflict. They came up with language in a resolution that says, “2006 should be a significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty with Iraqi forces taking the lead in providing security.”

Now, 2006 starts in less than two months. Is your government going to be ready to start taking over that responsibility?

AHMAD CHALABI: Indeed, we will be ready to participate more and take on more responsibilities in the security field. We have stood up a significant number of troops; the training goes on. We will further enhance the training, and we will also improve our intelligence collection capability, and we can gradually assume more responsibilities.

RAY SUAREZ: There was also a number of senators who wanted to put specific languages; dates, target times for withdrawing troops. Does this kind of thing leave you a little less secure about Americans wanting to stay for a long time to make sure the task of stabilizing Iraq is complete?

AHMAD CHALABI: And then the resolution contained language which is acceptable and encouraging about dates of departure and about when the United States would go. I think I would very much be in favor of this statement that 2006 will be a year of transition to full Iraqi sovereignty, and also a transition to the withdrawal of some American troops from Iraq as Iraqi security forces are more able to take on some of the jobs.

RAY SUAREZ: But the change in popular opinion in the United States and the way that’s reflected on Capitol Hill doesn’t leave you worried that Americans might try to leave too soon?

AHMAD CHALABI: What America did in Iraq is something, a bright period in American history; the introduction of democracy and liberty to the Iraqi people is something of great significance. I think this will — as we begin to win, as we begin to defeat the enemy, the terrorists, I think the American people will see that what has been done in Iraq by their forces is something very credible and I think the mood will change.

RAY SUAREZ: Also, I’m sure you’re aware, there’s a lot of debate going on in American leadership circles and among everyday Americans about how the United States came to believe that Saddam Hussein regime had weapons of mass destruction, and your name comes up quite frequently in those conversations and debates.

What did you tell the United States in 2001-2002 about Saddam Hussein’s capabilities?

AHMAD CHALABI: What we did was introduce three people to the United States administration who said they knew about weapons of mass destruction storage and facilities. They took one of them seriously. They took him into the witness protection program. He stayed with them for a year and three, four months before the start of the war. And that’s all we did.

We did not go and say that we have specific information about operational weapons of mass destruction. We did not vouch for any information. Our job is not to go and examine the veracity of the information.

Our job ends with verifying the person who comes is the person who he says he is, and it is the job of the intelligence agencies of the United States — which are very large, very extensive — to examine the veracity of this information, and I believe that the United States made its own determination from other, many, many other sources that this was a fact, and that they went to war on the basis of that.

RAY SUAREZ: But during the 18 months before the invasion of Iraq, you didn’t merely say, “I’m supplying people who are supplying information;” you yourself went on television programs, spoke to congressional committees, spoke to members of the Bush administration about Saddam’s capabilities.

Here in 2002 you told Fox, “Saddam has advanced chemical weapons. He has advanced biological weapons, and he’s producing engineered biological weapons which contain viruses such as smallpox and Ebola.” No equivocation there, no speculation; you said he has it; he’s developing it.

AHMAD CHALABI: We believed that. I believed that. I said it because I believed it. I said it on television. It’s not a secret. It’s not something surreptitious; I said it because I believed it.

RAY SUAREZ: On the basis of what these defectors were telling you?

AHMAD CHALABI: No. On the basis of various things: On Saddam’s activities, his spending methods, whom he was bringing near him, what people were in positions of responsibility in various departments.

But those things were analyses that we came up with; we did not go to the United States administration and say, “Accept our word for this.” No, we said what we believed.

RAY SUAREZ: Right after the invasion you were back in Iraq with members of the Iraqi National Congress. Just a few months later, Donald Rumsfeld at a news conference acted like he didn’t even recognize your name, and just a few months after that, your offices were being ransacked as part of an investigation into transfer of intelligence to Iran.

This was a lot to go on in just the space of a few short months from someone very close to this administration to someone they were pretending they didn’t know. What happened?

AHMAD CHALABI: Well, you better ask them. I don’t know what happened. They turned on these issues but I think the most important thing to note here is that we in Iraq now are looking to the future.

I — when I went — when I arrived in Iraq, it was clear that my — to everyone that I was working for the interests of the Iraqi people. My loyalty was first and foremost to Iraq, and whatever policies that were being followed by anybody, which I thought were not in the interests of Iraq, I said so.

And this behavior made some people angry, and I think now after two years and nine months after the military action against Saddam Hussein, we are back when we have to look at the possibility for the Iraqi government to develop its resources, to act in a way that can move forward the Iraqi people to the aim of establishing peace in Iraq and winning the war against the insurgency and moving forward.

RAY SUAREZ: According to at least one United States senator, you’re still a person of interest to the U.S. F.B.I. concerning intelligence transfers to Iran. What kind of relationship do you have with Iran? Have you been contacted by any American investigative agencies to tell them about your relationship with Iran?

AHMAD CHALABI: No, I have not met any U.S. Government agencies. Although, I said I would meet with them to answer their questions. My relationship with Iran is very simple: Iran is a neighbor of Iraq. We share with them 1400 kilometers of borders. We share with them a common faith for a lot of Iraqi people, and we want to have a good, transparent relationship with Iran.

And we don’t want Iran to intervene in the internal affairs of Iraq, and we don’t want Iraq to be a battleground between the United States and Iran to settle their scores. And we told the Iranians also that we have a bond with the United States. They helped us liberate ourselves from Saddam, and we’re going to have a very strong relationship with the United States and the American people.

RAY SUAREZ: Can Iraq pull off both those relationships? During the run-up to war, one of the reasons that this was suggested was that it would help take some of the security pressure off of Israel to have a secular republic in Iraq — now — well, a secular republic in Iraq, yes sir.

And now the new president of Iran is talking about wiping Israel off the map. Can Iraq keep relationships with United States and an Iran that wants to eliminate Israel?

AHMAD CHALABI: The republic in Iraq now is, according to the constitution, is not an Islamic republic. Of course, Iran has influence in Iraq. I believe that the Iranians retracted what their president has said, and I believe that Iraq certainly does not subscribe to what the president of Iran says. We have our own foreign policy.

But nevertheless, we have to live with reality, and it is a measure of how able the Iraqi government will be if it can manage to maintain good relations both with the United States and Iran to avoid Iraq becoming a battleground between the two sides, who have their own quarrels, but we must try to isolate ourselves from them as much as possible.

RAY SUAREZ: I asked you briefly about the FBI I’m wondering during the whole time that you’ve been in Washington whether any agency of the United States has asked to talk to you about the two years running up to the invasion of Baghdad about what you knew, what you told the American government, because there’s been so much talk in Washington about investigations of this.

AHMAD CHALABI: No.

RAY SUAREZ: You’d be happy to talk to them?

AHMAD CHALABI: Of course. I offered, on May 23, 2004, after the raid on my house, I went on national television, on four, I think, major networks, and I offered to go before the Senate to talk about all this, about the relationship with the United States, about the charges of misleading the United States, and about the weapons of mass destruction issue, and my offer stands.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, very briefly before we go, are you still convinced that things went the right way and this was the right way to proceed with the armed overthrow of the government of Iraq in 2003?

AHMAD CHALABI: Yes. The moral position that has been achieved in Iraq with the overthrow of Saddam is something that the Iraqi people will never forget. It has been a great moment for Iraq. We have a chance to establish democracy. We want democracy. We want liberty like everybody else, and we want a better life for ourselves.

Saddam gave us mass graves, destroyed our economy, enslaved our people for three — 35 years — three and a half decades, and the United States, under the leadership of President Bush helped us liberate ourselves from Iraq. This is great.

RAY SUAREZ: Deputy Prime Minister Chalabi, thanks for joining us.

AHMAD CHALABI: Thank you.