When the statues fell in Baghdad on April 9, 2003, the world witnessed a moment of elation quickly followed by chaos. Critics now contend that the U.S. was unprepared for the power vacuum left in the space once occupied by Saddam Hussein's regime. As Baghdad was looted, another, less visible, drama was going on in which decisions were made, and left unmade, about how to impose authority and restore the rule of law. Once again, much of the debate within the U.S. government centered on Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, and whether a provisional government headed by former Iraqi exiles should be established and recognized. Here, discussing these events and the surrounding controversy, in excerpts from their FRONTLINE interviews, are Kanan Makiya, Jay Garner, L. Paul Bremer, Richard Perle, Richard Haass, and Ahmad Chalabi.
The meeting that takes place -- remarkable meeting -- on April 28 [in Baghdad]. ...
[There were] 300, 400 people there -- it was the first large assembly of Iraqis in Baghdad, I suspect, ever. It was important, I think, for one salient factor emerged from the meeting. ... You remember there was an old slogan [in the 1960s and '70s], "We want peace and we want it now" ... Well, the sense of the mood of that meeting was, "We want a government and we want it now."
The American officials who were up there on the platform ... were on the edge of losing control of the meeting, because they didn't have answers. ... And the United States appeared, at least to the 300 Iraqis present, as sort of waffling on about, "We want you to choose your own government," when authority was needed -- here, now, immediately, instantly -- authority in the sense of law and order. ...
But it was again this incredible, very American, embarrassment at being what you are -- in authority, in a position of power, in a position to determine government, and stating it, which is what people want to hear -- clarity. When you get up there ... and somebody says, "You mean you don't have a plan for the government?" [And Jay Garner] says, "No, we are here to meet to discuss that. This is your government, not our government. We don't want to impose this government on you." It all sounds so ridiculous. State Department talk all over again. It sounds so stupid. ...
There was nobody in charge who understood that the democracy was not some sort of instant switch. It's institutions that have to be built over time. ... So it's not about 100 flowers bloom and everybody does what the hell he wants, which was the sense that was coming out about U.S. behavior. That's what [Iraqis] think democracy is -- anarchy. They think democracy is running amuck. "Is this what democracy is?" That's the refrain that's been coming. Why? Because the United States was too embarrassed to say, "We're giving you this structure now, temporary. It's going to go. You can get rid of it in two years. It's going to rule affairs, and then we'll be out. We and this structure you'll vote out of existence. It's a temporary vehicle, an instrument that we put in place."
No, we had to go on and on having these endless [discussions] ... and all this State Department waffle over representativeness and so on. ... You have to have structures.
... I met Chalabi in Nasiriya on the night of the 14th and talked to him. He said he wanted to get to Baghdad as soon as he could. He thought if the opposition leaders didn't get to Baghdad, there'd be a vacuum there, and that would be a bad thing. I agreed with that. We met for about 30 or 40 minutes I guess, talked. ...
Was he asking anything of you?
He didn't ask anything of me. I talked to him on the phone several times, too, when I was in Kuwait. After the forces got into Baghdad, he was fearful that the banks would be looted, and the money would be taken from the banks. ...
What else did Chalabi call you about?
He talked about the necessity of having the opposition leaders available because, like I said before, he was afraid there'd be a vacuum there, and there certainly was. The minute you take out Saddam Hussein, who's been the only leader for 30 years, there is a vacuum. He saw that as a danger and thought we needed to immediately plug that.
Was he was pressing hard, then, to get into Baghdad? And what did you tell him?
I told him, I said, "We're all trying to get to Baghdad." It just kind of ended there.
What comes of the Nasiriya meeting?
The Iraqis from the United States and the contingents from the United States ... all got weathered in, in Qatar. They were supposed to get flown in about seven in the morning, and the meetings started at nine. But they got weathered in, and we didn't get them in there until around one o'clock in the afternoon.
So what we had all morning were the Iraqis from Iraq. They came in the tent, we talked to them. We gave them refreshments. We talked a long time about freedom and what a memorable occasion this was and what a historic occasion this was and the significance of having that meeting that day to talk about a free Iraq right at the site of ancient city of Ur, which is most likely where civilization began. So at the spot where civilization began, we were beginning to start the first real democratic process for Iraq. They were very moved. A lot of them cried. It was emotional. Then at about one o'clock, members of the Iraqi opposition came in. ...
What was the relationship like between the Iraqis that had been there during Saddam's reign and the Iraqi exiles coming in?
They sat at separate tables. They didn't mingle.
What signal did that send to you?
I thought that's natural. I think we always suspected that that those that had been there all along would be a little reluctant to accept those that had not been there with them. Those that had not been there with them would want to put their arms around those who had been there. I think that's what we found. But there was no open opposition; it was just a little standoffish. But they talked. They talked, and when we had the next meeting on the 28th, you saw a lot more talking between the two of them.
But when you were talking at the Defense Department with Doug Feith, he had some hope that Chalabi in the INC would be welcomed back into Iraq.
Oh, I think he did, yes. For all the right reasons.
Yes, I think they were. I mean, he thought Chalabi had the skill and the ability to lead and govern. He thought if he was acceptable to the Iraqi people -- and I'm sure Doug didn't know whether he would be or not -- but if he was acceptable, the soonest that you can put an Iraqi face on the government, the better we'll all be. ...
[Did you discuss] with [Rumsfeld] the viability of the various exiles?
... What I discussed with both he and Colin Powell was that [Jalal] Talabani, [Massoud] Barzani, Chalabi, Alawi, Pachachi and [Abdel Aziz al-]Hakim had come together, the leadership group, and they had agreed to bring in a Christian, a Sunni, a moderate Shiite, and anyone the coalition wanted to put on there as a leadership group that the coalition could use, as a mantle of leadership for right. They would take their orders from the coalition.
They all came to Baghdad the first week in May. They were trying to put together a group that would give the coalition an executive-type organization the coalition could use as an Iraqi face for the Iraqi people. The coalition would still be in charge. I think their hope was that if it worked well, that the coalition would make that a provisional government until such time there was an election.
They also had plans to stand up what they called a "big tent meeting," where they would bring in 300 or 400 Iraqis with us approving every one of them as well as adding any one that we wanted to, to begin the process of writing a constitution, to select what democratic model of government they would want to have, and to start judicial reform. ...
So why didn't that happen?
I don't know. I do not know why that didn't happen.
I'm sorry, I'm a little surprised that you don't know why that happened.
I don't know. I don't know.
But you were the point of contact between the American government and the Iraqi opposition.
I was, but when Ambassador Bremer came in, that was all stopped. We had a meeting. He came in on the 10th. We had a meeting with all of the Iraqi leaders, on Friday night, I think, the 15th. And everything slowed down. I don't think that necessarily was Jerry Bremer's plan. I think that was the plan that came out of the inter-agency, that he was just bringing a plan with him.
So they scrapped the old plan that you were working with?
Yes, it got scrapped. All that happened in about a week's period of time.
How did you feel about that?
I thought it was a mistake at the time. The other side of that, though, Martin, is that you also don't want to rush in the government. I think we were rushing into it too fast.
So the worry was that there would be too many Iraqi exiles in positions of power, and so you wanted to go slower?
No, I don't think that.
How do I get a handle on what was the reason for scrapping the old plan?
I don't know. You're asking me a question I can't answer. I don't know why it was scrapped.
Who can answer that question?
I guess you've got to walk across the river and ask somebody in the interagency there. ...
What was the day that you got here?
I got here May 12.
May 12. Just before that, a meeting had taken place at the end of April, that [Zalmay Khalilzad] had chaired. A couple days after that meeting, there was a decision to go forward with the provisional government -- a decision that got reversed when you came in. What was going on?
First of all, there's been a lot of mythology around there never was a decision anywhere in the U.S. government about a provisional government. There never was a statement by the U.S. government about a provisional government. So there was nothing to reverse.
My guidance from the president was very clear. He said, "Go over there. Use your judgment as to how things should transpire in terms of the economic, the political, and the security situation, and give me your best judgment." I got over here. I gave him my best judgment. I arrived here, and I said, the first week I was here, that we expected to have an interim government, a provisional government -- to use your term -- in place by the middle of July.
That's what we did we then, for the next two months -- basically executed that plan. We never made any course correction or change in terms of our overall strategy, which was to get our provisional government in place by mid-July. We did that when the governing council was created on July 13.
Ahmed Chalabi told me a different set of facts. ... He says that in a meeting with Zal, he was promised such a thing, and that Zal went back to Washington and was told you have no right to make such a--
I don't know what other people may have said to other people. But the fact of the matter was there was no way there was going to be an early Iraqi government. It simply was not possible. Anybody who thought it was possible obviously wasn't sitting here on the ground looking at a city on fire, with a difficult security situation; a country with no experience in democratic elections for 50 years. There was not about to be a provisional government. This was obvious to anybody with eyes.
There was the additional problem -- the people that we had been talking to for the last couple of years necessarily were exiles; they were people who did not live in Iraq. While that was a very useful group of people -- there were five political parties that were all founded outside of Iraq -- they quite clearly did not represent the majority of the Iraqi people. After all, there were 23 million people who did not leave Iraq during Saddam's dictatorship.
I told those five people, the leaders of those five parties, exactly that on the evening of May 16, at my first meeting with them. I said, "You people don't represent this country, and you're going to have to now broaden yourselves if you want to be considered the basis of a transitional government."
Did they squirm in their seats a little bit?
Yes, they did.
You had a problem with ferreting out Ba'athists -- still is an ongoing problem, I think, with ferreting out who are the Ba'athists and who are not the Ba'athists. You made quite a bold decision to de-Ba'athify the country and go several layers deep. Why did you do that?
I did that because I thought it was absolutely essential to make it clear that the Ba'athist ideology, which had been responsible for so many of the human-rights abuses and mistreatment of the people in their country over the last 40 years, had to be extirpated finally and completely from society, much as the American government decided that it had to completely extirpate Nazism from Germany at the end of the Second World War.
So we basically set up a system to take out, not everybody in the Ba'ath Party-- In fact, if people would read my decree more carefully, they would realize it was directed at only 3 percent of the people in the Ba'ath Party. It's not hundreds of thousands. It is directed at somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000, to the top 15,000 to 30,000 members of the party -- a party which had by its own estimates something like 2 million members. So this represented something like 1 1/2 percent to 3 percent of the Ba'ath Party.
It's been difficult. When I announced the decree, I said, "The following things will happen in the next few months. Number one, we will leave in place some people who are Ba'athist and bad people, because we don't know that they are; we will make that mistake. And the second mistake we are sure to make is we will take some people out of office that we should not have taken out of office."
The commitment I made to the Iraqi people and to the press at that time was, "When we find those mistakes, we'll correct them. We will fire Ba'athists as we find we've left them in power and shouldn't. And we will put people back, reinstitute people, who were unjustly accused of being Ba'athists." We've done that. We've done it in many cases across the board. I did it this evening. I just fired two Ba'athists this evening. ...
I want to talk about Chalabi just a little bit. He's now one of a number of people on the council. ... He's now one of a number of aspiring politicians, depending on who you talk to. But historically, he has a special relationship with the United States government, and had high expectations coming in -- had hoped to see a provisional government established early on during the war, before your time. But then he was also among those very disappointed with the decision to elect an advisory council, and had a frank meeting with you. Can you recall that? ... An "advisory council," as opposed to a "governing council?"...
The only thing-- It's not what I ever said. What I talked about was a political council, and the political council was designed by us to have exactly the same responsibilities that the governing council has. The change of the word "political" to "governing" was important, but it was just a word change. It simply made it, to many Iraqis, seem more like an interim government rather than the word "political council."
So we changed the name. It was a rather easy fix; didn't change anything else. We always all along said that this council, whether it was "political," as it was for the first five or six weeks, or "governing," as it was for the next month-- We always said this governing council would have three important responsibilities. It would appoint ministers to the Iraqi cabinet, it would approve a budget for 2004, and it would set in motion some kind of a process to write an Iraqi constitution.
Those are the three powers that it has, which it has already begun to exercise, just now after it's been set up for a few weeks. A number of the people in the original group of company -- parties we were talking to, including Mr. Chalabi's party -- a number of them had views that were different from ours, different from each other, different from the Iraqis who had lived here under Saddam's tyranny, about how this process should come about. It's one of the reasons that the process took, as we expected it would, a couple of months. It was a very intense round of consultations among Iraqis, between Iraqis and others, between us and Iraqis with the U.N. involved. A very intense round to try to figure out how to pull together a group that was representative of the Iraqi society. ...
One of the criticisms … is that so much time has been wasted in the run-up to the war over infighting between the State Department and the Defense Department particularly -- much of it over who to support, Chalabi or not Chalabi.
That's quite right. There's been a debilitating and, I think, wasteful and damaging quarrel over Ahmad Chalabi.
So why have you clung to Ahmad Chalabi? Why not just find somebody else that's acceptable to both sides?
No one else has been proposed who's acceptable to both sides. The arguments against Chalabi have been without substance. He is far and away the most effective individual that we could have hoped would emerge in Iraq. No one was proposing that he be anointed in some sense, but simply that his advice and counsel would be valuable to us, and if he emerged in a leadership position, that would be highly desirable, from the point of view of the future of Iraq. He's a very capable guy.
Describe him for me.
He's quite brilliant. He is a Ph.D. in mathematics, with a background at the University of Chicago and MIT. He's a Shi'a, committed to secular democracy. He led the Iraqi National Congress, continues to lead the Iraqi National Congress, which was an umbrella group of organizations opposed to Saddam Hussein. He worked tirelessly to achieve Saddam's removal, and is the kind of modern liberal leader that we would hope to see, not only in Iraq, but throughout the Arab world.
What's the controversy?
The CIA doesn't like him, because they don't control him, and they only like people they control. Their view has always been that we should propagate a coup against Saddam; that we needed to find another strongman like Saddam, that the problem was Saddam and not the Ba'ath structure. So they were quite happy to find some other Ba'athists to replace Saddam. They went to extraordinary lengths attempting to do so. They organized coups that failed. People were killed.
Chalabi organized coups that failed, as well.
He organized an uprising that failed.
He attempted to build on what he thought was American support, which was not forthcoming. ...
You say that the feuding over Chalabi was extremely debilitating. How so?
It means that no decisions were taken, and we didn't align ourselves with any Iraqi opposition. So a strategy that might have entailed building up the opposition -- so that if and when we went into Iraq, we would go in with some thousands of Iraqis ready to go, trained and organized -- never happened. The reason why it didn't happen was a stubborn refusal to embrace an opposition-oriented strategy. We never had such a strategy.
By the White House? By the State Department?
The State Department was against it. The CIA, as I've explained, preferred a coup d'etat. The White House was essentially unable to reconcile differences among departments. So it chose not to take the steps that might well have meant that when we went into Iraq, we went in with a significant number of Iraqis to help us. ...
There was a lot of discussion about what role the United States should play in supporting the political process, postwar.
My view on that is that we should play a very modest role. I didn't come into this having favorites. I thought the entire idea that we would try to tilt the playing field to install this or that person or this or that group-- If people had that idea, I thought it was misguided or a non-starter.
They did have that idea.
Some had that idea. My view was that we should simply try to do two things. One is get Iraqis in responsible positions as soon as possible, but, two … we should not have favorites among the Iraqis.
Like Ahmed Chalabi?
Like anybody. It's simply up to the Iraqis themselves to decide who has legitimacy, who they want to give political authority to. My feeling was, let's just be neutral about that. But what we want to do is gradually bring about a situation where Iraqis would have ever-increasing amounts of authority over their own lives. …
So my feeling was, whether you're pro or against Ahmed Chalabi or anything else, the smartest thing to do was simply level the playing field, and let the Iraqis shape their own future. Indeed, I think that's one of the reasons we arguably did this -- to give them the chance to shape their own futures. So I just thought it was unwise, and probably impossible for the United States to play too large a role in that.
When did you hear Chalabi being flown into Nasiriyah?
Pretty much when everybody else heard about it. When it became public. …
Was that appropriate, in your view?
You're asking me to pass judgment. I just thought it was unwise. I think it was simply unwise for the United States to be in the business of favoring one or another party. And it's interesting that, essentially, as things have since played out, that hasn't stopped.
I can't predict the future of Iraq anymore than you or anybody else can. But what's clearly obvious is that you have powerful dynamics that have been unleashed -- far stronger than anything the United States could do or control. So whatever happens, whatever individual or individuals are going to ultimately come to rule Iraq, the specific or precise nature of the political order, this is not something we're going to be able to micro-manage.
But flying an opposition leader into liberated territory is something that the State Department, presumably, should have been clued in about.
I can't tell you that there might not have been people at State who knew about it. I didn't, from my point of view.
But you're in charge of policy, I mean, you're at a high level. Presumably, you would have known.
I learn never to use the word "presumably" when it comes to government. All I can tell you is, I didn't know about it in advance, and I don't know who of my colleagues might have known about it. … I don't know that anyone knew about it in advance. All I can say is, in my own view, such initiatives were and are unwise, because they're an attempt to get too involved in the internal politics of Iraq. I just don't think that's the sort of thing that's wise or sustainable.
As a mission, did it succeed or fail?
I don't think it succeeded. There's no sign, for example, that Mr. Chalabi or his associates have gained the upper hand. I don't think that's the case. I think what you see in Iraq is a tremendous energy of political participation, a lot of which is centered not necessarily on those who are outside the country. But a lot of it's centered on those who are inside the country. I think some of the most interesting dynamics are not simply those dynamics, say, between Shi'a and others, but are those within the majority Shi'ite population, those who hold to various points of view. What we're seeing on a daily basis, this is being fought out; sometimes politically, the way it ought to be fought out; sometimes physically, with terrorism and other tools, which are obviously undesirable, and worse.
But again, I think it's going to be Iraqis who are ultimately going to fill in the dots as to what does post-Saddam Iraq look like. …
The debate in Washington, and the extreme amount of feuding that went on between the State Department and the CIA and the Pentagon -- [did it have] a debilitating effect on U.S. policy planners in making any kind of cogent postwar plan?
I don't think so. I think the State Department, CIA, won on the postwar plan. But their postwar plan collapsed because the assumptions they made came to naught.
What assumptions -- what plan did they have?
They had a plan to turn part of the Iraqi army against Saddam and use them to control the country subsequently. ...
The schism within the U.S. government. A lot of it's centered on you -- rightly or wrongly -- yet a lot of it came down to people's evaluation of you. The Pentagon supported you. At least the OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense], the civilian side of it, supported you. The CIA and the State Department -- after 1996 and onwards -- reviled you.
And this became all-consuming.
Yes, but you see, this is a very curious situation. I believe that the people who did not want to do anything against Saddam took me up as the bete noire of this, thinking that I was an easy target to discredit the entire policy. They picked me up as--
You became an extremely divisive character.
Yes, well, they made me so. Not I.
Well, no, but they say -- I mean, in all due respect, they criticized your fancy suits, your watch, your kind of intellectual arrogance -- a kind of sense that you thought you were better than everybody else. They acknowledged that you were a brilliant political counselor, but a person that didn't have any political charm.
Therefore, [you] should not have been a candidate.
Well, I'm not a candidate. I'm sitting in Baghdad with--
You're on the executive committee of the governing council.
Yes. But I did not campaign for it. I did not -- even today, I--
You have no political ambitions?
I am saying I am not a candidate.
But, I mean, you were a candidate of the Pentagon?
Well, I may be, but they thought that I was the candidate of the Pentagon. But this thing is not about Pentagon or State Department. We are in Iraq now. It doesn't matter what the State Department or the Pentagon says--
But these fights are going on and continuing to affect--
Well, they can go on. These are American fights. They have little relevance here in Baghdad now.
home + introduction + interviews + why did we go to war? + what went wrong? + what's at stake?
watch online + discussion + links & readings + teacher's guide + producer's chat
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi
posted october 9, 2003
photo copyright © benjamin lowy/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation