truth, war & consequences
home
watch online
interviews
why war?
what went wrong?
what's at stake?
interview: laith kubba
photo of kubba

Although he helped found the Iraqi National Congress in 1992, Kubba worked for the past decade as an independent opposition figure. He is the president of the Iraq National Group and a senior program officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy. In this FRONTLINE interview, which was conducted on September 11, 2003, Kubba recounts the history of Iraqi opposition movements, and he explains the role of the State Department's Future of Iraq Project, which brought together exiled Iraqis to plan for the postwar period. "What happened post-Saddam was low performance," he says. "And Iraqis have the right to ask why the planning went so wrong."

What was the idea behind the formation of the INC?

Back in 1991, following the uprising in Iraq, following the liberation of Kuwait, a number of us who were in the opposition for many years clearly saw the need of creating an umbrella organization that is more independent from the influences of neighboring countries -- namely Iran and Syria -- and more inclusive of Iraqis. That was the initial idea. … It was initiated, conceptualized, conceived by Iraqis.

Iraqis might criticize the U.S. on what happened afterwards, but the majority of Iraqis welcome the military intervention to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Later on, after its success, it took a U-turn. Initially, it was meant to be a forum that Iraqis look to, not only to represent their voices and concerns, but also to lead them. I was one of the key founding members of that organization, its spokesman, and I served on its first committee of leaders.

You say it took a U-turn. What do you mean?

The first meeting was in Vienna, in June 1992, and after that, tremendous success we had. We captured the imagination of many Iraqis, [of] fragmented groups. There were two points of view within the INC. One point of view was to capitalize on this, become more inclusive and broaden the appeal. Another point of view was to forget about the Iraqis and appeal directly to the American governments and agencies, and work with them, because they have the key to future Iraq -- not the Iraqis.

Why are those two currents necessarily contradictory?

They became contradictory because the INC no longer functioned as an open forum where members can participate, vote, hold their leaders accountable, and express Iraqi concerns. It became very much a narrowly run operation, and of course funding had a lot to do with it. Prior to the Vienna conference, that Iraqi effort was funded by Iraqis. After the Vienna conference, money flooded, I guess, mainly from the CIA.

So how did the American control of the organization affect its shape and its purpose?

From 1992 until 1996, instead of focusing more on winning Iraqis, mobilizing the 2 million-plus Iraqis who are in the diaspora, the focus became mainly on gathering information, focusing on propaganda war against Saddam Hussein and conducting some sabotage … what one might call terrorist activities at that time inside Iraq. So that was very different from what at least I initially envisioned as a political activity that should appeal to Iraqis, both inside and outside the country. That came to a dead end by 1996, because of the fragmentation between two main partners, Kurdish partners within the INC.

The idea of the INC being an umbrella organization came to an end?

Correct. Because you have an umbrella organization whose members are waging war against each other that had cost over 3,000 lives at that time. So, effectively, the INC remained by name, but the real working together has disappeared.

So by 1996, the INC's no longer an umbrella organization?

I think by 1996, there was a breakdown of the INC as an umbrella organization. Many of its key participants, such as the Dawa Party, Sciri, Nationalist, Communist and others, have already left the organization. Its most two important players, the two Kurdish parties, fought each other and bloody battles for two years, and ended up with one faction calling upon Saddam Hussein to help them against the other faction. That was not a good story, and as I said, by that time the INC lost its political credibility. It no longer became a symbol Iraqis can look to and it became just an instrument.

So it becomes Ahmad Chalabi's political party?

Well, at that time, because Ahmad Chalabi had full control, and he was the only one who had control over the money that was coming to the INC, he basically called the shots. He decided who should be the editor, how often the publication should be, and whether or not the INC should have conferences, meetings, annual conferences, or anything else. He who controlled the money of course had the final say.

How is it that he controlled the money?

That's a gray area. I think what happened after the Vienna conference, some deals were struck behind closed doors. I was, at that time, on the leadership of the INC. None of it was discussed. This was not transparent at all. But I felt that we were totally bypassed and--

The leadership council was bypassed?

The leadership council was bypassed by Ahmad Chalabi who, it seems at that time, struck a deal with the CIA on how to proceed, what to do with the funds, both in terms of intelligence gathering and in terms of other operations.

What happens in 1995, 1996? I don't need the details, specifically, but there's a break between the INC and the State Department and CIA.

I think there was one incident when the two Kurdish factions fought. Their fighting was so threatening to the whole enterprise in North Iraq, to the INC and others, I think at that moment Chalabi decided that the way out of this is maybe to engage the INC and the two Kurdish factions with a war against the Iraqi army, against Saddam. So by opening a front, it would distract the two Kurdish parties from fighting each other.

I think that attempt backfired, because my understanding, that the American government at that time thought that was playing outside the rules. It was opening a front that they did not want to open at that time.

They were worried about having to get militarily involved, and they didn't want that?

I think they just did not like the fact they were funding one faction that had, or one group that had its own agenda, using U.S. money and playing outside U.S. rules. They just did not want to open that front at that time. I think Ahmad Chalabi decided to open that front, and this led to a fallout.

That fallout has remained?

I think that fallout was the final straw that broke the camel's back, because there were other issues to do with how the INC was run, how the money was spent, the quality of intelligence that was gathered at that time -- a number of issues. But ultimately that led to a breakdown.

Talk about the quality of intelligence. What role did Ahmad Chalabi play in the provision of intelligence to the United States and the run-up to this current war?

I think the INC was the only group -- maybe the two Kurdish groups also --but the INC certainly was one of the leading Iraqi groups to claim and provide information, claiming that it is authentic.

Was it?

I am not in a position to say. But my initial impression is that that intelligence was "highly loaded" with specific goal and intention, and that is to feed all the arguments why we should go to war now. I think that was obvious. Ahmad Chalabi is very smart, and knowing how Washington works, he teamed up with groups here in Washington who also saw the need for this war. I think they worked together as a team in a very effective way.

To the good of Iraq?

I think they worked specifically to the goal of getting Saddam out of power. I think all Iraqis, including myself, believe that the only way for Iraq to move ahead is for Saddam to be ousted. We differ in our assessment what is good for Iraq and how he should be ousted. Some thought war was the only way, or the most preferred way maybe. Others thought that maybe mobilizing the Iraqi opposition would be a good way. A third group thought that maybe investing more on cracks within the institution.

This is all academic study. I don't know which one would have been most effective, but I knew then, and I know now, that getting rid of Saddam Hussein, by force, was the easy part of this enterprise.

So then the provision of intelligence, however good or bad it was, if it convinced the United States to go to war and take out Saddam, you'd say it was a good thing?

I think a lot of Iraqis would argue that we're grateful that the U.S. came and got rid of Saddam Hussein. Iraqis might criticize the U.S. on what happened afterwards, but the majority of Iraqis welcome the military intervention to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

So does it matter if the intelligence was bad?

I think to a lot of Iraqis, no. I think to a lot of Iraqis, they think, "Thank you very much, we['re] glad you helped us get rid of Saddam Hussein."

What was the Future of Iraq Project?

There was a moment when all players on Iraq realized that the U.S. government has locked its decision to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and that it's going to mobilize its army, maybe as the last resort to get rid of Saddam Hussein. That was maybe a year before the war, when that realization dawned on everybody that this time it's going to be for real -- Saddam is out.

I believed that at that time -- and I started working with other Iraqis, immediately -- on forming a group that was no longer focused on how to bring Saddam Hussein down or to convince the world that Saddam Hussein is bad, but was fully focused on what to do the day after, from an Iraqi point of view.

That same realization obviously had hit so many other institutions and groups. The State Department started a project. Initially, they wanted to contract the Middle East Institute to look into what to do on the day after, mapping out issues, identifying who are the Iraqi expertise who can navigate around these issues. That lasted for about two months before it hit a brick wall at Congress, again, because of disputes on who should dominate what. …

My reading was, even two years before this had happened, a solid core group emerged in Washington that had not only an agenda to bring [down] Saddam Hussein by war, but I think they had a clear agenda. They want to dominate the whole process from A to Z, and they wanted all other players, Iraqis, Americans, and others, more or less to follow their rules … .

Who is this group?

I really do not know Washington well enough to name, or "square the circle," so to speak, on exactly who that group is. But my interaction as an Iraqi-- To me, it was crystal clear that there was a very strong core group here that was influencing some Iraqi players, including Chalabi, and maybe sharing the same vision or interests, but certainly dominating the Iraqi agenda in a big way.

This would be Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney? The group of people that really were the architects of this war plan?

As I said, it would take maybe an expert like yourself to try to identify exactly who that group was. But it was very clear that they had their say in the media, at Congress, and, amongst the Iraqis, and certainly within the U.S. government.

A powerful group.

A very powerful group, indeed.

What were their interests?

I think there was a very clear agenda. The obvious part of the agenda was to bring Saddam Hussein down. That was the most visible and the center, the focus of that agenda, and in that respect, as I said, as an Iraqi, that was fine. I don't think people, Iraqis, have a problem with that. I think people had a problem with the way it was done.

What do you mean?

Well, it was done not only in a dogmatic way, but looked at from such a narrow perspective to the extent that anybody who did not subscribe to that perspective was seen as part of the enemy, and had to be excluded from the process. Of course, to many of us who know Iraq and know the issues, that was ridiculous. Because the challenge was so big, it needed all efforts, all expertise, all good will to be mobilized. Lots of contingency plans need to be put there.

I think not only Iraqis will be -- and maybe are -- losers in this. But certainly Americans would have lost because the process was not handled well enough. … I think none of us -- Iraqis or Americans -- had doubts, how important this move is, and certainly, without mobilizing everybody, then not only Iraqis' interests would have been harmed, but I think also American interests.

What do you mean by "narrow perspective?" What are you talking about, exactly?

A narrow perspective maybe comes out of dogma -- "I know exactly what is needed from an ideological perspective. I know what the Iraqis want better than the Iraqis themselves. I know exactly what is needed for them. They don't know what they need but I know what they need, and I'm going to convince them, and they'll thank me for it."

There was that arrogant attitude. I've heard it actually in meetings, where the whole of Iraq has been reduced to only the Iraqis who are in exile, because the 22 million Iraqis who are inside have all been destroyed by Saddam Hussein. So the only Iraqis left are the 2 million abroad, and those 2 million abroad are in the INC or in the opposition. The opposition is the INC and the INC is a very narrow circle of people, and we are going to design for Iraq and Iraqis what they need. We know best.

Of course this is a ridiculous argument. But to see it been adopted by some, sometimes in papers, and sometimes in policy, was alarming.

So the administration, the core group in the administration that were planning the war and the postwar, were, in your view, too wedded to the INC? The INC that devolved from its initial concept to a political party of Ahmad Chalabi's?

I think people often talk about the INC as an umbrella organization, but maybe they mean Ahmad Chalabi and a small circle of friends. There's a world of difference between the concept, the idea, and the reality, and often that language is used, I think, to conceal what was actually meant by it.

The Future of Iraq Project. In your view, this was a serious attempt on the part of the State Department to grapple with postwar Iraq?

The Future of Iraq Project was an important step, because no other Iraqi organization has done this before. I would have thought the INC, before, in the 1990s, or maybe in 2001, 2002, would have done such an assignment, because that is the most logical thing that Iraqis should have done. The reality is, by the beginning of 2002, Iraqis have not mobilized their expertise to map out what the issues and challenges are in a post-Saddam Hussein [Iraq].

Everybody agreed that Saddam should go. Everybody would like to have democracy afterwards. Nobody had a clue what the challenges are ahead. So for the State Department to have started to gather Iraqis, 200 of them in fifteen working groups, was a good step; not perfect, not final, but certainly an important step in the right direction. One should have built on it and added momentum to it, and developed it more. It was an important step.

So you're participating in several of the groups. What were the kinds of things, the issues that you were looking at?

I participated in meetings on local government. I thought that was important, some of the ideas that were outlined there. I am surprised they have not been adopted by now, and we're suddenly in an open space, waiting for anything to emerge. The [implementing of] some of these ideas would have given the Iraqis a sense of direction. Instead, what we have now are eight contractors … trying to work out how to help Iraqis develop their local government at different provinces inside Iraq.

Another working group that I participated in, one to do with transitional justice that looked at many legal issues, including how do you handle issues on properties, so that there will not be violence in people claiming back their properties? How do you reinstate the judiciary in Iraq and ensure its independence? All these were real issues.

We went through a long period of about three months. Maybe now some of these ideas are put in place. Some of the participants are now part of the teams in Baghdad working on them. But I would have thought from day one the outcome of these working groups should have been not only adopted, but expanded.

A third working group, which is the most sensitive one and important one, was to do with political transition. Again, the idea of the working group on democratic principles and political transition was not to adopt a position, but to outline options, so that those who are in power -- whether it's Americans or Iraqis -- would look seriously at these options, and maybe modify their approaches, their positions, accordingly.

It was to come up with a structure, though. As I understood it, it wasn't about picking a particular group, or anointing a particular [group], let's say, the INC in this case.

No, it was neither about picking particular groups nor it was about prescribing exactly what should happen on the day after. I think it was about setting options and working them out, if they were to be adopted, what would they look like.

You were there in Wilton Park, at the first meeting.

I participated in the two meetings that took place, yes.

In Wilton Park, it was a two-day meeting. There was a lot of hope?

Yes. I think the level of discussions were very serious. We had representations from main political parties at senior level. I think they put forward their ideas on how they would like transitions to take place. Of course, there were differences and there were no agreements. There were differences, for example, about to what extent you preserve state institutions and bureaucracies during transition; to what extent you mobilize the current political opposition during the transition period.

There were all sorts of questions where participants differed. But at least the differences were spelled out in terms of options and emphasis. I thought the recommendations were useful. … The democratic principle working group put out a draft report where it outlined most of these ideas. The ideas were put forward in the opposition conference meeting in London, in mid-December 2002, and then it was left for whoever would have authority.

But by that time there was quite a bit of tension within the working group over the direction that things were taking. … What was happening there?

I think all Iraqis realized that, although they are Iraqis, and maybe the war was meant to liberate them and to transfer power to them-- I think all of us realized at that time there wasn't really consensus amongst ourselves on how to proceed. We all realized that different players relied on different backers, so to speak. There were some who were strongly backed by the Pentagon, by Defense.

Some of the players in the democratic principles working group?

Correct.

Such as Kanan Makiya?

Yes. I think Kanan Makiya and, although Ahmad Chalabi was not there in person, but his voice was very much there, through Kanan and Salim Chalabi, his nephew, and others. The Kurds had a slightly different outlook. …

So there were not only Iraqis with different backers from different U.S. agencies, but others who really looked outside the U.S. for backing. … Everybody realized that we all had a vested interest to make this succeed, and to minimize the damage. But I think we all realized also, at the same time, that there was no real consensus amongst the Iraqis on how to proceed.

So this is a failure of you, the Iraqis?

I did not fool myself -- and I think many others did not fool themselves -- that there was no consensus, that our political maturity did not reach a point by which we can convince the Americans, or others, hand over power to us, we can run the show. I think many within the U.S. government have realized this later, that of course we need to rely on the Iraqis and, and cooperate [with] them, but we cannot hand power over to them -- not at this early stage.

Did you favor the establishment of a provisional government?

Yes. I was a firm believer that we needed the U.S. to ensure security of our borders and to counterbalance the role of the Iraqi army during political transition. Most of us realized that the U.S. presence was needed, militarily. But I was not in favor of the U.S. taking political control over the process. I believed we can maybe divide roles amongst ourselves as Iraqis, and ensure transition.

Unfortunately, this proved to be theory. In reality, different Iraqi groups more or less saw it as a freefall. They ran, took over different offices, buildings in Baghdad. There was a serious power vacuum in Baghdad, which led to a breakdown of all state instruments. That vacuum was not filled for the first week or 10 days, and later, it proved fatal for what happened to political authority.

I want to go back to October. In the Financial Times you wrote, "Sooner or later, there will be regime change in Iraq, yet neither the U.S. government, the international community, nor the Iraqi opposition has agreed of, on a plan for the day after." But yet at that time you were involved in the Future of Iraq Project. How do you score the United States on its effort to plan for the day after?

The problem there, I felt there were too many voices within the U.S. government working on Iraq. Leadership was very much at the hands of Defense. Not only they had control over the troops and over the land, but they had also control over the money. I think they decided, at the end of the day, what type of transition plan Iraq should have, and we ended up with the transition plan that we have today.

But after the Future of Iraq, after the democratic principles working group comes apart, there's a shift to the Pentagon only at that point. Before that, wasn't the State Department an important player?

I recall that the real shift took place in early January 2003, when suddenly a transition team was formed under Garner. They started mobilizing Iraqis and non-Iraqis to work on their own plans on how transition should take place. … From there on, I felt that all the effort, that was still going on, even at that late hour, by the different working groups, was simply put aside.

Why?

I don't understand it, and I can only speculate.

All the work of the Future of Iraq Project was just ignored, then, by the Defense Department?

I had the impression that it was simply not only not appreciated, but I felt that the planners maybe, at Defense, really felt or thought that they had it all under check and they knew exactly what they were doing and they don't need this input….

You said, "Following its remarkable military success in Iraq, the U.S. has been incurring political losses through a series of misjudgments, a series of political miscalculations." What were they?

The most fatal misjudgment was to allow power vacuum in the first three days. I thought that was fatal. Iraqis are used to military coups when they take place. They tune in to their radios. Many of them who are just used to working for bureaucracies, they obey orders. They waited for announcement, number one, to tell them "All important personnel working in electricity and water, report back to work, and you'd be given access. Everybody else is under curfew from so-and-so hours." This is the way things are done, and people know exactly how to respond to it.

Instead, there was a day, two days and three days of no authority. Suddenly people start to probe the streets and realize there was no authority. Unfortunately, then, there was the ransacking of government buildings, offices, even hospitals and universities. That was a crime, really, at a very large scale. Then there was the run by different political parties, who simply assumed that they will take over authority, a de facto authority, by taking over buildings, houses--

Iraqi political parties.

INC. The Kurdish parties, in particular, and others. They took over not only government buildings, but other properties. Cars, equipment. It was as if it was free-for-all. That set also a bad example for the rest of the population, who was looking forward to see an alternative political leadership emerging. So that also sent a bad message.

Of course, that low period with not knowing what to do ultimately led to state of paralysis for about six weeks. I think this is when the U.S. really squandered its political gains. There was a lot of good will from the Iraqis towards the U.S. -- of course, a level of apprehension, and maybe concern --but at the same time, a lot of good will. People were grateful to whoever helped them, freed out of Saddam's grip. Despite what happened, even now people are grateful. But unfortunately, many scars were left since then, until now.

The measure to dissolve the Iraqi army was not a smart one. I thought the measure suddenly to announce that all Ba'ath Party members are suspects and have no future in Iraq was a bad one. Those who know Iraq, they know that Iraqis were co-opted by the Ba'ath Party; not because they like the Ba'ath Party or believe in it, [but] because that was just a way of getting on in life.

De-Ba'athification was an attempt, just like de-Nazification was in Germany, to get a fresh start. What was wrong with it?

The key task here is to focus at the end game, and the end game is to make the transition in Iraq. The end game is not to settle scores. The end game is not to have ideological scores. The end game is to help Iraq make the transition from where it was under Saddam Hussein to the point where it is stable, open and democratic. Now if that means you need to utilize some of the people who were in the bureaucracy, in the army, in the regime, and if they're vital and crucial to make that transition, then you take them on board. The goal you're aiming at is much bigger than simply trying to score ideologically or personally against the people who served in the regime.

I have been a victim of Saddam Hussein, and members of my family have been victims of Saddam's regime. I've also opposed Saddam Hussein. I've never shook hands with any Ba'ath Party member. I've suffered because of them. But I see the interests of the country above my own feelings, and any pragmatic person would see the need, not to go into this either PR exercise or an ideological exercise, of simply going after everybody who was in the state or in the bureaucracy. Alienating large numbers of people, and not using them or utilizing them, was not a smart move.

This was Bremer's move.

That was a point of view that was advocated much earlier, even amongst the democratic principle working group. By doing that, you have made those people part of the problem instead making them part of the solution. They have become part of the organized crime, part of the snipers shooting at the Americans, and part of the people who see no place for them in future Iraq, and that was not the idea. They could have been useful. Those people did not have a vested interest in Saddam Hussein. Many Ba'ath members wanted Saddam out. They were part of the Ba'ath Party because of Saddam, not because they wanted to be part of the Ba'ath Party. I would have thought political management would have been a smart move.

Another fatal error was not to put an effective media organization from day one. For days and weeks, Iraqis did not hear the voice of Iraqis with a message clearly going out, telling them what to do. I think part of the problem was technical, and part of the problem was simply nobody has put it together.

Other media organizations were up and running. The Iranians were up and running.

The Iranians, the Syrians, the Kurds. I mean, everybody else, it was very simple. People cannot understand why America could not put television or radio, quickly, broadcasting there and put the right team there, with all the money and the resources they have. … It's hard to believe that this does not take place. People can argue electricity did not run because of saboteurs, because the Iraqi staff were not there; but people cannot understand why you couldn't broadcast. …

Why this series of miscalculations? Why this power vacuum for several days?

I do not know. I can only make observations from the outside. I was not part of the real planning. I was not part of the transition teams that were operative. … The impression I had, listening to different comments, maybe too much emphasis was put on the humanitarian needs, and maybe a humanitarian crisis would take place, and maybe Saddam will use weapons of mass destruction. Maybe this has absorbed most of the planning, the hardware, hard stuff. But on the soft side, political planning, media planning, human resources--

Well, basic law and order on the street is not a soft issue.

It could have been a soft issue. I would have thought symbolic presence by the military or the police with strong, clear media messages would have filled that vacuum. Iraqis who've been timid under Saddam Hussein all these years respect authority, and they would have stayed in check. I think it's extremely misleading to assume that Iraqis behave like this normally and that [it] is a natural reaction, as some might have suggested, because they got rid of Saddam Hussein, [Iraqis were] tasting their freedom.

This was not normal. It's not a sign of liberated people. I think it's a sign of people who sense there is no authority. If the message initially was sent to them through the media and through symbolic presence of troops in the streets, in front of office buildings, then this would have deterred them.

Let me give you concrete examples, not only from the working groups of the Future of Iraq Project, but even within the conferences we held at the Iraq National Group, the group that I led. We held three conferences. We mobilized over 600 Iraqi experts, and we paralleled some of the work that was done by the Future of Iraq Working Group, because we thought that was such a good move, let's add a strong Iraqi flavor to it and carry on with it.

We anticipated clearly not only the looting, but the post-Saddam possibility of organized crime. We looked at international criminal organizations moving to Iraq, drugs and prostitutions, and others. We looked specifically at what would happen to Iraq's antiques, museums, and banks. We looked at the possibility of the growth of organized crime, and how, if it's not tackled from day one, it will become a chronic, serious problem.

What happened to your recommendations?

We were shocked that what we feared most and recommended against was just unfolding in front of our eyes as if nobody knew it. To us, that was heartbreaking.

Did you present these recommendations to the Defense Department?

I did not present them to the Defense Department, but our findings were open. At one of the meetings we had here in Washington, D.C., I think there were people from the Defense Department who--

So the Defense Department was aware of what you were predicting?

I think they were aware of our activities and what we were predicting, yes.

… It seems what you're saying is that they began to believe their own rosy scenarios. If they didn't put in a place a structure after the--

People who simplified this mission, and narrowed it down simply to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and everything will then fall in place, I cannot comprehend that they believed their own rhetoric. It's one thing to say to the media, to try win public opinion. It's totally another to base your planning on that rhetoric. Maybe this is what happened.

America finds itself in a very difficult situation now. What can America do now to extricate itself from the situation?

There are a number of measures that can and should be done, even now. Of course they have become more costly and more difficult, and they'll take more time. But I believe there is no substitute to doing them. Number one, I think America's commitment to Iraq's security is the right one, and if that takes maintaining America's leadership over the security effort and the military effort in Iraq, then let it be. I don't think this is going to be the stumbling block in getting Iraq out of its misery.

The second issue is political transition. I would have thought, both from a legal point of view, enhancing the legitimacy, and from a practical point of view, that the U.N. should be given more of a role on political transition. This would look right in the eyes of the Iraqis, in the eyes of Iraq's neighbors, and in the eyes of the international community, and would win certainly both financial support and maybe military support to what the U.S. is trying to do. So, to me, I would have thought giving the U.N. political role on transition is a good step, not a bad one.

A third one, I would say there is something missing in the political process in Iraq today. Yes, what we have is a structure which is more representative and more inclusive than the structure we had under Saddam Hussein. But what we have is not a sufficient structure. We need to enhance it more by relying on representation from Iraq's provinces.

What we have today in the governing council is self-proclaimed representation of ethnic communities and of political leaders claiming to speak on behalf of Iraq, 25 million people. Well, no one can claim to speak on behalf of all Iraq, but we can enhance that level of representation. One good way to do it is to involve the various structures that emerged in different districts and provinces. Iraq has 18 provinces and about 50 districts. They need to be linked with the political process taking place right now in Baghdad right now, to ensure that the rest of the country, for example, the most problematic Sunni triangle who are excluded, totally, from the political process.. They need to be included, not as Sunnis or as tribal leaders, but as people who need to be represented in their own districts. They must have a voice.

One important error needs to be fixed right now. Iraq must not be institutionalized on ethnic and religious lines in terms of percentages, sharing power, or dividing land. If we do this, we're dooming Iraq for years to come. Iraq would then not only ultimately be divided, but we're going to have communal conflicts over power.

The demography changes in Iraq naturally as it does in all countries. We need to integrate Iraq as a modern state, allowing freedom to all, pluralism, but, more importantly, institutions based on citizenship, decentralizing power, powers to the provinces, federalism -- but not based on ethnic or religious lines.

I want to go back to the motivations for the war. What do you understand the motivations for the war, on the part of America, to be? You hear people on the left talking about oil. You talk to the Pentagon and people talk a lot about the transformation in the Middle East. What did you understand the war to be about?

I fully understood what happened after Sept. 11, and that is America can no longer live with the risk, with the possibility that there is a rogue regime out there who might lend a hand to a terrorist group who might target the U.S. Just that possibility was strong enough, and I think it drove the administration towards eliminating it. … I fully understood the concern that America can no longer tolerate an Iraq without verifying exactly what type of weapons Iraq has. This I understand.

The timetable that was put to address that concern, the measures that need to be adopted to verify that concern, and the way to bring regime change, could have been debated or addressed differently. Maybe we'd have reached the same conclusion, that we definitely still need to launch war against Saddam Hussein.

You think America rushed to war?

I could not fully understand the rush to war. I understand fully the motives, why America had a security concern. I think it was a legitimate security concern. America had every right to verify what was out there. But as I said, to jump blindly, based on that fear or concern, was too much of a step. War is not to be taken lightly, and if one had to go to war, then every measure must not be spared to make sure that it's done right and that the aftermath is right.

Why do you think America rushed to war?

I do not understand. I know that there was a strong influential group pushing the war agenda, and I understand that a good deal of that pressure group came out of Sept. 11, the concern for security. But maybe we were blinded by that concern and did not really think it through. Certainly the way we conducted it, and the way we planned the aftermath left a lot to be desired.

What is the consequence of this?

We have no option other than to get Iraq right now. If we don't, America has put not only its reputation on line; I think its whole credibility and presence, not only in the Middle East, but in the world is on line. It was credibility, after all, that led to many terrorist groups, including Saddam Hussein, to defy the U.N. and the U.S., because the U.S. lacked credibility.

Well, the credibility challenge today is of a different nature. It's not about whether or not America had the might or the guts to carry out its threats or its power. It's whether or not America had the vision, the skills, the ability to see the political agenda on stability, on security, on democracy, and carry it through. It's quite a challenge.

What is your view about the possibility of establishing a democracy in Iraq?

I've always been an optimist. I believe it can be done. Up until now, we just had made it more costly, and maybe it'll take a little bit more time, and we've wasted valuable opportunities. But I still believe it can be done. We cannot afford the luxury of making similar blunders or mistakes as we did in the past few weeks or months. We just have to get it right. We have no option.

But yet during this period of pre-war planning, there's a tremendous amount of interagency squabbling. What did you understand that to be about?

I could not understand any of the different perspectives and maybe turf battle that took place.

But you saw it up close. You saw these turf battles inside the democracy working group. It doomed the Future of Iraq Project, no?

I have seen the exclusion of many useful people, valuable people who should have been integrated into the post-planning effort. I've seen the exclusion of many people and I cannot understand the justification for it.

I hate to think that this had compromised the outcome of the post-Iraq planning.

But it did?

Unfortunately, I think it did; yes.

We have someone on camera that says Chalabi, through Kanan and Salam, hijacked the democratic principles working group.

Yes. I mean, initially the Chalabi group, if that is the right expression, boycotted totally the Future of Iraq Project. They did not want to participate in any of the working groups. Then, suddenly, there was a change of heart. I think the change of heart happened when the democratic principle working group was established, and for the first time I think Kanan Makiya, and other members of the INC, Entifadh Qanbar, Salam Chalabi, and others, wanted to participate and wanted to lead, not only participate. They came in with a strong thrust. In fact, they came in with, I think, a pre-drafted plan on what should be presented and adopted by that group. My impression that the drafting of at least Kanan's ideas took place, maybe somewhere else, and they were determined to push it through.

What was their agenda?

I think they had a very simplistic agenda that can be summed up in few words. Reducing Iraq to the opposition, reducing the opposition to the INC, reducing the INC to that small group; that all the post-Iraq planning should start from that small group, to be given all the resources and support, to become the nucleus for reestablishing authority in Iraq through the money, the arms, the U.S. support, become the central point for redefining order in Iraq.

The worrying thing about it-- It had been drafted in abstract as if there were no 24 million people out there with views, history, different outlook and different agenda, and as if those people can be subdued by the U.S. presence.

So the Pentagon backed the INC in this effort?

I am not very sure if the Pentagon supported that idea. I think at a later stage -- maybe too late in the game, maybe by end of December -- there was a realization by the planners at the Pentagon that this is not going to fly and their rosy assumptions are not real. Suddenly there was a rush to develop a parallel team. … By that time, we were all running really around the clock, trying to decide what's going to happen. The war is about to take place; nobody knew the outcome.

You must have some sense of panic, then, that war's going to take place and you don't have a workable plan.

I did not panic. I really thought that we are in good hands. I really thought that somebody must have had contingency plans, or to say the least, even if they were to panic, they will utilize the rest of the Iraqis. … Maybe I'm an optimist and I always had hope. I always thought, really, it cannot be that bad. Really, somebody, somewhere, must have thought this through. I hope that this is the case.

In fact, I was assured by many people who I talked to, as I was expressing my anxiety and concern, my alarm, that we might be heading towards a disaster. Many people assured me that this is an experienced lot of people who've been to so many crises before in so many other countries and the know what they're doing.

So what was that like for you, those first few days after the fall?

I was heartbroken to see what happened to Baghdad. I was really heartbroken. A), It gave the wrong image of Iraqis and Iraq. B), I knew we lost the most valuable assets that we need to run Iraq, post-Saddam. It just went out in flames; that whoever comes to power now is going to look for names. Who are the bad guys and who are the good guys?

All the files were burnt.

Everything was burned, and the state bureaucracy, the most valuable instrument you need in running a state, the instrument that kept Saddam Hussein in power -- although he was a bad ruler with bad policies -- but he had strong instruments to rule with. We needed those instruments. They went out in flames. …

Every American agency backed somebody. Who backed Leith Kubba?

I made my views public. I have received no financial backing from any government, American or otherwise, from any agency within the U.S. or outside the U.S. I was pleased to participate in all the meetings I was asked to and invited to give my views on. I've published many of my views in the press. I think some of my views found some echoes or resonance at the State Department. I believe they were appreciative that there were Iraqis like me thinking the way I was thinking. Maybe that led other people at the, at the Defense Department to fear what I say and alienate me, because there was a turf battle.

What was that turf battle about?

Control of policy, politics, power, money. I don't understand it. But there was that obsession about control, that nobody, even amongst the Iraqis, should be allowed to emerge, or his, or her point of view ought to surface, if we don't allow it to do so. Maybe there was a sense of a threat of other views emerging. I don't know. But I certainly was perceived by that small group as being backed by the State Department. There were a couple of articles accusing me, that I am backed by the State Department, and in fact I had some unpleasant phone calls from within that circle--

Within the Defense Department?

Well, I wouldn't say within the Defense Department. I would say--

But within the neo conservative community that supported the Pentagon position?

Within that informal group that has pushed that hard line. I had [them] calling me even names, "a stooge of the State Department," as if the State Department was the enemy of the United States. …

It's remarkable how a very small group of men can have such influence over a government the size of this one. But essentially you're talking about a very small group in the Pentagon, at the vice president's office, who had tremendous control over the direction of U.S policy.

I think this is the exception, not the rule. What happened, in my own reading, Sept. 11 stunned not only the nation, but I think it stunned people here in different agencies. Within that period that lasted a year or two, all sorts of things happened. Maybe it's time to reflect exactly what happened and how should we get it or do it better in the future. …

During that period when everybody was stunned, maybe there was a weakness or a soft spot for whoever had a hard agenda to push, because everybody was fearful of this unknown threat. Up until now, people believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with Sept. 11. It just reflects on the state of mind of the nation, and amongst institutions here, in D.C. Nobody wanted to be even one percent responsible for tolerating the possibility that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destructions and could have lent those weapons to terrorism groups. So I think, yes, that fear maybe had influenced rational thinking in a big way.

 

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
tapes & transcripts + press reaction + credits + privacy policy
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi

posted october 9, 2003

photo copyright © benjamin lowy/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

 

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS