PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. Something different this week. About 18 months ago, Ahmed Chalabi's home in Baghdad was raided by Iraqis and Americans, and his bodyguards were stripped of their weapons. Washington was putting out the word he was a spy at worst, and an ineffective political exile at best. Today Mr. Chalabi is the deputy prime minister of Iraq, meeting in Washington with top Bush Administration officials. Mr. Chalabi, welcome.
AHMED CHALABI: Thank you.
PAUL GIGOT: Joining us are Rob Pollock, a member of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial board who has reported from Iraq, and Fouad Ajami, the director of the Middle East Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University and a frequent contributor to the editorial pages of the JOURNAL. Mr. Prime Minister, after all that happened between you and the U.S. government last year, why do you think they rolled out the red carpet for you this week?
AHMED CHALABI: I think what happened is the elections in Iraq. And the subsequent formation of the cabinet, and the work that I did in association and cooperation with the United States officials in Iraq, both military and civilian. I think that is probably the reason that this is happening, but I'm glad that this has happened.
PAUL GIGOT: I want to give you a chance to respond to a couple of the things, just to go over some history. Some of the accusations that appeared in the press last year, one of which was that you provided U.S. intelligence information to Iran. These were anonymous sources, but nonetheless I have to ask, is that true? And was that brought up at all this week by American officials?
AHMED CHALABI: That is false. I did no such thing. I did not provide any information that compromised U.S. goods to Iraq. I denied it at the time and I deny it now, and no, it did not come up in conversations with U.S. officials.
PAUL GIGOT: The other charge that's often made, particularly from Americans who oppose the war in Iraq, was that the Iraqi National Congress, your organization, provided defectors to U.S. intelligence about Saddam's having weapons of mass destruction, which was false information. How do you respond to that?
AHMED CHALABI: That is an urban myth. We provided three people only. We gave them to U.S. intelligence to evaluate. One of them they took and we never saw him again. The other two they rejected, and I would refer the people to the Rob Silverman report, page 108, where it says that they found, after much investigation by the bipartisan commission that the INC had minimal impact on United States policies going to war with Iraq, with regarding WMD.
ROB POLLOCK: A big question on the minds of a lot of Americans is when do our boys get to start coming home. When are Iraqis really going to be ready to start taking over responsibility for their own security, and when do you think significant US troop drawdowns could start?
AHMED CHALABI: The U.S. troops coming home and the timetable is a function of what we do, and not what the United States do. When the Iraqi forces are ready, when there is an Iraqi force that is competent to take over the security in terms of training, in terms of equipment, and in terms of intelligence, then Americans can come home. And I would say that if we do things correctly, Americans can start coming home in 2006 in significant numbers.
ROB POLLOCK: Best case scenario is next year sometime?
AHMED CHALABI: 2006.
PAUL GIGOT: Senator John McCain, who is in favor of the war, supporter of the war, supporter of a free Iraq, has said that he thinks there should be more American troops in Iraq right now. Do you agree with that?
AHMED CHALABI: Senator McCain is a supporter of the cause of freedom of Iraq, and has a view of the military role of U.S. forces in Iraq which is at variance of what we believe. I believe that Americans should not be put as targets on the streets of Baghdad and other cities. I think that less American, the less visibility that Americans have, the fewer of the casualties, both Iraqi and American. But it is necessary for America to have an envelope of security for Iraq.
PAUL GIGOT: What do you think needs to be done in order to make Iraq, particularly civilians in Iraq, safer from these terrorist bombings and assassinations, and other attacks?
AHMED CHALABI: Security is not equivalent to the use of force. Security comes mainly from the acceptance of the population of the government and for the authority that is ruling over them, and its forces of order. It is idle to think that by declaring millions of people to be outlaws you can achieve security by suppressing them. Saddam did that, and he failed in Iraq. So we have to do, for the first thing that means we have to win the confidence and the good will of all the communities of Iraq, and to make them feel that the security forces that they deal with actually are there to protect them, and not to attack them. This is an important point. I want to emphasize that Baathism does not influence Sunnis in Iraq. They are separate.
PAUL GIGOT: Baathism was, of course, the party of Saddam Hussein.
AHMED CHALABI: But the Sunnis in Iraq, the majority of them are ready to participate in a political process which guarantees their rights.
PAUL GIGOT: Okay, let's talk about the elections which are coming up in December. They're very significant. You recently broke with the Shiite alliance that you had run with in January. Why did you do that? And what are going to be your issues as you campaign in December?
AHMED CHALABI: There is a large constituency of Iraq is our Muslims who respect the transitional authority of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, but who are not subscribers to the Islamic theory of government. They do not support an Islamic republic; they do not support an Islamic state. Those people needed to have a choice to vote for, and there are people who are Iraqis with liberal attitudes towards political life, and who want to move forward in a democratic way. That is why we moved away from the United Iraq Alliance, whose leaders have focused increasingly on Islamic parties and the party that believes in Islamic government in Iraq.
PAUL GIGOT: So you are running as an explicitly secular Shiite candidate?
AHMED CHALABI: We are running as candidates who are Muslims, but do not subscribe in the theory of Islamic government. And I believe that this is the majority view in Iraq at this time. And we are running also a campaign to uphold and support the constitution in Iraq, which specifies I think an inaccurate role for Islam in a third of the state, and that is separating the religion from the state.
FOUAD AJAMI: It's interesting. You have a formulation that says that in the first election Iraq has voted a community, the sect. In the second election they'll vote something else.
AHMED CHALABI: The first election was about identity politics. Now, the election will be increasingly about issues that have to go beyond political correctness, beyond identity, about issues which are related to the things that are facing the Iraqi people as they move forward to the future -- issues of security, issues of economic development, issues of providing services, issues of fighting corruption, and also the veracity and faith in the people who are going to deliver on these issues.
FOUAD AJAMI: On the eve of your journey to Washington, you actually went to Iran, which was quite an interesting move, publicly, and in a forthright way. Did you bring any message from Iran to Washington to you?
AHMED CHALABI: I carry no messages. I am not a postman.
FOUAD AJAMI: Okay. What were the issues that engaged you on your journey to Iran?
AHMED CHALABI: The issues are, the issues, again, of security, of cooperation and of the position of Iraq in this conflict, the tension that exists between Iran and the United States. One thing we don't want in Iraq is to be the battleground between Iran and the United States. And we wanted to make clear to the Iranian government that this was our view, and that we look forward for a balanced, transparent and good relationship with Iran, but not at all for any kind of Iranian active intervention in shaping the future of Iraq, our internal political view. And we looked forward also to telling them that the Iraqi constitution contains an article which says that Iraq will not be a transit point or a base for hostile action against any of its neighbors, and that should reassure them. We also talked about economic cooperation such as on oil, on electricity, and on transit from Iraq to Iran. And I believe there is common benefit to both.
FOUAD AJAMI: I'm just curious. As you know, Dr. Chalabi, that you come to a country which is in the middle of an intense debate about this war. What's the biggest misperception that Americans have about Iraq, about what's really playing and what's really playing out in Iraq?
AHMED CHALABI: Well, the biggest misperception is that there is no good news out of Iraq. Most of the news in Iraq is positive. We have met all the deadlines on the timetable, on the political timetable we have established. We have improved the income of Iraqis tremendously, manyfold. Iraqis have freedom to move and to travel like they never did before, and they have freedom to organize politically. And they have a freedom to express their faiths and to practice their religions and to organize and form political parties. All these are positive things in Iraq, and they are not reported. There are many details, and I think that there is this misperception that there is no good news. There is good news in Iraq.
PAUL GIGOT: We often hear about the fear that Iraq is going to splinter into ethnic groups, into three different countries or more -- Shiites in the south, Sunnis and Kurds. How realistic a prospect, or a fear, is that?
AHMED CHALABI: No Iraqi leader has called for the splitting up of Iraq. Iraqi leaders, from all communities, have called for the unity of Iraq. The constitution is a document which makes Iraq unity possible, and guarantees Iraq unity, and guarantees that the constitution is to be upheld and there is unity in Iraq. And I think all the communities of Iraq believe that unity is in their interest.
FOUAD AJAMI: Not only are you a deputy prime minister but you are also a candidate for office in a few weeks, and candidates speak in candidate ways. So I'm going to give you a chance to tell us in candidate way, not in deputy prime minister way -- I'm going to give you a checklist of some of your neighbors and just ask you to tell us what is their game in Iraq, and what should we be watching for. Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia -- we've already spoken about Iran, but we're talking about your Arab neighbors. So walk us through Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. What problems do these countries present, and represent in Iraq?
AHMED CHALABI: Syria needs to stop being a conduit, and a base for the terrorists, for the Islamic Jihadists and Salafists to go into Iraq. Jordan needs to stop being the financial nexus of the corruption that existed in the Oil for Food program and in the CPA time, and in the internal government, the previous government. And they need to control Baathist activity and financial activity and corruption against Iraq. Saudi Arabia needs to control its citizens who are moving to Iraq to carry out terrorism against our country.
PAUL GIGOT: Prime minister, thank you very much for joining us.