BAGHDAD — Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraq National Congress, says that Iraq is in a "very difficult situation."
In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Chalabi, who has been both praised and skewered for his advocacy of the US war in Iraq, discussses some of the successes and disappointments since the United States deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003; the challenges faced by the de-Baathification law; the crisis in Anbar; the need for diversification of Iraq's economy; the upcoming Iraqi elections; and Iraq's "failed" relations with Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
Text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: You were one of the most prominent political figures who contributed to the war to liberate Iraq in 2003. More than 10 years on, do you see Iraq as you had hoped it would be? Why have [the country's] tracks deviated and why is Iraq still mired in violence and political and sectarian conflict, despite the US withdrawal?
Chalabi: Iraq is now in a very difficult situation. This is not what we had hoped for when we worked to liberate the country from the regime of [former President] Saddam Hussein. However, what happened was not a surprise.
What happened could have been avoided. The fundamental problem lies in the fact that the United States was working in contrast to what we were working on, and what we had planned. The United States went in the direction of announcing an occupation, while our goal (in the Iraqi opposition), according to an agreement before the start of military operations in 2003, was to form a sovereign national Iraqi government that was recognized by a decision from countries in the [UN] Security Council. [This government would] be committed to holding free elections, so that it could subsequently ratify a constitution.
Yet, the United States ignored this and occupied Iraq. Before the start of military operations, we informed them [the US administration] that Iraqis, after getting rid of Saddam's regime, would consider themselves victorious and not defeated. This would be totally different from what happened at the end of World War II. At that time, the Japanese felt they had been defeated by the international coalition that confronted the Nazis, and accepted everything the coalition imposed on them.
However, despite the problems, we have made many gains. These include the ratification of the constitution and the adoption of the principle of the peaceful transfer of power, despite the presence of some gaps that occurred and the current attempts to violate this principle.
In general, the historical path of the new Iraq deviated due to the implementation of the idea of occupation. We had wanted a national government based on a broad political alliance in the beginning, so that we could avoid the risk of sectarianism and political quotas. [These quotas] later moved to administrative quotas in state institutions, allowing parties to bring in people who were loyal to their parties, not to the state.
After the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, there was a great opportunity for political forces to abandon the struggle for power — which in fact was a struggle for money — but the desire to monopolize the country's resources led to more tension.
Al-Monitor: You were once in Washington's inner circle, but this relationship deteriorated and you were accused of ties with Iran and of misleading the US decision in 2003. What is your position on Washington today?
Chalabi: I worked for the interest of Iraq and the Iraqi people. I worked to remove the dictatorship and establish a national democratic rule. Currently, we have succeeded in establishing [democratic] features. We have a democratic constitution and a parliament. But the main imbalance lies in the relationship between [various] authorities and the political differences, which are a source of concern for us.
My relationship with Washington was not hidden from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and my relationship with Tehran was not hidden from the Americans. My movements throughout the period of [my time in] the opposition were known and declared. I was visiting both Washington and Tehran, publicly, and I entered Iraqi Kurdistan via Iran, which is known to the Americans.
In 2000, the US State Department signed an agreement with the Iraqi National Congress (the political umbrella of the opposition at the time), as part of its support for the Iraqis and to organize methods of spending [the money that had been] ratified by Congress. [The United States] agreed to pay the rent to open two offices for the National Congress in Tehran and Damascus. Thus, the United States was aware of the nature of the relationship between the opposition — and me personally — and Iran.
What changed later on was the failure of the US administration in Iraq. They found themselves at a dead end politically, and discovered that their ideas for this country did not work. Had the Americans succeeded in managing the country via the coalition authority — which we found to be strange at the time, since we did not know why they resorted to forming it — they would not have been subject to anti-military operations, from the far north to the far south [of Iraq].
After this failure, [the Americans] felt it was necessary to get out of Iraq. Thus, the administration of former President George W. Bush decided to distance themselves from the failure, and threw [the blame] on us. After that, several issues began. For example, they accused us — using information and exaggerated claims — of deceiving them. This began in March 2004, when Bush was beginning his campaign for the presidency. They chose an easy target, given that we were individuals in Iraq, and prevented us from participating in the Iraqi political scene. They believed that throwing the blame on us would end matters. And they did in fact succeed in the elections, while we paid the price.
But despite the fact that the US agencies assailed us from that time, we are still in the Iraqi political scene. And I think that we have achieved a victory with the emergence of the facts after this long period.
In 2005, I was invited to visit [the United States]. At that time, I was deputy prime minister. I was received by the [US] secretary of the treasury, the secretary of defense, the secretary of energy, the vice president and the national security adviser. [During the visit], this file was closed, but relations between us remained cold, until three years later when the US administration changed. At that point, relations were restored. They were not deep ties as before, but they came within the framework of relations between the two countries.
Al-Monitor: What is your vision for the upcoming elections? Will the elections even be held?
Chalabi: Yes, the elections will be held. They definitely will take place. In the event that they are not conducted, the Iraqi government would lose its legitimacy. Here we need to pay attention to a very important issue, which is related to Iraq's money that is in an account in the US Federal Reserve. The only two people [who] have access to this account are the Iraqi prime minister and the minister of finance. In the event that the elections are canceled and the parliament ceases its work, the Iraqi government would not enjoy legitimacy. If the Americans agreed on this point, then Iraq would not have access to its money [in the Federal Reserve].
Based on this, it is imperative that elections be held, so that Iraq does not enter into this tunnel. While we have said that the security and political crises may hinder the achievement of this goal [holding elections], the danger makes it imperative for everyone to find a solution. Here it must be noted that it is impossible to hold parliamentary elections in Iraq excluding the Anbar province. This is because these are not local elections. Thus, we can not elect a parliament with incomplete representation.
For these reasons, the Iraqi government must find a solution.
Al-Monitor: Who will be the next prime minister?
Chalabi: It’s very difficult to determine who will be the next prime minister. But Iraqis do not want [the same] authorities to stay in power and for one party to maintain control for a long period of time. They have learned from past experience that this is not in the interest of democracy.
Al-Monitor: What are your expectations for the map of political forces in Iraq during the elections?
Chalabi: I cannot make predictions in this regard. But let me say that the next five years are crucial to the future of Iraq. If we do not improve crisis management, the risks will be exacerbated for future generations.
Al-Monitor: As an economics man, how would you assess the economic situation in Iraq?
Chalabi: More than 95% of Iraq's revenues, according to the budget, depend on oil revenue. Meanwhile, in a state such as the United Arab Emirates, the share of oil revenue in the budget does not exceed 32%, with the remainder coming from investment and other sectors.
Iraq only has oil, and this sector is subject to large fluctuations in prices. In 2008, prices were high, but they fell in 2009.
The Iraqi government has become addicted to increasing oil profits, and this is a great risk. I expect that continuing this approach will lead to substantial economic problems. Thus, I'll go back to saying that the next five years are very crucial, and could see developments in the energy market that make oil less important. I'll give you an example: In France, there is a research institution specializing in energy affairs that is considering the use of hydrogen fuel, which relies on hydrogen gas available in ocean water for energy production. This alternative form of energy will end the future of oil, as is also the case with cars that operate on electric power. In Iraq, if the current approach continues, we will not rid ourselves of our dependence on oil. It is necessary to make the oil sector a sector for consumption and not a major source of funding, providing employment opportunities, and turning the wheel of the economy. The Iraqi government will face big problems in this area if it does not improve the financial management of the country.
Al-Monitor: How do you assess the way in which the Iraqi government has dealt with the Anbar crisis? And what do you believe is the future of the crisis?
Chalabi: The Anbar crisis represents the political failure in Iraq. Anbar society is affected by a state of great frustration that requires the care of the state. A large number of men from the province had an important presence in state institutions, such as the police, the army, and immigration and citizenship offices. Now, however, this presence has receded. Their cities have been subjected to bombings for years, especially from the Americans, whose greatest losses were in this province.
The Iraqi government should have embraced this province and protected it from feelings [of] isolation, marginalization and exclusion. Yet, [in the absence of this], the region became susceptible to the entrance of al-Qaeda and a resurgence of extremist thought.
The use of wide-scale violence, without discrimination, has transformed into a big problem. Of course the government has a duty to fight terrorism and must support military efforts in this regard, but these efforts do not achieve the correct results when they involve indiscriminate shelling, or sending the Iraqi army to fight in Iraqi cities against Iraqi citizens.
Now, there is a number being repeated by the government, as well as the UN: They speak of 250,000 people having left Anbar [as a result of the conflict]. This is a big number.
The government should not abandon political solutions, this is not acceptable. [Political solutions] must be an option in internal crises and decision-makers must be patient. We all remember the potential for military confrontations between Baghdad and Erbil, but in the end the Kurdistan Regional Government avoided clashes in the areas of Faysh Khabur, Khanaqin and Fayde.
It should be noted that the Iraqi government is the one that has power. This means that it, more than others, enjoys freedom to move and act. A few weeks ago, Ammar al-Hakim (the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) proposed an initiative to end the crisis. Hakim was subjected to criticism and attacks, but it became clear that his initiative was correct when we heard about the government's support for the initiative proposed by the governor of Anbar, which included the same items as Hakim's initiative. … Why the sudden change?
The armed forces should not be involved in political disputes. We must win the support of the people, so that they stand with the government in efforts to isolate and eradicate terrorism.
Al-Monitor: What is the road map to resolve the crisis of Iraq's Sunnis? Is it a legal, political or security map?
Chalabi: Sunni participation is the solution. Their participation is required. What happened in Iraq confirms that no single party can control [the country's] path. No important party in Iraq should ever feel that it is marginalized. This participation we are talking about will be of no use if it occurs in a theatrical manner, by placing Sunni representatives [in state institutions] who do not participate in security, political or economic decisions. Political proficiency means making a stable political and security situation something that is in the interest of all parties.
The [existence of a] security problem means that you have failed politically and economically. Policies that isolate societal groups must be halted. We should recall that the southern provinces of Iraq were a cause for the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, and this scenario should not be repeated.
Al-Monitor: With the approach of the Iraqi elections and the renewed discussion of "de-Baathification" issues, do you think that the "de-Baathification" [policies] over the past years were fair? And why was the director of the De-Baathification Agency recently replaced?
Chalabi: De-Baathification was necessary, because the [Baath] party was not a normal party. It was entangled with the authorities, and its members were the ones leading the country on several levels. The clearest proof of this is what is happening in Syria, and the [proposed] settlements that stipulate the Baath Party will remain. If elections were held in Syria, there would be no organized parties other than the Baath Party. The Syrian opposition comprises many different parties. If they entered into elections, the Baath Party would win. The same scenario would have occurred in Iraq had it not been for the de-Baathification process.
The idea behind de-Baathification was to dismantle the Baath Party's control over state institutions and prevent its leaders from participating in the political process. However, this was carried out on the condition that it would not affect the overwhelming majority of Baathists, and the violations that had occurred [in the past] would not be cause for lawsuits. In the beginning, we succeeded in this regard. No decisions were issued to arrest any Baathist, and the work we carried out was related to economic punishments targeting those affiliated with the party.
Later, however, de-Baathification measures were transformed into the Justice and Accountability Law, which was more severe. With regard to candidates for the new parliament who were included in the law and prevented from participation [in parliament], measures to exclude them will be very difficult.
The Americans had insisted on changing the de-Baathification [procedures] into the Justice and Accountability Law, and the Iraqi politicians conceded. The Americans were trying to correct the mistakes they had made in Iraq, including what they believed to be the mistake of de-Baathification. It was necessary to change this, and they merely wanted to declare the end of de-Baathification. When they announced the Justice and Accountability Law, they said, "Now we've corrected our mistake." They were looking for TV news, nothing more. But they complicated the lives of Iraqis.
The important thing in the de-Baathification issue is what is provided by the constitution. The latter says that the parliament has the right to dissolve the De-Baathification Agency. The de-Baathification file should be closed in the next legislative session. However, in light of the political failure will this really happen? De-Baathification has transformed into a tool for monopolizing power.
The director of the [De-Baathification] agency previously had the authority to exclude [politicians]. Now, however, such a decision requires a series of procedures in parliament, which then has to vote on a decision to exclude. The federal court ousted the [former] director, and now who will direct it in this critical period, knowing that the procedure for selecting the director is very complex? This is because the agency is directed by seven people who are chosen by the Council of Ministers and then approved by parliament. These seven people then personally elect a director for the agency, who in turn must obtain approval from parliament. These are very complicated procedures. Thus, one of these seven people has been appointed to the post.
Al-Monitor: How do you view the future of Iranian-US relations? Based on your experience with decision-makers in Tehran, do you think that Iran is serious about attempts at rapprochement with Washington and resolving the nuclear crisis once and for all?
Chalabi: There is a desire and serious will on the part of both parties to reach a solution. Washington has realized that the time has come to end tensions with this country, which was able to protect its Islamic Revolution in spite of all attempts to undermine it and make it fail.
More than 34 years has passed since the rupture in relations between the two countries. Now the Americans have begun changing their approach with Iran. On the other hand, the dominant party in the Islamic Republic decided that in the event that there was a chance for understanding with the United States, they would go in this direction.
The nuclear agreement in Geneva came after a series of talks held in the Sultanate of Oman. Furthermore, [Iranian President] Hassan Rouhani's victory in the presidential elections helped facilitate an Iranian-US understanding. This means that President Rouhani has the support of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to solve [Iran's] problems with Washington, in a way that ensures the supreme interests of Iran. Thus, he does not want anything to affect this path and hinder Iran's return to the international community.
This path will make Iran carefully consider its policies in the region, especially in Iraq, so that they do not affect its relationship with the international community.
When Americans look at a map of the region, there is Iraq — and this an important element — but what will they do with Afghanistan, from which they are withdrawing? Who controls the situation there? This is a big problem. The US administration is now in a dispute with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai regarding the extension of the mandate for [US] troops. In this case, the Kabul government has no one to work with other than Iran to face the Taliban, and Washington cannot oppose this.
Iran is not a force in the Gulf, but it is a major force in Central Asia and the Caucasus. In contrast, the United States has huge capabilities that are unmatched, but its prospects for employing these capabilities in the Middle East are weak.
Al-Monitor: How do you assess Iraq's foreign relations, especially with the Arab world? Why has this tug of war persisted in Iraqi-Arab relations?
Chalabi: These are failed relations. The tense Iraqi-Arab relations serve certain Iraqi political parties in maintaining authority and monopoly.
Iraq, through its actions, must send messages to the Arab community that it is not threatening them and not threatening their entity. These relations should be based on Iraq respecting the situation of Arab countries, so that Iraq can gain their respect for its own situation. I think they are ready to respond to Iraq. Concerning the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the ruling Al Saud family has been in power for decades, so it has a lot of experience in dealing with Arab governments, even those that posed a threat to it. The kingdom's recent decision to issue decrees stipulating severe penalties for those who fight under the pretext of jihad indicates that the country is very conservative, and doesn't want attacks. Thus, one must deal with them in a positive way, and there is no need for this upheaval in relations.
Saudi Arabia is a conservative, not expansionist, country. Saudi will not change its place on the map. It will remain a neighbor to Iraq, and thus [maintaining] tensions is not wise.