Governing Wisely

Has Iraq's interim government got a chance? A Reason interview with veteran activist Chibli Mallat

Chibli Mallat is a law professor at the University of St. Joseph in Beirut. He is an expert on Islamic law and the author of a book on the slain Iraqi cleric Mohammad Bakr al-Sadr, and he has assisted and advised the opposition to Saddam Hussein since before the first Gulf War. Mallat began working with opposition leaders from Najaf in the late 1980s and in 1991 helped found the International Committee for a Free Iraq (more than half of whose members ended up on the recently disbanded Iraqi Governing Council). In the mid-'90s, when the Iraqi opposition had been enfeebled by infighting, an abortive coup attempt, and the Kurdish civil war, Mallat brought together Ahmed Chalabi and two Iraqi Kurd leaders in Washington so that Iraqi dissidents could begin lobbying for the Iraqi Liberation Act, which was passed in 1998. In 1996, he formed Indict, an organization that has gathered evidence of Saddam's crimes, with an eye toward an eventual trial.

Since the invasion of Iraq (which he says he did not support) Mallat has sharply criticized the American effort while energetically encouraging its goals. He remains supportive of Chalabi, favors the Wolfowitz faction in the Defense Department, and is a respected advocate of liberalization and the rule of law throughout the Middle East.

reason: You argued just before the interim government was named that the Iraqi Governing Council should have been kept in place. What do you think of the interim government as it now stands?

Chibli Mallat: The Iraqi Governing Council (and the government) was a remarkable group, which included practically all the central historic leaders of the opposition. Three of its members have been killed, and everyone was maligning them while preventing them of moving forward. (One doesn't get far with a salary of $1,500 each and a budget which needed Bremer's signature for each item.) Instead of keeping that delicate balance, the UN Secretariat tried to get back into Iraq (with the US government's war-losing factions backing them—essentially [Secretary of State Colin] Powell and to some extent [National Security Advisor Condoleezza] Rice, through Robert Blackwill) by undermining the IGC with UN preeminence.

One can see it still in the current draft resolution giving "a leading role to the UN envoy." Brahimi tried to send most of the IGC home and get his man (Adnana Pachachi) in as president of Iraq. They resisted, and now we have a second-tier group, with even less legitimacy than the previous one, and without Pachachi. So everyone got severely mauled, and this is exactly what I wanted to prevent by preserving the IGC—which wasn't perfect, but hard to improve upon.

reason: How stable is the interim government?

Mallat: One has to support it critically, that is make sure that the tendency of some of its members to get brutal is under check. Unfortunately the previous liberal counterweights in the Council (Chalabi, Pachachi, Bahr al-Ulum, and many others) are out, and the two Kurdish leaders are also not on it. Still, one should support it with a view to a change that comes through some political process of representation. But it is certainly going to be less stable than the Governing Council.

reason: You've been making the case for a human rights monitoring system in Iraq, but you've also been very critical of the U.N.'s role in the country. Is there any human rights regime that would have any real power of enforcement in Iraq?

Mallat: Human rights monitors are the only way one can come up with to offer the beginning of a rule of law. The rest, which the UN likes to focus upon, is superfetatory. Today in Iraq, killing takes place without the possibility of the families of the victim getting any justice. One cannot even report a killing. With human rights monitors, at least those killings, including the dozens of former Ba'athists who simply get gunned down in the streets, are not completely ignored. The killer would at least know that there may be retribution eventually. Also, with human rights monitors, you could not have Abu Ghraib going on for months without any international reporting. Human rights monitors are a beginning; the rest will develop through a police force, the courts, etc.

reason: In a recent column, Fareed Zakaria says one hopeful omen in Iraq is that: "radical 'de-Ba'athification,' the pet project of the Pentagon and Ahmed Chalabi, has been overturned. The army that was disbanded is being slowly recreated." Now Prime Minister Iyad Allawi says, "Mistakes, big mistakes, were made, including dissolving the army, police services and internal security forces." Is de-Ba'athification really finished? If so why are so many people clucking that what would seem to be a laudable activity is being abandoned?

Mallat: De-Ba'athification is absolutely normal. It simply does not make sense to have people from Saddam's regime holding positions of power. (And the measures are modest; the law goes down three rungs.) I was however against sending the army home, precisely because anyone who knows Iraq realizes that the 400,000 conscripts were not the ones who did the nasty work; only a small group did. In the case of the de-Ba'athification policy, two elements were missing: a chance for individual Ba'athists who suggest they just carried the card to make their case publicly, and a more determined policy—again human rights monitors would have helped—to offer protection to those people who feared for their lives, and some retribution to their assassins. But it is simply not normal to have characters high up in the former system continuing to wield power.

reason: We've heard a lot about how Allawi's willingness to be critical of the U.S. is a good sign, suggesting that the interim government has a degree of independence. Is there anything to that?

Mallat: Allawi was part of the IGC, and everyone there was critical to some extent. This will continue.

reason: How much credence should we put in interim government Kremlinology, where somebody assesses how healthy the government is based on comments like Allawi's above, or on what Ayatollah Sistani is saying about the government on a given day?

Mallat: The government will be unstable for the reasons mentioned above. But they will have a window of opportunity. Hopefully they will manage to use it well.

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