Governing Wisely

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

(Page 2 of 3)

reason: There have been complaints that Paul Bremer's management of Iraq created a situation that favored extremists over more responsible types. Is that a legitimate criticism, and if so how did Bremer create that situation?

Mallat: Bremer has been a poor choice. He knew nothing about Iraq, he came against the Pentagon (meaning that he could not carry out his orders easily), and he is of the Kissinger school which does not believe in democracy and is burdened the world over with the Chile precedent. Mostly, it was a shame to have a colonial type in power in Baghdad, and one who came to Iraq without having in any way struggled with the Iraqis against Saddam.

reason: American media are running Khrushchev-style denunciations of Ahmed Chalabi, but if Chalabi or his intelligence chief was involved in passing along secrets to Iran, that's not just propaganda: It's a pretty serious charge. Is there anything to this hubbub, or is it another fight in the familiar struggle between State and Defense?

Mallat: Who knows the murky world of intelligence? But this whole argument seems to me unreal, since Chalabi has been the greatest supporter of the US in Iraq. Still, the case should be investigated, and Chalabi has proposed to put the case before Congress. It seems to me a fair proposition, and I have just encouraged Aras Karim, against whom an arrest warrant was issued, to put his case before Congress too.

reason: What does the resignation of CIA Director George Tenet mean for the investigation of Chalabi?

Mallat: Senator Hillary Clinton says that Tenet's demise was Chalabi's doing. There is some truth to that, but my sense is also that Tenet went too far, with the president's and vice president's having to consult lawyers on intelligence matters sealing his fate.

reason: Michael Ledeen points out that it's hypocritical to be hounding Chalabi for his Iran ties when officials like Aziz al Hakim of SCIRI and Ibrahim Jaffari of the Dawa party are directly funded by Iran. And Andrew Cockburn notes that Iyad Allawi is just as guilty as Chalabi of providing shady WMD arguments—yet Allawi is now the prime minister and Chalabi is persona non grata. Why has Chalabi turned out to be vulnerable in a way these other guys haven't?

Mallat: Iraq is a kaleidoscope, a sort of Rashomon or Copenhagen. All these contradictions are real and bewildering, but my sense is that factionalism in Washington is at the center of the failed part of US policy. This ended up in a struggle to the death between Tenet and Chalabi, and various related internecine fights. Chalabi was supported by the vice president and the Pentagon civilian leaders, Allawi by Tenet, Pachachi by Powell and Annan. Instead of keeping them all together until some stability came to the country, it was war by all against all. This was simply not necessary.

reason: Even before the war, the conventional wisdom was that Chalabi had no popular standing in Iraq, and we continue to hear about opinion polls that show he's less popular than root canal. How accurate is this conventional wisdom?

Mallat: Before the war, one used to hear that no one in Iraq knew about Chalabi. As if Iraqis did not hear the BBC... After the war, it was "Chalabi is a thief," repeated with glee all over Iraq by Tenet and all the others who hated him.

One thing is certain: Ahmad is at the center of a unique controversy in the world; he and Iraq drive passion. Throw out his name in Washington, Paris and Beirut at a dinner table, and you can be certain the table goes up in flames. There should be less passion, regarding Chalabi or anyone else, and a return to to two basics: Without Chalabi—and only him amongst Iraqis,—Saddam would still be in power. That much I think is acknowledged, but the consequences are not acted upon in the US government.

By this I mean that once you take pride in having gotten rid of Saddam and allowed the possibility of freedom in Iraq, you do not fight the person who convinced you (as the US government, collectively) just because you've had setbacks in Iraq. Either you acknowledge openly that the war in Iraq was wrong, or you work for democracy in Iraq, and use everyone bent on it.

This is the second, more important element: Chalabi should not be the focus; a national unity government in Iraq should be, with human rights as a common, central concern of Iraqis and Americans. As for popular standing, in the midst of these shadow games and personal fights to the death, one can only be reserved about anyone boasting popularity or lack thereof.

reason: Another favorite claim of the so-called experts is that Chalabi is stronger now, because he gets to pose as an anti-American activist. What do you think of that?

Mallat: Maybe, but again, the US government is deeply split, and one must always deal with it critically, even with one's own like-minded colleagues on it. This is also true when dealing with Iraqis. I have my own unease with Chalabi's readiness to deal with Muqtada al-Sadr, because of Muqtada's role in the assassination of Khoei, his brutality towards Sistani, and his opposition to all attempts to bring normalcy to the country.

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