London, Asharq Al-Awsat- It might be rare to find an Iraqi politician who is optimistic about the current situation in Iraq, or who can see a bright and clear future for the country despite what is taking place.
Such an Iraqi politician is Dr Ahmad al-Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress [INC], who today sits on the “reserve” seats in the political “Derby” of his country, if we can use such a “sports term” in this context. He sits among the reserve despite the fact that he was the “black horse” on which the United States wagered, and he was the most prominent of those who defended and consecrated the Iraq Liberation Act [by the US Congress in 1998]. Al-Chalabi explains his current situation by saying:” Along history, the process of political change has not necessarily meant that those carrying out the change are the ones who will shoulder the responsibility after implementing the change.” Nevertheless, he is optimistic.
Al-Chalabi revealed to Asharq al-Awsat in a lengthy interview conducted in his apartment in Central London that the leaders of the opposition decided immediately after the removal of the Saddam Hussein Regime to form an interim Iraqi Government, but the US Administration strongly rejected that, and appointed Paul Bremer an absolute ruler. Al-Chalabi objected to the issue of the sectarian quotas in Iraq, despite the fact that he was the first one to establish the “Shiite household”; he said: “It has been proved that the sectarian quotas and divisions are futile in governing Iraq.” He called for forming a government for all Iraqis that would defend them everywhere at home and abroad. Al-Chalabi pointed out: “The last elections were merely a sectarian referendum; the Shiites elected Shiites, and the Sunnis elected Sunnis.”
Al-Chalabi said that the US Administration had failed at the security and political levels, despite the statements to the contrary from the White House.
The interview with Al-Chalabi, who is enthusiastic for Debathification, is characterized by unconventional replies. What distinguishes it more is Al-Chalabi’s keenness to list the accurate figures and statistics, especially with regard to the Iraqi oil and economy. Al-Chalabi is optimistic about resolving the Iraqi situation through the abilities of the Iraqis. This optimism of his explains why he keeps smiling despite the difficult conditions in which the country lives.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you see the situation in Iraq today?
[Al-Chalabi] I am optimistic about the situation in Iraq. This is because the plan to impose the law has achieved good results. The sectarian fighting has been reduced, and also Muqtada al-Sadr’s invitation to the Al-Mahdi Army not to appear for six months has helped in calming down the situation. Since the beginning of the implementation of the plan to impose the law, we have worked to achieve an agreement among the Al-Sadr tendency, the Iraqi forces, and the multi-national forces in order to calm down the situation in the Al-Sadr City; however, the agreement was not achieved because of the death of one of its engineers, namely Col Muhammad al-Furayji. Now, I consider Al-Sadr’s invitation to be positive. Moreover, the reaction in the western regions against Al-Qaeda, and the tendency to confront that organization are an important factor in reducing the proportion of political terrorism in Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you look at the political process with the same optimism?
[Al-Chalabi] In the political situation, the picture seems foggier. There are different opinions, and US expectations that clash with the Iraqi reality; this is what arouses clamor and causes problems in political action. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is trying relentlessly to establish political agreement, and he has been working in this direction with the other sides. Al-Maliki has shown flexibility in dealing with the presidential establishment (the president and his two vice presidents) with regard to the issue of listening to their opinions about the state administration; this strengthens the political process, and allows the presidential establishment, which has political and moral weight in Iraq, a scope to participate indecision making.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the government’s performance?
[Al-Chalabi] There is a problem in the issue of the government performance. There are withdrawals and resignations from the Council of Ministers. This casts negative political shadows on the government performance. The important issue is the government performance, and this depends on the security situation. The administrative performance is below par. The prime minister has accepted the sectarian quota system, while he is trying to make his government effective and capable; this clashes with the current reality. Yes, the performance is weak, and the state needs a large budget despite the fact that there is weakness in spending, but this leads us to the need to establish cohesion among all the state institutions in order to improve the performance.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the dire services offered to its citizen, such as electricity and the scarcity of fuel?
[Al-Chalabi] Let me mention for example the electricity minister, who exerts huge efforts to repair and rebuild the power stations, and to make them capable of producing 6,000 megawatts of electricity every day. However, Baghdad is deprived of electric power because the terrorists blew up the high-voltage lines. The electricity minister cannot undertake military operations to protect the high-voltage lines; this is the duty of the Iraqi and the multi-national forces.
There is another issue that is related to electricity, namely the fuel required by the power stations; it is difficult to transport this fuel to the power stations. Therefore, however successful the electricity minister, for instance, might be, the citizen cannot see this success, because the Iraqi citizen wants the electric current to reach his home, and this is his criterion of success.
The other service issue is that of the fuel. Iraq needs 22million liters of gasoline, and the same amount of gas oil, but the production of the refineries is unstable. There are three main refineries in Iraq, which are the Biji refinery, the Al-Durah refinery, and the Basra refinery. The Biji refinery needs 280,000 barrels of crude oil every day, and Al-Durah and Basra refineries need 90,000 barrels each; the pipes that convey crude oil to these refineries are frequently blown up, so are the tankers that transport crude oil to these refineries, even the groups responsible for protecting these pipelines have been behind blowing up and obstructing the work of these pipes and the transport of crude oil. The production of Biji refinery does not reach Baghdad because of what I mentioned of the blowing up of the pipelines and tankers. The production of Al-Durah refinery is very limited. There is a strategic pipeline that links Basra and Haditha city to transport oil to the Mediterranean Sea, but this pipeline is broken down. There are three pipelines to transport oil from Basra to Baghdad, but two of them are broken down. The amount of crude oil that reaches the Al-Durah refinery is between 50,000 and 60,000 barrels everyday, i.e. less than 60 percent of the amount required for the capacity of the refinery. This means that Iraq needs to import 10 million liters of gasoline every day; when stable security is achieved, this figure will rise to 20million liters. The only land borders across which we receive oil are the borders with Iran.
I would like to explain the fact that there are plans, pressure, and actions by the terrorists and the Saddamists to put Baghdad under siege, and to prevent fuel and electricity from reaching it. These plans have started in 2003 with the beginning of the terrorist and Saddamist action against the new situation in Iraq. This situation increases the tension and the crisis in Baghdad; the population of the capital suffered during this summer, and still suffer from the power cuts and the interruption of fresh water supplied to their homes, despite the efforts of the capital secretary to convey fresh water to the population in Al-Karkh, which was interrupted as a result of problems in the coordination between the secretariat and the electricity authority.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why didn’t you import oil from Kuwait or Saudi Arabia?
[Al-Chalabi] With regard to Kuwait, there is an insignificant financial problem that will be resolved, and that problem has delayed our agreement with them to import fuel. The road is blocked to importing or exporting oil via Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where is Ahmad al-Chalabi in the political situation today? When you were in the opposition, you worked relentlessly in support of the Iraq Liberation Act, and defended it. Today, you are outside the government and the parliament?
[Al-Chalabi] I am in Iraq. Along history, the process of political change has not necessarily meant that those carrying out the change are the ones who will shoulder the responsibility after implementing the change. There is a price for political change in Iraq that has been paid by those who carried out this change. Even the US officials have been involved in debates and have exchanged accusations over the stage of change in Iraq, the last of which was the debate between President Bush and Ambassador Bremer over the issue of dismantling the Iraqi Army. Dick Cheney said it explicitly: We were wrong not to pay attention to the INC opinion with regard to the formation of a sovereign interim Iraqi Government recognized by the world during the stage of change.
In the Salah-al-Din conference in February 2003, before the change of the regime in Iraq, we decided to form a sovereign interim Iraqi Government that would be recognized, and that would be a party to the process of liberating Iraq. The US Administration sent its Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to Salah-al-Din with strict instructions to prevent the formation of such government. While we were committed to form this government, we confronted US insistence on not dealing with it; faced with the huge US military forces and US political weight on the international arena, we acquiesced. This is the reason we formed the political command. Less than one month after the entry of the US forces in Iraq, in the first week of May, in a meeting in Baghdad that included the leaders of the opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad announced that the idea of forming a sovereign interim Iraqi Government was a sound idea. Zalmay Khalilzad went to Washington to discuss this idea with the US Administration, but he was surprised by the appointment of Bremer as absolute ruler of Iraq, and that his [Zalmay Khalilzad’s] role in Iraq was terminated. As a confirmation of this, I wrote an article that was published in a US newspaper on 19 February 2003, i.e. before the war, in which I explicitly called for the formation of an interim Iraqi Government, and warned against the results of declaring Iraq an occupied country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But you were one of the most prominent people who pushed for the issue of the Iraqi Liberation Act, which is considered one of the most prominent reasons of the war?
[Al-Chalabi] Our political work in the opposition and as INC did not push in the direction of war and of getting US forces in Iraq; we were calling for the support of the opposition efforts to topple Saddam Hussein. This is the meaning of the Iraq Liberation Act, which did not talk about getting US forces to change the regime. We did not call for waging a war against Iraq; we were calling for offering US aid to the Iraqi people so that they undertake the change process. However, our voice was wasted in the midst of the US political conflicts, and thus the war and the occupation created the largest historical problem.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who is responsible for the Debathification Law?
[Al-Chalabi] There was a need to confront the Baath Party, and thus we proposed the idea of Debathification according to specific control since we were in opposition and before the London conference in 2002. There were three aims for Debathification: preventing the Baathists from containing and controlling power again in Iraq, avoiding what happened in the March 1991uprising when they said that the uprising carried out random vengeance operations against the Baathists, and the third aim was that we wanted to isolate the overwhelming majority of the Baathists from the Baath Party as apolitical organization in order that the majority would return to normal life and would play its role in the new regime and in destroying the Baath organizations. I believe that we succeeded to a large extent in achieving these aims, as we excluded many Baathists from the revenge campaigns, and a majority of them returned to work in the state departments. The number of the Baathists was 1,200,000, I mean the active members of the party, 32,000 of them asked for retirements and their requests were approved, 15,000 asked to be excluded from the Debathification Law and their requests also were approved, and 14,000 of the party’s division members (a division member is a very senior rank in the Baath Party) did not contact the Debathification authority. In March 2000 the Debathification authority proposed a plan specifying that a Baath branch member (Baath Party organizational rank below the division member) can either retire or return to his job following the approval of the Debathification authority and the referral of his application to the Council of Ministers. Those who have remained among the people included in the decisions of the Debathification authority are 1,500 members, but if the latest amendment is approved, they can contact the authority. All this will prevent the Baath Party’s return to power.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In the light of the current situation, what is your political program?
[Al-Chalabi] Any political process or program has to be implemented under the auspices of the constitution and the law. Even the amendments of the constitution and the amendments of the issues to which there are constitutional objections ought to be carried out according to the constitution itself. It has been proved that the sectarian quotas and divisions are futile in governing Iraq. The first Unified Iraqi Coalition List was necessary for the approval of the Constitution, and the (Shiite) religious authority played an important role in the process of approving the Constitution. The Constitution is for protecting the Iraqis without discrimination, and the field is open for political action not on a sectarian basis, but on the basis of political programs and projects. The elections that took place were not elections; they were sectarian referenda, the Shiites elected Shiites and the Sunnis elected Sunnis. As for the political program for which we work, it is based on forming political blocs according to an Iraqi national program, and not according to tribal or sectarian bases; on drawing up a clear plan for the administration of the state; and on focusing on economic plans that provide job opportunities for hundreds of thousands of unemployed. There is a program for the Real Estate Development Corporation, which is financed by the state with a huge capital, and for contractors from the private sector to build thousands of housing units on land belonging to the state outside the cities, which will be sold to the citizens by easy-term loans. This will resolve the housing problem, activate the economy, help in putting an end to unemployment, and encourage investment.
In the field of oil, Iraq is capable of producing and exporting 4 million barrels of oil every day, and if we invested 150 billion dollars to develop the oil projects over four years, Iraq could increase its production to 8 million barrels every day until the end of the current century. The Iraqi citizen ought to have direct monetary revenue from oil. Today, the Iraqi Government shoulders the burden of paying the salaries of more than 3,400,000active and retired employees, while the number of active and retired employees during the first year after the change of the regime was 1,900,000; this is because the employment opportunities outside the government service are limited.
As for the security issue, it should not be resolved by using force; it should be resolved through dialogue and understanding. The best example on this is that the sons of Al-Anbar have resisted terrorism on their own, and not through military campaigns. The Constitution ought to be adhered to, the laws ought to be implemented, and the judiciary and their independence ought to be consolidated.
This is a program over which many political sides can agree, and get away from the quota system.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But you were the first to establish the sectarian quota system, and you supported the sectarian tendency through your establishment of the Shiite household?
[Al-Chalabi] I established the Shiite household for the sake of the Constitution, to speed up the approval of the Constitution. I laid down the foundations for a Shiite bloc for the sake of the Constitution. Yes, a sectarian tendency has been established, but we gained the Constitution. This is an important issue, but it is possible to treat its negative results. For instance, I said that the elections that took place in Iraq were merely a sectarian referendum, and the government has the legitimacy, but it cannot perform. This is the result of the elections that were carried out on the basis of lists. Thus, the Iraqis have elected a list, but most of them do not know who they have elected. We call for amending the electoral law on the basis of individual lists [first past the post] as it is done in Britain, the United States, and in Iraq during the eras of the monarchy and of the Baath Party.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your assessment of the US’s performance in Iraq?
[Al-Chalabi] The US performance in Iraq is a failure. The United States has spent nearly 1,000 billion dollars in four years in Iraq, and then President Bush comes to praise the victories of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, whose power and resources cannot be compared at all to those of the US forces. The United States has not succeeded either militarily or politically in Iraq. The United States mostly issue slogans and promote laws, such as the oil law, and the discussion of the Debathification Law, and the elections. All these laws have not been placed on the agenda of the new session of the Council of Representatives. At the political level, the political failure of the US Administration continues, because it still acts in its own way, which could be summarized in fragmenting the situation, and which is a US characteristic. We would like the new US Ambassador Ryan Crocker to succeed in his mission. He is a realistic man and a skillful politician, and he understands the Iraqi situation better than the others. The United States cannot succeed on its own in resolving the problems of Iraq without seeking the help of the Iraqis themselves. For instance, consider the withdrawal of the British forces from Basra; it did not take place because of security problems in the governorate as it is claimed. To say that security problems will erupt when the multi-national forces withdraw is unrealistic. The Iraqis can reach an understanding among themselves, and it is wrong to form new armed groups away from the Iraqi Government, and it is not permissible to form new armed militias in Iraq. National reconciliation ought to be established, which is a necessity; however, this should not be done merely as slogans.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You say that the existence of armed militia is wrong, while you have been the first to support Muqtada al-Sadr, who is accused of murdering Abdul-Majid al-Khoei, is wanted by the law, and is the leader of the Al-Mahdi Army?
[Al-Chalabi] The Al-Mahdi Army was formed one year after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime as a reaction to the targeting of Muqtada al-Sadr. Moreover, accusing Muqtada al-Sadr of being criminally responsible for the death of Al-Khoei is not confirmed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] I was an eyewitness of the incident, and I know the details. The order to kill Al-Khoei was issued by Muqtada al-Sadr?
[Al-Chalabi] In the era of Bremer we reached a solution in which Muqtada al-Sadr agreed to an investigation by an Iraqi court after the state acquires its sovereignty. I asked Bremer: What is the price of arresting one person (meaning Muqtada al-Sadr) and how many lives will be wasted because of one person who is in Iraq? I am not saying a judicial investigation should be prevented, but I say that the political power to suspend the decision to arrest Muqtada al-Sadr for the sake of higher political interests does exist. However Bremer insisted on implementing the memorandum of arrest as a way of driving a wedge between the people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you see the future of Iraq?
[Al-Chalabi] The situation in Iraq is going to be “good.” The Iraqi people are intelligent, they understand their problems, they are capable of overtaking these problems, and they know what is good for them. Today, Iraq faces a grave problem, which is emigration, especially the emigration of brains and qualified people who are responsible for the reconstruction of Iraq. These qualified people should be brought back after providing them with protection. The government ought to protect and defend the Iraqis at home and abroad.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are those who talk about early elections; what is your opinion on this?
[Al-Chalabi] The idea of early elections is a reasonable one. This decision is up to the Iraqi Council of Representatives [the parliament]. However, is the Council of Representatives going to be up to the level of responsibility of dissolving itself and calling for early elections? The important thing is not to bypass the constitutional requirements.