Ahmed Chalabi is president of the Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of groups both inside and outside of Iraq opposed to Saddam Hussein's government. Chalabi, who was born in Iraq and educated as a mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, was a banker in Jordan in the 1980s and lived in northern Iraq in the early 1990s, where he worked in opposition to Saddam's government. He now lives in London, where the INC is based. The INC has faced much criticism since its formation after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Many members of Congress have supported it and have even appropriated money for it in the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, a law that encouraged the use of Pentagon resources to train anti-Saddam guerrillas. Many Pentagon civilians back the INC, too. The State Department, however, has periodically cut off funding to the group and views it, and Chalabi, as unreliable and ineffectual. National Journal's Bruce Stokes interviewed Chalabi on July 6 in Berlin.
NJ: How soon could a U.S. attack on Iraq come? Chalabi: It's a function of what the U.S. wants to do and how they want to do it. If they want to have "Desert Storm Lite," which is 250,000 troops and 1,500 airplanes, then that will take
some considerable time, over six months, to assemble the troops, to get the weapons ready, to stockpile ammunition, to persuade various governments in the coalition to move forward, and so on. It's a logistical feat, especially this time when you don't have the land space and airspace of Saudi Arabia to work from feely.
The other possibility is to do a campaign that is not a classical military invasion. That will require less stockpiling, less deployment of troops, and will require more use of the Air Force in a novel way and more reliance on Iraqis who are prepared to fight Saddam. That could take a short time.
NJ: Why should the United States work with Iraqi opposition groups, including the Iraqi National Congress?
Chalabi: How one positions this war is extremely important. This war must not be viewed as a war between the United States and the Arabs. We see it as a war of national liberation. The Iraqi people have been fighting against this regime for three decades on and off with various intensity. And now the United States for its own purposes has decided to help the people win this war. In this way, Iraqis will participate in the liberation of their own country.
The people of Iraq are opposed to Saddam. They have demonstrated time and time again a very determined willingness to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of that goal of getting rid of this regime. This situation has had a major effect on the psyche of the Iraqi people. Every time they [took on the government], they felt the United States let them down. People say the United States is not popular in Iraq. The only reason is that it has not done enough to help the Iraqi people get rid of Saddam. If the United States now shows a serious determination to help the people of Iraq get rid of Saddam, then the popularity of the United States will soar.
NJ: What does the Iraqi National Congress need from the United States to be more effective?
Chalabi: We need training of light, mobile anti-tank units-not many, six battalions in the south and six battalions in the north-armed with advanced anti-tank missiles and other anti-tank weapons that are highly mobile in units that are effectively trained.
We also need to train maybe 5,000 military police. This would be an Iraqi force that trusts the Americans and is trusted by the American military, and that can be the nucleus of a police force in Iraq as the land war progresses. This is essential, because this force would be charged with keeping the peace in the cities and preventing random acts of vengeance against the regime that has a long history of repressing people.
We also need immediate training of an infrastructure of transitional justice: prosecutors and judges. We need to get some practice [and] learn how to draft emergency laws to deal with the immediate aftermath [of the invasion]. This is of vital importance at this time. And we need to be able to handle large-scale population movements in emergency conditions.
We have done some training under the Iraq Liberation Act. We tested this mainly in 2001 [when] we trained 164 people in various aspects of [military] activity. Our trainees performed extremely well. But we need a more extensive program. There is something called 11-Bravo, which is not done by the U.S. military but is based on a course of the U.S. military and is done by Defense Department contracting companies. They can take people who have never fought together and forge them into a mobile, highly effective battalion in 11 weeks. But [to this day] there is a [State Department] ban on lethal training for the INC.
NJ: Would the United States have to keep enough forces inside Iraq after an invasion to occupy Iraqi cities?
Chalabi: In 1991, without [U.S. forces] going into Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq, the government there completely collapsed. The security services ran away, there was no Baath Party, nothing-merely because American forces were nearby. Every city in the south fell away from Saddam's control in this way.
I don't think it's necessary or even advisable that U.S. forces should enter large cities, or that they should attack Baghdad for instance. There is no need for that. That would be bad for the United States and bad for Iraq. It would not be a good idea for United States troops to have checkpoints in the
NJ: How long might U.S. military forces have to remain in Iraq if they succeed in overthrowing Saddam?
Chalabi: Some U.S. forces will have to stay several years. But not large numbers of forces and not major deployments in major cities. But what the U.S. needs to do is provide a force which would give assurance to the various cities and community groups that things will not get out of hand as they build institutions for a new government and a new civil society.
NJ: Over the years, the U.S. government has expressed concern that were Saddam to fall, Iraq could fall apart and become a weak, possibly dismembered state with a destabilizing influence on the entire region. Could that happen?
Chalabi: It should not be a concern. No Iraqi-Arab, Kurd, Sunni, Shiite-has called for the dismemberment of Iraq. If foreign countries say that Iraq is going to be dismembered, this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the United States looks the other way and Turkey sends forces into northern Iraq and stays there, that is a de facto separation. And, after all, the Turks have gone into northern Cyprus and have been there for a long time. If Iranian forces go into some areas of Iraq and nobody says anything, they will stay there. They may want to have a client state. Iraqis do not want to dismember [the state], but they are powerless to stop it if powerful foreign countries want it to happen. It's up to the United States.
NJ: U.S. officials and some private experts have warned that the Iraqi National Congress is divided and weak and that it is not the Iraqi opposition group that Washington should bet on. What is your response to that?
Chalabi: We are a phenomenon in the Arab world that is unprecedented. We are an umbrella organization with a quasi-parliamentary organization. There are debates, differences, elections, coalitions built-people disagree. It's all in the press. [As a result,] a lot of the time the American media reports dissension and opposition. That is because we are an open book. I think that is a very healthy thing that people should see what is going on. And we resolve differences and move forward.
Most of the difficulties within the INC are because of differences in the U.S. government. Various people in the U.S. government have better relationships with people in the INC than others. And some of them go so far as to try to divide or push for a point of view that is not acceptable generally; then you get dissension and they will turn around and say, "See, there is dissension."
Some people in Washington think that I am a loose cannon who is going to drag the United States into an unplanned war with Saddam and that I should not be permitted to do that. That's a very unfair characterization. We are in a hurry. We are under pressure every day to keep a coalition of forces together, to give hope to people inside the country, and to work to remove Saddam. Now, you cannot keep people united on nothing. They have to have some action to make them believe that there is movement.
We need immediately for the various U.S. government agencies to bring together the significant members of the [anti-Saddam] coalition, who are all members of the INC, and tell them: "This is what we are going to do. If you want to participate in the liberation of your country, this is what you have to do." I assure you, immediately there will be unity, there will be a division of labor, and people will move with speed to be a part of this process.
Next we need the immediate start of training. And then we need discussion on the formation of a provisional government on Iraqi territory when military operations start, with the proviso that political leaders who are inside the country now will have the opportunity to immediately join this government and be part of the process of the liberation. That is what we need right away. The other parts will be details.