Chalabi Says Ayatollah Sistani Is the Key To Stopping the Surge of Violence in Iraq

April 9, 2004

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Ahmad Chalabi, head of the U.S.-backed Iraqi National Congress and a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, says the council is working behind the scenes to stop the recent clashes between insurgents and coalition forces. The key, he says, is the fatwa issued by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urging an end to lawlessness in Najaf and other Shiite cities taken over by militias loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. “Governing council members have been very active for the past three days and are trying to resolve the situation in such a way that we uphold the rule of law in Iraq, and at the same time resolve this without further bloodshed,” he says.

Chalabi, a secular Iraqi Shiite with British citizenship, says the council members were disappointed by the poor performance of the Iraqi police, many of whom fled when violence first erupted. He says procedures to recruit and train members of the police force must be re-evaluated.

He was interviewed from Baghdad via telephone by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on April 8, 2004.


There’s been a lot of publicity about the fighting in Falluja and in the south, but what is going on in Baghdad and the Iraqi Governing Council? Are you working on, the build-up to the June 30 transition?

No. We’re working now on how to stop the fighting, provide relief to civilians, uphold the rule of law, and also take stock of the security apparatus of the Iraqi government and move forward, learning the lessons from the recent fighting.

Describe the fighting going on.

There are two kinds of fighting going on. There is a sustained effort by the coalition forces in the Falluja area to systematically and rigorously find the criminals who killed and burned the U.S. contractors [on March 31], and also to disarm the terrorists that are found in Falluja. [The interview occurred about 12 hours before a temporary halt in the fighting in Falluja was announced April 9]. That is being conducted systematically and with the cooperation of the Iraqi 36th battalion of the ICDC [Iraqi Civil Defense Corps], which has demonstrated its capability and its courage in the current crisis.

And they’re in Falluja?

They’re in Falluja now.

They’re fighting together with the U.S. Marines?

Yes.

Have you had recent reports of progress in Falluja?

That operation is in its second phase, which is to methodically search for the criminals and disarm the terrorists. There is a great deal of suffering, and we spent a lot of time today to try to put together plans to provide humanitarian and medical aid to the people of Falluja, and we are cooperating with the coalition to achieve this. And we are urging extreme caution to spare the lives of innocent people in Falluja. That is one kind of operation.

In the south, we have seen small-scale action in several cities involving tens [of fighters]--at most a few hundred— at various places. What has happened is that the Iraqi police who were recruited and trained by the coalition and trained in Jordan and other places have mostly disappeared or surrendered or joined the people who have taken over their stations. There has been very little opposition to the action of the armed people who attacked. Also, there are very few U.S. forces in the south. There are Ukrainians, Poles, Spanish, and Salvadorans. They have not done much fighting, except for the Salvadorans and, to some extent, the Ukrainians. The Italians fought in the city of Nasiriya. The situation is quiet there. The British in Basra and Amara had some fighting there, but the situation was restored with the efforts of the local leaders. The most serious situation in the south is in Najaf, which is a critical city. It’s not an ordinary city, it’s a holy city. It’s much like the Vatican to the Shiites.

There, the number of people fighting is a few hundred, although the police did not respond to the fighting. In the clashes, the Salvadorans lost four soldiers and a U.S. colonel was lost also. The Spanish garrison there, which is about 1,200 strong, has not engaged in any offensive action. It came under fire. The people in Najaf supporting Muqtada al-Sadr are mostly not from Najaf, they are mostly from a district in Baghdad where they have some support. There are hundreds of them. They are not in the thousands. And we have some reports today that some fundamentalist Sunnis, who came from Falluja to Najaf, have escalated the tension in the city.

Were you disappointed with the way the Iraqi police ran away?

Everybody is disappointed. The coalition is disappointed, everyone is disappointed. It was not a surprise that the police would behave in this way. Not all the police ran away. Some did not, but we must make a re-evaluation of the way the police have been recruited, how they’ve been trained, and their morale.

We must do better, it is important to do better, because this has been a serious wake-up call in preparation for the handover of sovereignty on June 30. And I believe that all Iraqis who were opposed to Saddam, opposed to terror, who fought Saddam for a long time, who are on the governing council, must be involved more vigorously in the entire security setup, from the recruitment to the training. This is a way forward to dissolving the militias by integrating them into the armed forces of Iraq.

There are news reports that the minister of the interior has been fired.

The minister of the interior resigned today. He came to visit the current president of the council, Masoud Barzani, and informed him that he is submitting his resignation.

Is this because of the behavior of the police?

This has been in the cards for some time. There has been some dissatisfaction with the performance of the police and the general security apparatus of the country, and the minister of interior is responsible for the police. The important thing that happened yesterday was the fatwa by Grand Ayatollah [Ali al-] Sistani. As usual, it is short, succinct, and very much to the point. He starts by deploring the message sent by the coalition in its handling of events. Then he goes on to strongly condemn acts of lawlessness in the cities of Iraq and condemns the taking over of police stations and the preventing of Iraqi civil servants from doing their duty in the service of the people. Then he calls on all political and social forces that are active in the country to take it upon themselves to end the tragedy forthwith.

This is very important, and many of the political leaders have met and we support this fatwa. I myself am ready to help restore the situation in Najaf to normal and to do this first by peaceful means and to persuade those people who are carrying guns in the city that this is a holy city and it must be made free for people to come and do their religious duty and [make a] pilgrimage to the city. There is a strong response to Ayatollah Sistani’s call, and it has received widespread support in Iraq.

That has not gotten much publicity in the United States. It was reported that he opposed the use of force by the United States.

He did not say, “I oppose the use of force” at all. He said he deplores “the methods by the coalition in dealing with the current events.” That’s the text. You see, the fatwas of Sistani and all grand ayatollahs in the past are very well-formulated and succinct and very much to the point.

Are there discussions going on in Najaf between people close to Sadr and Sistani?

There are several efforts. Governing council members have been very active for the past three days and are trying to resolve the situation in such a way that we uphold the rule of law in Iraq, and at the same time resolve this without further bloodshed. There has been progress on this front, and they expect more progress tomorrow, and we have been very active in dealing with this situation, but we have kept a low profile because it was believed that it was more important to get results and to talk about the details as that process goes on.

Have you asked the U.S. authorities to refrain from mounting an offensive against the towns in the south?

Najaf is a special place. We have told the U.S. authorities that it would be a great tragedy if there were a large-scale armed attack on the city of Najaf, and that it would take us decades to live this down, and that the situation would go to an entirely different level of tension. What is really happening is that Najaf is being held hostage by a few hundred armed people from outside the city. We believe the rule of law must be upheld, and that court orders must be obeyed, but we also believe that this can be done without escalating further, and we are ready to follow the lead of Ayatollah Sistani.

We have talked to the U.S. [authorities], and their position has been firm in saying that the rule of law must be upheld, and charges must be answered in the Ayatollah Sayyed Abdul Majid al-Khoei murder case. [Coalition authorities arrested a Sadr associate and issued a warrant for Sadr in connection with the April 2003 killing in Najaf of Khoei, a Western-leaning cleric.] We think that this situation can be developed in such a way as to satisfy both criteria. But we have not heard definitively of a change in the U.S. position at this time on this issue.

There are a lot of pilgrims in Najaf now, for the Arbaeen observance?

The pilgrims are mostly going to Karbala. Millions will come. People are walking hundreds of kilometers to go there.

And how long does this holiday last?

One day. Sunday.

So this gives you time to work out a deal over the weekend?

We are working very hard to achieve this. I cannot say with any certainty, cannot comment on the probabilities of the outcome, but we expect to resolve the situation.

Why do you think Sadr unleashed his Mahdi Army last week? Was it because coalition forces shut down the Shiite newspaper?

All these things are triggers. The issue is, the mass of the Shiites in Iraq were hugely abused and repressed by Saddam. They have not seen any specific attention paid to them. There is discontent among them. They also hear about efforts to restore some high-level Baathists back into some form of authority. There is a lot of talk about reconciliation. They don’t understand who is to be reconciled with whom. You keep hearing the cry: “Are the residents of the mass graves to be reconciled with their oppressors?” There are millions of those, and that’s causing discontent among these people.

They also feel that they are still dispossessed. We are trying to work out a way to satisfy them, give them hope that they can express themselves in the national elections. Also there was a feeling that they are uncertain of how firm the date is [for transferring sovereignty]. We are trying very hard to convince them that the way forward is to have sovereignty and have this transitional administrative law [Iraq’s interim constitution] apply. We have expressed reservations. But in our view, applying the law is the way to go forward toward elections and full sovereignty with an elected assembly which will draft a constitution.

And you’re still in favor of taking sovereignty on June 30?

It is imperative that Iraqis should have sovereignty on June 30. I think delaying this date is no good for anyone, neither for Iraq, nor for the United States, because that would compound the difficulties of the situation. Iraqis will be able to do well in restoring security and moving forward, provided there is a commitment for a great deal of security assistance from the United States. We look forward to a security agreement with the United States to achieve this.

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