As a leading voice among the Iraqi exiles who opposed Saddam Hussein's regime, Ahmad Chalabi was a channel for high-profile defectors who encouraged the U.S. invasion with their accounts of Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda. Eventually those tales were debunked, but Saddam was finished by then, and Chalabi flew home to help dismantle the dictatorship as head of the De-Baathification Commission, a post he still holds despite much criticism of his tenure. Along the way he has filled numerous other senior government positions, including oil minister and deputy prime minister. He recently spoke to NEWSWEEK's Lennox Samuels at his well-guarded Baghdad offices about his own controversial past and Iraq's post-occupation future. Excerpts:
What's your assessment of Iraq's current situation?
The sectarian situation is much improved. The main reasons are, first, the Sahwa [former Sunni insurgents now helping to fight against Al Qaeda]. General [David] Petraeus was successful in providing them with the focus around which first to shun and then defeat Al Qaeda. He came to the conclusion that it was cheaper to pay people than to shoot them. The second had a great deal to do with Iran, and that is the ceasefire of the Mahdi Army, which came about as a result of Iranian efforts in cooperation with the government of Iraq to persuade Moqtada al-Sadr to declare a ceasefire.
What we want to do is make these security gains lasting and permanent. We have in Iraq now about a million men under arms—that's the Army and police. We must improve our command and control and we must improve our armaments, weapons, and training, and we must improve the level of training of soldiers and officers. Above all, we must improve our intelligence capability. The battle against terrorism is not only a military fight but primarily a battle of information.
There's the issue of performance and competence and the ability to run the non-security side, and this has been less successful. There we are beset by three problems. First, competence; second, the issue of corruption; and third, the issue of party and clan loyalty.
Unfortunately, competence has played less of a role than it should in the choice of key administrators across the board. It was clouded in the American media by the notion that Baathists were excluded and that therefore there was lack of competence. This was patent nonsense, as the bulk of members of the Baath Party were never fired. And among the high-ranking Baathists, almost 90 percent of the people who requested exemptions were given exemptions and returned to their jobs. It became a canard for American congressmen, senators, various others in politics to flog this horse to make some political points.
What about the issue of corruption?
I can tell you with confidence that corruption in Iraq has reached several levels of magnitude higher than under the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority]. Now we have this issue of corruption in the Ministry of Trade, with the [former] minister arrested. [The former minister, Abdul Falah al-Sudani, has denied any wrongdoing and has been released on bail.] The fight against corruption is not bound to high-profile arrests and high-profile investigations. The fight against corruption is successful if you prevent corruption taking place in the first place.
How would you assess the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki?
On security, very good. On information collection, medium. On services, medium to low. On improving quality of life, medium to low.
Have you been surprised by Maliki's performance? He was supposed to be a transitional figure.
I knew Maliki for a long time. He served as my deputy in the De-Baathification Commission for three years. I knew him to be decisive and brave, so I'm not surprised by his performance on the security issues. And the whole situation was helped by the presence of a man like General Petraeus, who understood the background to the political situation and helped Maliki in confronting the security threat. I'm less impressed by the performance on services, the economy. To handle the economy and services in a country like Iraq requires delegation of authority and the choice of competent people. I think one of the main problems was "jobs for the boys"—jobs for people who are loyal. Loyalty gained precedence over competence.
What do you think of President Obama?
I'll tell you something: we're grateful to President Bush for helping us liberate our country from Saddam. But there were many mistakes made subsequently which muddied the waters, and we saw President Bush himself left [office] with the lowest ratings. However, President Obama came with a fresh start. First, he said Iraq is for the Iraqis to decide their future. Then he removed this egregious tension between the United States and Islam. His quotations from the Qur'an were brilliant. His message to Muslims and his frankness in stating the position of the United States were also very important. He did it in a way that did not offend Muslims or Arabs, without changing the basic stance of the United States. It was a speech of high political acumen.
What were the biggest mistakes the Bush administration made in Iraq?
First, occupation. That was the mother of all evils. No. 2 was the failure to improve the quality of life of Iraqis; and third, using Iraq as a base for fighting America's battles in the region. And fourth, not helping us to fight corruption. They protected their friends.
There are many who say you took a lot of money yourself.
It is false. There is nothing, no evidence that they can point to, any specific thing, any specific charge, any specific deal that I benefited from. We [the Iraqi National Congress] are the only political party in Iraq that doesn't benefit from government coffers.
Some say you made millions of dollars from your intermediary role.
Who? Which American company? Let them point out one thing. I deny this totally and I would say show me an example that happened. Nobody can. You see, I was chairman of the government's contracts screening. All government contracts came though there. No one can point to any contract that had problems. Here in Iraq, I expose major problems. It is easy to make a charge. None of that has been proven.
What happens with the Americans pulling out of the cities at the end of June?
There will be problems. But it is easier for us to have mistakes that we make than perfections that America imposes. There could be problems in some respects that Al Qaeda could use this opportunity to try and incite sectarian violence by bombing various places. There could be some transgressions against law and order by gangs.
But your point is, let Iraq deal with it?
Yes, there are very competent Iraqis.
Do you feel good about the abilities of the Iraqi Security Forces?
Yes, I feel quite good about it, but at the same time I definitely feel we need to improve command and control.
Who's behind the recent spate of deadly attacks and why?
It is Al Qaeda. What they hope to achieve is reigniting sectarian conflict in Iraq. That's the main reason. They commit heinous acts against the Shia, hoping that the Shia will do something against the Sunni. I would estimate now Al Qaeda in Iraq to be less than 600 people. But they can still do a lot of damage, as we witnessed in recent weeks of bombings and assassinations.
In the wake of the sectarian conflict, what are the prospects for a political solution among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds?
The Sunnis lost the battle of Baghdad, which they initiated. They lost it not because of the organizational abilities of the Shia but by sheer numbers of the Shia. That does not mean in any way that the Sunnis are excluded from Baghdad. They are part and parcel of the situation in Baghdad. The Shia know they won political power, but the mass of them are disappointed by the benefits that accrued to them in this win. They expected more. Some of the Sunni see the situation as reversed, which is a cause for tension. But yes, the Kurds and the Shia and Sunnis can live in Iraq and can integrate.
How crucial is American action regarding what happens next in Iraq?
Look, U.S. actions at this time will not be crucial to the outcome. They're important, but they're not crucial. What is crucial is our internal situation and our regional alliances. The American era in Iraq is coming to a slow end. The Iraqi and regional era in Iraq is increasing.
And Obama, can he shape the action?
In Iraq? No. But his actions toward the Islamic world are crucial. In that context his role is very important. But so far as specifically in Iraq, no, because American resources that are going to be expended in Iraq after they pull out will be little. You know the most important thing the Americans did for Iraq apart from liberating the country from Saddam was helping Iraq reduce its debt. The United States worked very hard to reduce 80 percent of Iraqi debt.
What does Iraq need from the U.S., going forward?
We need, first of all, support. We need the United States to fulfill its security agreement and pull out of Iraq militarily; the sooner the better. Because their presence in Iraq poisons the relationship between the two peoples, as any occupation would do. That was the major mistake of the Bush administration, when they decided to go for occupation rather than support the provisional government. We disagreed with that. We need continued American support for us as we move forward in our economic programs and services programs.
Many think of you as "the man who pushed America to war." How are you perceived now? What standing do you have to push initiatives?
See, this is outlandish. My answer is, it is an honor I do not claim and a rumor that I won't deny. It is so fantastic for people to believe that I could singlehandedly persuade the United States to deploy and to project its power and military force 7,000 miles away and spend hundreds of billions of dollars to do this. It [the idea of Chalabi as instigator] was pushed by the United States government, so much so that it became "common knowledge" now in Iraq, and people believe that I did this. Most of the people like it. Therefore, there is standing. There is the ability to maneuver and continue.