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Los Angeles Times Interview

Ahmad Chalabi

Leading the Opposition to Saddam Hussein--Inside Iraq

September 22, 1996|Robin Wright | Robin Wright, author of "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam" (Touchstone Books/Simon & Shuster), covers global issues for The Times

WASHINGTON — Ahmad Chalabi may have the most unenviable job in the Middle East, maybe even the world. For the last four years, he has headed the fractious opposition assembled in the Iraqi National Congress, the first group to openly challenge President Saddam Hussein from inside Iraq. The job has often required as much time holding disparate and disjointed groups together as challenging one of the world's most ruthless dictators.

A big man with a big voice and even bigger ideas, Chalabi originally succeeded through sheer force of personality, say allies and friends. For more than a year after fighting broke out in 1994, he was the central figure in repeated cease-fire negotiations to end clashes between Kurdish factions, whose rivalries date back centuries. "No other Iraqi in our movement could have pulled it off," said a senior Kurdish official in one of the sparring parties.

The INC was formed after Baghdad brutally quashed simultaneous rebellions by Shi'ite Muslims in the south and Kurdish rebels in the north, just days after the 1991 Gulf War. Chalabi blames the United States for the defeat.

When negotiating the cease fire, U.S. officials did not restrict the movement of Iraq's tanks, artillery or helicopter gunships--a standard practice after a conflict. Those were the weapons Hussein then turned on his own people.

The Bush Administration's decision not to help the uprisings grew out of concern about the fragmentation of Iraq into three ethnic-based parts--which could have serious spillover consequences on Iraq's neighbors. Chalabi charges that should never have been an issue. "The INC charter calls for the territorial integrity of Iraq and all the groups have signed it," he says, "No one wants to see the breakup of our country."

Ironically, Chalabi has spent most of his life outside Iraq. He left the family home in Baghdad to study abroad in 1966; his family, influential in the Iraqi government for three generations, had fled in 1969, after the Baath Party seized power.

Chalabi personifies the modern Arab, that unusual mixture of West and Orient. A small Koran, bound in green leather, sits on the coffee table, atop a cable guide and an elegant book on the architect Le Corbusier in the Art Deco living room of his Washington home. His resume includes a B.A. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Chicago. One daughter just started Harvard graduate school in history; the other is at the London School of Economics. But the family identity is firmly centered on their Shi'ite Muslim faith.

Over the past four years, Chalabi has commuted between London, now his family's main home and where his two sons are studying, and the rugged mountains of northern Iraq, where he set up an office just 200 miles from Baghdad.

Chalabi is not without controversy. After years of teaching at the American University of Beirut, in the late 1970s he was invited by Jordan's crown prince to head Petra Bank, which became one of the country's largest financial institutions. In the late 1980s, however, he was fired by military decree and then convicted, in absentia, of fraud, embezzlement and illicit transactions totaling $25 million, for which he was sentenced to 22 years in jail. Chalabi claims he was the victim of Jordan's then ties with Baghdad--and his passing of information on Jordan's sanctions-busting business with Iraq. Since the INC was formed, he has met twice with King Hussein in Europe.

He also refuses to answer questions on widely reported CIA subsidies for the INC, which is one of two opposition movements backed by the United States. The other, the Iraqi National Accord, a predominantly Sunni Muslim group of former military officers, was behind a foiled coup attempt this summer.

Despite the massive defeat of the Iraqi opposition this month, however, Chalabi claims the INC is still alive and struggling to oust Saddam Hussein.

*

Question: With the odds always against it, did the new Iraqi opposition ever really make much of an impact?

Answer: The Iraqi opposition had a very important opportunity after the West set up "Operation Provide Comfort" and the safe haven in northern Iraq. For the first time since Saddam took power [in 1979], or since the Baath Party came to power [in 1968], a united opposition of all strands of Iraqi thought--from leftists to Islamists and liberal democrats--and from all ethnic communities --Assyrians, Shi'a, Sunni, Turkomans and Christians--met and adopted a single program. It called for the overthrow of dictatorship, adoption of a pluralistic, parliamentary system of government, and respect for human rights.

This took place in Iraqi Kurdistan in October 1992, and it was a landmark event in Iraqi history. It was a remarkable and exhilarating time. It brought together groups that had been irreconcilable.

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