Pundits and reporters are being sold on the idea that Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader, is largely the creation of American neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz.
They miss the point. Chalabi is so prominent in discussions of Iraq’s future because for ten years he has been leading the central organization of Iraqis opposed to Saddam and the Baath regime. The Iraqi National Congress (INC) was founded by Chalabi in 1992 as an all-inclusive democratic opposition movement to remove Saddam and create a united federal government of laws in Iraq.
The INC is not a faction or special-interest group seeking to be anointed by the U.S.; it has from the beginning included within itself all the major political factions and ethnic and religious groups of Iraq.
It has no competitors in this role. Chalabi’s enemies insist that the INC is only an exile group. But that is misleading. The INC was based in northern Iraq from 1992 to 1996, where it demonstrated that an open organization and a free press could find homes in an Arab (and Kurdish) country. It went into exile only when the U.S. allowed Saddam to send 400 tanks and 40,000 of his best troops from Baghdad to attack the INC in northern Iraq.
Even when it was operating from London the INC wasn’t just an exile group. Despite Saddam’s iron grip on what happened in Iraq, the leaders of Iraqi clans and tribes and other traditional groupings maintained active contacts with their members outside. Thus, Sunni tribal leaders were effective participants in the Iraqi political process within the INC.
That is why much to the surprise of the State Department and CIA so many Sunni leaders support the INC.
Chalabi’s strength comes not from American neoconservatives, but from the widespread support he has among Iraqis not only Shia, but Sunni and Kurd and other minorities. Not only among exiles, but among Iraqis in Iraq who have maintained contacts with the exile community.
He has such a unique degree of Iraqi support, despite the strong and well-funded efforts of the State Department and the CIA to find and promote an alternative leadership, because Iraqis recognize his integrity, loyalty, and ability.
They see that he has spent a share of his fortune and given up a life of ease to fight for a free Iraq. They see that he has worked for an organization of all Iraqis, not for a personal faction or a particular religious or ideological group.
And Chalabi has a deep feeling for Iraqi and Arab politics and how to talk to Arab leaders based on family relationships that go back for generations of Baghdad politics. His reputation among Iraqis is based on Chalabi’s consistent support for a united Iraq, in its current borders, with a government of laws that protects the rights of all individuals, with leadership chosen by a free and open political process.
These are the principles not just of Chalabi as an individual; they are the agreed platform of the INC. These principles, which are exactly American principles too, have been agreed to by INC Assemblies from 1992 to as recently as December 2002.
Since returning to Iraq several months ago, well before the current war began, Chalabi and the other members of the INC leadership have been working to add Iraqis who stayed in the country to their leadership group which is now over 60 persons. They are the most representative Iraqis available now to speak for Iraqis to the American forces controlling the country.
While Chalabi has strong support among Iraqis inside and outside the country, he also has avid enemies who are deathly afraid of his leadership of Iraq. The Saudi royal family, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Syria’s Bashar Assad, and the leaders of Yemen, Sudan, and Libya are afraid of him not because he is a Shiite, but because he is a genuine Arab democrat as well as a sophisticated competent modern man who is also deeply Arab.
They are afraid that if a man like Chalabi heads one of the two main Arab countries, it demonstrates that Arab countries don’t have to be dictatorships, can have a free press, can respect minority rights and can govern in a way that actually fosters economic development.
All these Arab governments and their friends have been spreading slanders about Chalabi to the State Department and the CIA. Those agencies have come to see him as a destabilizing force in the region. And indeed Chalabi and the broad Iraqi movement he represents will be if they have their way, deeply destabilizing to tyrannical and closed systems that dominate the Arab world.
That’s just the kind of destabilization intended by President George W. Bush to make the world less friendly to terrorist organizations, and more capable of achieving peace.
— Max Singer is author of The Real World Order: Zones of Peace/Zones of Turmoil and is associated with the BESA Center of Bar-Ilan University and the Institute of Policy and Strategy of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. This was first written for the Jerusalem Post and is reprinted with permission.