Questions for Ahmed Chalabi

Editor's note: Ahmed Chalabi is either a consequential figure of opaque, backstage talents, or he has an uncanny ability to the ride the momentum of enormously consequential events-placing himself at the right place, at the right time, among the right people to his overwhelming benefit. In an interview with National Interest online editor, Ximena Ortiz, Chalabi pointed to two events he sees positively: Washington's announced willingness to participate in a regional conference, which will include Iran and Syria, and the recent restraint of Sadrists in the face of repeated provocation by Sunni death squads. Chalabi strongly suggested he played a role in helping to stay the hand of the Sadrists, which points to another of Chalabi's seemingly oxymoronic relationship-with Moqtada Sadr. His functional ties go beyond Shi‘a officialdom in Baghdad, reaching unofficial Shi‘a powerbrokers. Despite what Chalabi himself acknowledges as his association with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he maintains close ties with one of the most fervent opponents of that the U.S. presence in Iraq: Sadr.

Once regarded as a pawn of American neoconservatives, Chalabi now maintains a close relationship with that group's most loathed entity: the Iranian regime. That tie may have been aided by Chalabi's most visible break with Washington, which he concedes has strengthened his credibility with Iraqis. He said he is no longer seen as a guardian of Washington's interests, but rather of "an Iraqi agenda."

Regardless of just whose agenda Chalabi promotes, one thing remains clear: he is nobody's pawn-not in the long-term, at least. Chalabi has recently been awarded an important new position within Iraq's Maliki government that could affect President Bush's latest "surge" plan for Iraq. He is now tasked-given his leadership of the new "popular committee for mobilizing the people"-to build or maintain support for the ramped up security regime by ensuring that the Iraqi people are compensated for any damage or fallout resulting from more aggressive security.

NIo: Some have called you a polarizing figure, one that has strong associations with certain parties, such as Iran, the Iraqi Shi‘a and, once upon a time, American neoconservatives and Bush Administration officials. You are now in a position geared towards fostering broad support, across all religious and ethnic groups, for ramped up security in Iraq, especially Baghdad.

To what degree will your efforts now be consumed with overcoming others' preconceptions regarding your sympathies and associations?

AC: The description you give of polarization and various associations-that is a concept that exists in the media in the United States and elsewhere in the Arab world. However, this is certainly not the case in Iraq. People do not perceive barriers in this way, and it is not even a subject for discussion at the popular level. It is a non-issue in Iraq, basically.

The point is that people here need to see that they are supported. That their fear of the future-the lack of security, the lack of services, that both those issues are addressed.

NIo: You have recently returned from a trip to Syria, on behalf of the Maliki government. To what degree can Iraq find accommodation with both Syria and Iran, independent of what the United States may or may not do vis a vis those countries?

And could the regional players, including also Saudi Arabia and Turkey, potentially cooperate in terms of moderating sectarian tensions and preventing the flow of weapons and fighters into Iraq, should the United States not play a major, or even minor, role in such talks?

AC: [Tuesday] the United States announced that they are going to participate in meetings with Iran and Syria in Baghdad in the second week of March.

NIo: Right, but U.S. officials have been very circumspect about what the significance of that is. They've said they will participate, but they've been asked directly whether they will play a role in negotiating with both Iran and Syria, and they've not wanted to specify. Do you have a sense of whether they will be willing to be an active participant, or is it your view, and are you hearing, that U.S. officials will be more or less spectators there?

AC: U.S. officials without question represent the strongest force, both politically and military, in Iraq. Therefore, it is not serious to pursue their role as spectators. They will have a significant role to play, and I believe that by the mere factor of being present in the same conference room as the Syrians and the Iranians at this level in Baghdad is very significant. I mean, after all, we tried very hard to get this meeting going last year, almost one year ago. It almost happened then. But then it was foiled at the last minute. One year later, they are back to the same situation, except now it is a multilateral thing-with the U.S. and Iran to sit in the same conference room.

NIo: So do you think that this represents an evolution in Washington's foreign-policy thinking, the fact that they are willing to be present?

AC: Clearly. They have established that confrontation with Iran is counterproductive and will complicate the path of the Iraqi government in establishing security in the country.

NIo: Do you feel that these regional players could reach an accommodation amongst themselves, regardless of what the U.S. role ends up being?