The Magazine

The Government of Free Iraq

It's in London--for now.

Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By JED BABBIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


WHATEVER the U.N. semioticians find in Saddam's December 8 "disclosure," it won't be the truth. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said, we know Saddam has chemical and biological weapons, and is single-minded in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The December 8 report brings to an end the latest round of inspections, debates, and denials and makes military action inevitable. There is no reason to believe that our military will fail to remove Saddam if the president orders it. But it cannot shape the peace. That task--which is, heaven help us, for the diplomats--will be more complex for two reasons. First, the disunity of the many Iraqi ethnic groups makes formation of a new government difficult. Second, the gaggle of "allies" that refuse to send soldiers to fight will spare no effort to position their shopkeepers to profit from the results of our sacrifice.

Our military action is being planned to minimize damage to Iraq's economy. In the first few hours of the campaign, we will destroy Saddam's command and control assets, disrupting his ability to command what few troops may fight. Concentrations of airpower and special forces will aim to capture or destroy his Scud missile batteries and deployed weapons of mass destruction before they can be used. The war should succeed in a week or ten days, and end without the destruction of Iraq's oil production facilities. Afterward, the task of rebuilding Iraqi society will be enormous, given the damage Saddam has done and the possible competition among ethnic and religious groups.

The British report on Saddam's crimes and human rights abuses says that between 3 million and 4 million Iraqis--about 15 percent of the population--have fled. Millions, including about 30,000 well-armed Shiites in Iran, are waiting to return. When they do, they could force Iraq into a "confessional" government in which each ethnic or religious group is represented in proportion to its percentage of the population. The Kurds of northern Iraq could form a separate Kurdish state. Worst of all, Iraq could fall under a radical theocracy if Iran chooses to intervene.

Conservatives recoil at the Clintonoid concept of nation-building. But we can't fail the free Iraqis--and ourselves--by simply watching while the new government is formed. Moreover, as Turkish ambassador Dr. O. Faruk Logoglu told me, President Bush has promised Turkey that Iraq will not be partitioned. Our job is to ensure that free Iraqis choose democracy, not instability. This should not mean an open-ended American military presence or, worse yet, an American military government in Iraq.

The most likely person to be the next Iraqi leader is Ahmad Chalabi, president of the Iraqi National Congress. The INC is an umbrella group for the pro-American Iraqi opposition. Chalabi has been working for ten years, frequently at odds with our State Department, to unify the opposition and position himself to be the next president of Iraq. In the INC's London headquarters on Thanksgiving Day, Chalabi told me, "We broke politics open in Iraq, away from political oligarchs organizing themselves in secret meetings." He believes parliamentary democracy can succeed quickly in Iraq, and rejects the idea of a confessional government. He dismisses the idea of Iranian invasion or the possibility of a theocratic regime taking over. He points out that in 1979 there were about 63,000 mullahs preaching in Iraq. Today, there are fewer than 1,000, hardly the broad base a theocratic takeover would need to succeed.

Chalabi is quite open about his love-hate relationship with the Clinton White House and the State Department. He said, "We have fought Saddam, and then we were hit below the belt by the United States." He gave me a copy of a letter to him, dated August 4, 1993. It says, among other things, "I assure you that we will not turn our backs on the Kurds or the other Iraqi communities subjected to the repression of Saddam Hussein's regime." It's on the letterhead of the Vice President of the United States and signed by Al Gore. Three years later, when Saddam attacked the free Iraqis and Kurds in northern Iraq, the Clinton administration stood by while they were slaughtered.

Chalabi is only slightly less negative about the present State Department. "They want to treat me like an oligarch, and I am not one," he said. In Chalabi's view, the State Department doesn't understand that Iraq is not Afghanistan. Iraq's new government, he insists, can be a parliamentary democracy and need not suffer the disunity that the Afghans still do.