Pressure is mounting on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a less sectarian government or to resign. A representative of the influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for the creation of what he described as a new “effective” government. On Thursday, The New York Times revealed the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Robert Beecroft, and the State Department’s top official in Iraq, Brett McGurk, recently met with the controversial Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, who has been described as a potential candidate to replace al-Maliki. Chalabi is the former head of the Iraqi National Congress, a CIA-funded Iraqi exile group that strongly pushed for the 2003 U.S. invasion. The INC helped drum up pre-war claims that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and had links to al-Qaeda. The group provided bogus intelligence to the Bush administration, U.S. lawmakers and journalists. We are joined by Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor for Harper’s Magazine.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In other news from Iraq, pressure is mounting on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a less sectarian government or to resign. Earlier today, a representative of the influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for the creation of what he described as a new “effective” government.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, The New York Times revealed that the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Robert Beecroft, and the State Department’s top official in Iraq, Brett McGurk, recently met with the controversial Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, who has been described as a potential candidate to replace Maliki.
AMY GOODMAN: Chalabi is the former head of the Iraqi National Congress, a CIA-funded Iraqi exile group that strongly pushed for the 2003 U.S. invasion. Chalabi’s INC helped drum up pre-war claims that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and had links to al-Qaeda. The group provided bogus intelligence to the Bush administration, U.S. lawmakers, and journalists at The New York Times and other papers. After the invasion, Chalabi became chair of the Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification. Many blame his actions for politically isolating Iraq’s Sunni minority and causing sectarian strife.
Chalabi has defended his actions leading up to the invasion. In 2004, he told the London Telegraph, quote, “We are heroes in error. … As far as we’re concerned, we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone, and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important,” Chalabi said.
Well, to talk more about Ahmed Chalabi, we’re joined by Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor for Harper’s Magazine. His latest piece for Harper’s is headlined “The Long Shadow of a Neocon.”
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Andrew Cockburn. Talk about what you understand is happening in this battle right now over whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be—will be overthrown and what role Chalabi could play in this.
ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, my understanding is that the Americans have made it very clear in Baghdad that Maliki—they want Maliki to go, I mean, even to the point of saying—they were saying a couple days ago that there would be no aid of any kind—military aid, airstrikes or what have you—unless—while Maliki was leader of the government. I mean, they view him as the source of all their troubles, which is not totally inaccurate.
There’s a certain irony in this, in that they—Maliki is in power, really, thanks to the—thanks to the U.S. Zalmay Khalilzad, then the ambassador to Baghdad, in 2006 selected Maliki, much to everyone’s surprise, including Maliki’s. When Khalilzad said, “How would you like to be prime minister?” Maliki said, “Are you serious?” So, and then that was reaffirmed again in 2010 when Maliki had basically lost an election, and the U.S. and Iran, for that matter—further ironies here—really got—really rammed him back down the throats of the Iraqi people. So, now to be saying, you know, Maliki has to go, as I say, is rich with irony.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your article on Khalilzad also talks about his influence in Afghanistan, as well. Could you talk a little bit about his history?
ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, Khalilzad, yeah, he’s been a sort of longtime foot soldier in the neocon, neoconservative, movement. I mean, he has a sort of pretty grisly pedigree. He, early on—I mean, he’s an Afghan, and then made his way to the U.S. as a young man, as a bright student. And from there, he fell under the influence of Albert Wohlstetter, who was a character in Chicago who was very influential in the movement, who also mentored Richard Perle.
And then you see Khalilzad—from the beginning of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, he’s very much in the mix. He claims now to have been instrumental in sort of directing the whole policy, which I don’t think is really the case. But anyway, there he was signing all the resolutions, calling for war with—overthrowing Saddam, and so forth.
And his moment came in 2001, or after 2001, when we, you know, successfully toppled the Taliban regime, and Khalilzad was really only the Afghan or sort of pretty much the only Muslim any of these people knew, and so they appointed him the overseer of the post-Taliban Afghanistan, from which position he selected one Hamid Karzai—again, much to the subsequent grief of U.S. administrations—really with the view of—a lot of Afghans I talked to at the time thought, well, Karzai was a fairly weak figure, and Khalilzad’s idea was that he, Khalilzad, would be the real ruler of Afghanistan and behave like that, really. He was bossing all them, and he restored—he fostered all these ghastly warlords and strongmen, with himself really as the biggest warlord of all. He’d threaten them with airstrikes and so forth.
So, after he had pretty much ensured that no stable settlement would emerge in Afghanistan, and really his actions had led to the revival of the Taliban, he failed upwards and was moved to Iraq, where the U.S. was trying to sort of put in place some kind of government that they could entrust Iraq to. And as I said, they didn’t like the man they had, a prime minister called Jaafari. And Khalilzad looked around and selected this character, al-Maliki, who was a fairly comparatively obscure figure in the—had been in the exiled opposition. He had lived in Damascus for most of his adult life, running a butcher shop. And suddenly, as I say, he called in al-Maliki.
And, actually, I know quite a lot about the scene. He was with the British ambassador, and they started talking. And when the ambassador realized, the British ambassador realized that, my god, this character Maliki was being offered the job of leading Iraq, he started to protest, whereupon Khalilzad kicked him out of the room and then turned to Maliki and said, “Would you like to be prime minister?” And as I said earlier, Maliki said, “Are you serious?” And it turned out he was.
So, there was Maliki in power, having made all sorts of promises, like they’re demanding now, that he would reach out to the Sunni minority, that he would respect human rights, he would stand up to Iran, and so forth—all of which promises, of course, he immediately broke. And, you know, he’s just a very narrow-minded, very sectarian, very paranoid character. I mean—
AMY GOODMAN: And so, tell us more about Ahmed Chalabi now, with McGurk and the U.S. ambassador—Brett McGurk, the senior State Department official on Iraq and Iran, in Baghdad now, putting together this coalition. Give us the history of Ahmed Chalabi and what role he could play now.
ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, Chalabi, as you said earlier, I mean, he was really the prime instrument in fomenting the invasion of Iraq in the first place. You know, he was this exiled politician in the ’90s, backed by—initially, by the CIA, who picked him because he was weak. They thought, erroneously, that they could absolutely control him and boss him around, which turned out not to be the case. And then he made this alliance with the neoconservatives in Washington, who promoted him and sort of, you know, swallowed his lies wholesale and broadcast them in The New York Times and elsewhere, and then, of course, turned out—and they sort of somehow deluded themselves into thinking he had support inside Iraq at the time of the invasion. They get to Baghdad, and they find out that, you know, no one supported him. He had no position inside the country at all. Since then, you know, he’s hung around, and he’s hung on in Baghdad. He’s always with the ambition of becoming prime minister. I mean, he’s been a player in Iraqi politics. Trouble is that he—whenever he’s had a party running in the election, he gets nowhere. So he’s not exactly a popular figure there.
But, I mean, he’s—you know, he’s shrewd. You know, he’s a—he knows everyone. I mean, he’s competent—I mean, certainly as compared with Maliki. But he is very sectarian. I mean, as you said earlier, he led the De-Baathification Commission, which began the job, or certainly cemented the job of, alienating the Sunni. So I don’t see him being any kind of a unifying figure. But, you know, he’s certainly maintained his connections with the Western press. You know, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that The New York Times learned that he’d be meeting with the Americans, from Chalabi. I would absolute guarantee he was the source of that. So that, you know, it’s just very ironic that the architect of this disastrous policy is, you know, back in the running again.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Cockburn, we want to thank you for being with us, Washington editor for Harper’s Magazine. His latest piece, we’ll link to, “The Long Shadow of a Neocon.” He is co-author of Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein.