Interview: Ahmed Chalabi

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ED KASHI FOR TIME

Ahmed Chalabi meets with village elders and tribal chiefs near Nasariyah

The race to lead Iraq has begun. Many consider opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi the man to beat. On April 10th, Chalabi spoke with TIME's Brian Bennett about Iraqi life after Saddam.

TIME: What is the most important thing that has to happen in the next few months?

Ahmed Chalabi: Immediately turn over authority to Iraqis. It must happen very quickly. That's very important, there are many people who want that. I don't want any problems between Americans and Iraqis. I don't want any bad memories of Iraqis with United States forces and I don't want the United States or the military to feel that Iraqis are ingrates for their liberation. I don't want any problems, and I can foresee a lot of problems if things are not handled by Iraqis.

What are some examples of possible problems you see?

People dying, people being wounded. These are possible problems. And a very difficult thing and we should avoid them as much as possible.

Right now, there are a lot of reports of a rift between the CIA and the Pentagon about the future of Iraq and your role in it. Does it matter what the CIA thinks?

Really what matters is what the Iraqis think. These are no longer games of opposition. This is right now, the future of the country. These are people's lives now and the future of the country we are here now. We are very involved in the affairs of the community in Iraq. It's what the people think that is important. There are CIA people here but they can't have an impact beyond collecting information. They can't influence people to do things that are contrary to popular culture and general patterns of behavior. And people respond to other Iraqis. People will respond to calls for patriotic action. It is what the Iraqis want that I think is most important.

What do you think is the best way to find out what the Iraqis want in the coming months? How will you and the INC be able to evaluate what the Iraqi people want?

By listening to them, by talking to them. In the past several days, we have met many, many community leaders who I would say give us a very fair idea of what people want in this community.

What have you found to be their biggest concerns so far?

Their biggest concern is to have an Iraqi government in-place. Security, basic services restored. Elimination of fear. These are the concerns they have voiced, and all of them feel oppressed by Saddam. They feel they have been let down by the United States in '91 and this is the reason for their reticence. They appreciate what the Americans have done, but they fear they are going to leave them in the lurch. They've got a lot more confidence in the past few days.

You're here with the Special Forces training and arming the FIF troops. The Americans aren't helping you as much as you'd like, but they are still backing you to a certain degree. How would you respond to people saying that since the Americans flew you into Iraq that you will be beholden to them and beholden to the administration?

They did not fly me into Iraq. I came to Iraq on my own.

Note: The INC gathered these fighters together in Sulamaniyah on their own initiative and the Pentagon flew them from there down to Nasiryah.

The Americans flew me from the north to south, so they did not parachute me in. I'm very happy they [the Americans] have provided us with air transport and the forces are Iraqi. They have come from inside Iraq. And we have people that we left in the north. I was just talking with them now. They are going to participate in the liberation of Kirkuk. [On Thursday, INC-backed FIF soldiers took control of the Baath party headquarters in Kirkuk.] It has been very hard to do this [to put this force together]. I am happy the Americans have provided us transport and support, but we are not beholden to them, because they need us to make their victory secure against Saddam and to avoid conflict with the Iraqi people. And we feel we have a cooperative relationship with them based on mutual respect and I think that's how it should be.

What is the biggest obstacle facing Iraq right now?

I am very, very concerned about the large problem arising between the US forces and the Iraqi people.

What has surprised you in the last few days?

The depth of the people's knowledge of the activities of the opposition and what has happened to bring these events about.

How did they find out?

Listening to Radio Sawa.

You're on the verge of returning to Baghdad, a city you haven't been to for many, many years. Is there any image or memory from your childhood that stands out?

Yes, my house, the river, our garden. My sister's house that was on the river is very nice. I can show you a picture of it.

Do you have anything with you now that you had with you when you left Baghdad?

I have some digitized pictures of me in Baghdad at the time.

What is going through your mind right now as you are returning to your homestead?

How to solve the problem of the people, how to manage the city, how to stop the disorder, how to stop the looting.

When was the last time you were in Baghdad?

1958.

Do you remember the day that you left? How old were you?

I was 13. I got on to the airplane. I was sad, I was very sad to leave.

Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to seeing again in Baghdad or experiencing?

I am happy to be with Iraqis. I feel at home. There is no break in my relationship with the people and we are completely at ease with the people.

You were born in Iraq, but have spent most of your life out of the country. What do you think it means to be an Iraqi?

It means being part of a huge heritage and historical tradition, an ancient tradition, being a land which is full of heritage and culture.

Why do you dismiss suggestions that you will be the next leader of Iraq?

No one knows what is going to happen. Saying it doesn't make it happen. We should reduce the importance of the position of ruler. There should be others in the country who are of equal stature as the president.

There's still one thing I don't understand. You have a comfortable life, you live in a country where you can enjoy certain freedoms, you have a family. Why devote so much time to thinking about the freedom of Iraq? Why risk your life by coming here?

[Chalabi pauses and looks down. He smiles like he's been asked an obvious question by a child, and then gives a one-sentence answer:]

It's my country.