Ahmad Chalabi speaks

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On Wednesday, I went to the American Enterprise Institute to see Ahmad Chalabi. He is often denigrated in the mainstream media and has been the target of many in the CIA who consider him a dangerous man. I take a different view. As head of the Iraqi National Congress for many years, he risked his life seeking freedom for Iraq, and he showed great skill in creating a united front of Iraqis. He returned to Iraq while major military operations were going on and attempted to recruit a brigade of Iraqi soldiers early on—something that we should have encouraged him and others to do much sooner than we did. Last year, he was distinctly out of favor, not just with Arabists/peacenik career folks at State and CIA but also with Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon. Charges were made that he gave intelligence to Iran.

Today he is the deputy prime minister of Iraq, and on his visit to Washington this week he got an audience with Rice and other top administration officials. At AEI, there were a few demonstrators with bullhorns out front (outnumbered, so far as I could tell, by members of the press), and in the question-and-answer period, David Corn of the Nation and a couple of mainstream media reporters sought to get him to admit he and the INC gave phony intelligence to U.S. officials before the war. He refused to comment except to recommend that they read Page 108 of the report of the Silberman-Robb commission on prewar intelligence.

He made the point as well that it's far more important now to think about the future of Iraq than to argue about the past. I won't elaborate all his points; I hope AEI puts a transcript or video of his comments on the Web. But I do want to emphasize one that I have written about before: sending oil profits straight to the Iraqi people.

Chalabi said that he worked hard to put Article 109 into the Iraqi Constitution, which states that Iraq's oil belongs to the people and authorizes the parliament that will be elected December 15 to set up a mechanism to do so. And he came out strongly for a fund that would flow some share of those profits through to every Iraqi citizen. This would be similar, though he didn't mention the precedent, to Alaska's Permanent Fund.

Chalabi made the point that this would give all Iraqis a stake in the new democratic government—including the Sunnis who voted against the Constitution and who, in some cases, support or tolerate the terrorist insurgents. I think that point can't be stressed strongly enough. Sunnis and some Americans criticize the Constitution for excessive federalism, for allowing the Shiites and the Kurds to set up regional governments with great autonomy. Their criticism is usually that this is seen as an attempt for the Shiites and the Kurds to monopolize the oil money, since virtually all Iraqi oil comes from areas where they're predominant.

An Iraqi Permanent Fund would utterly refute such arguments and allay such fears. Sunnis would get the same checks as everyone else. They would have a stake in the continuance of the government. They would have a huge incentive not to set up a separatist state. Chalabi has shown great vision and determination in advancing this proposal. He also seems to have shown great political skill. He has now separated himself from the Shiite bloc that he joined for the elections to the constitutional assembly. He has instead formed a secular Shiite bloc. And when he was asked whether he was seeking to be prime minister, he said, "That's for me to know and you to find out."