BAGHDAD — Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi politician who played a key role in persuading the administration of President George W. Bush to invade Iraq and overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, said Tuesday that it's time for U.S. forces to go home.
"Are Iraqis ready to carry the responsibility for their country?" he asked rhetorically during a panel discussion held with political supporters at his family compound in Baghdad. "Is Iraq ready to be its own master?"
"We want to be the masters of ourselves and to carry our responsibilities in this region," Chalabi said.
Chalabi's presentation comes as Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki struggles with whether to ask the U.S. to stay on past the Dec. 31 withdrawal date both countries agreed to three years ago. Maliki has taken no position, but he promised last month to seek advice from military experts and Iraqi political leaders and to make a decision by July 30 on whether to ask U.S. forces to remain.
To date, only the followers of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr had come out publicly opposed to extending the American stay, with most Iraqi politicians remaining mum on the topic. Whether Chalabi's formal opposition will matter is unclear. Although he's a member of Iraq's parliament from the largest political bloc, he doesn't lead that bloc.
Still, there is, if nothing else, an irony in Chalabi's avowed opposition to asking the Americans to stay longer. It was Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress that provided much of the false information, including allegations that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction and had ties to al Qaida, that the Bush administration used to justify the 2003 invasion. Nearly all of the information the INC provided turned out to be untrue.
Even as the invasion was still in progress, the Pentagon flew Chalabi and hundreds of other members of the INC into Iraq in hopes they would form the core of a new Iraqi army and government.
Tuesday, Chalabi was harshly critical of the U.S. for not immediately turning Iraq over to a government of Iraqis shortly after the invasion. Instead, the U.S. formed an occupation government headed by an American that ruled by decree for more than a year.
"The Americans stabbed in the back the forces that worked to bring about the collapse of Saddam's regime and wanted to keep Iraq a sovereign country," he said, referring apparently to himself and opposition figures.
In the years since the invasion, Chalabi has seen his fortunes rise and fall. At one time, he was charged by the Bush administration with spying for Iran. But he's also served as the country's oil minister, headed a commission to remove members of Saddam's Baath party from government positions, and worked closely with U.S. officials on delivering services to Baghdad neighborhoods.
Yet he's also grown close to Iran, which opposes any extension of the U.S. presence, and has made it clear he's not interested in hearing any military briefings that argue for keeping U.S. trainers in Iraq.
On a visit to Basra last week, while sitting alongside the Iraqi regional military commander, Chalabi told McClatchy he had no need for a military briefing on threats to Iraq's south because nothing he'd hear would make him change his view that U.S. forces should go.
Tuesday, he said Iraq should have friendly relations with the U.S. in the future.
"We do not want to confront the United States. We want to have a special relationship with the United States, not just in the intelligence field, but also in economic relations, cultural relations, technology transfer, and an exchange between civilizations."
(Hammoudi is a special correspondent. Roy Gutman contributed to this article.)
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