As Washington’s occupation of Iraq grows ever messier, the pernicious role of Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, becomes ever starker. Not just the latest allegations of blackmail, corruption, and espionage. More fundamental and telling remains his provision of so-called intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which proved to be largely erroneous even though it helped mislead America into war. Chalabi is “one of the mistakes” made by the Bush administration in post-war Iraq, observes Dr. Naser J. al-Sane, an influential Kuwaiti parliamentarian. Yet Washington originally planned to install Chalabi to run occupied Iraq and until recently considered turning control of the soon-to-be sovereign interim Iraqi government over to him.
Despite the recent upsurge of violence in Iraq, the Bush administration remains committed to returning national sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30. But to whom? Plans for a government chosen through caucuses went aglimmering as a result of opposition from the majority Shiite community.
The Coalition Provisional Authority then shifted back to reliance on an expanded Iraqi Governing Council, appointed by the U.S. Next Washington considered choosing its own prime minister, with Chalabi leading the list of candidates. Now Washington appears to be ready to accept an interim government chosen by the United Nations, principally U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. The latter is no friend of Chalabi, who has described Brahimi as “an Algerian with an Arab nationalist agenda.”
Last week’s joint Iraqi-U.S. raid on Chalabi’s home and office, carried out under authority of an Iraqi judicial warrant, reduces his chances even further. One U.S. official told Newsweek: “This is a wakeup call to the INC that you’re not above the law.” Washington also terminated funding for the INC last week. Chalabi terms his relationship with the coalition authority as “non-existent.”
IF THE WAR AND OCCUPATION belong to anyone, it is Ahmed Chalabi. He left Iraq in 1957 and for a time focused on business — not entirely successfully. He was charged with bank fraud for allegedly embezzling $30 million from his institution in Jordan. He denied the charges but fled rather than stand trial; he was convicted in absentia in 1992.
Nevertheless, he became a leading Iraqi exile voice as head of the London-based INC, established in 1992 with Washington’s aid — almost $40 million over the years from both the CIA and State Department. Most important, he forged close ties with a number of influential American neoconservatives, most notably Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defense Secretary, and Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense. The Pentagon relied on Chalabi for intelligence in the build-up to war and flew him, plus 700 retainers, into Iraq after the fall of Baghdad, apparently ready to place the nascent Iraqi government into his hands.
Some war supporters charge that the Defense Department was blocked by State in its plan to turn Chalabi into a nationalist hero by giving the INC a leading role in Iraq’s liberation. This strategy always seemed unrealistic, however, since he still would have been riding on American shoulders. Iraqis were never likely to accept him as the leading figure in Iraq’s reconstruction.
Chalabi ended up as but one of 25 members of the IGC. Nevertheless, he became perhaps the most influential member, skillfully accumulating a host of important positions. Writes columnist Fred Kaplan, Chalabi “is head of the economics and finance committees, which oversee the ministries of oil, finance, and trade, as well as the central bank and several private banks. He also runs the De-Baathification Commission,” which controls employment in the Iraqi government to-be. He placed numerous allies in key bureaucratic spots, including his nephew as trade minister, who later moved to the defense ministry. Chalabi was the man who would be king.
Still, that was never going to be an easy task. Chalabi represents no domestic constituency and is widely distrusted by Iraqis; one poll put him behind even Saddam Hussein. His colleagues had little more confidence in him. Power would come only at the point of an American gun, or in alliance with influential domestic interests.
The former was long his preferred modus operandi, as Chalabi posed as an ally of the U.S. He once spoke of the need to “safeguard minority rights” and develop “a strategy to deal with the Shias.” He advocated a federated state and cultivated the Kurds, visiting their territory even before Hussein’s ouster. And he backed Washington’s plan for a government chosen by caucus.
That was then, however. This is now.
RECENTLY CHALABI HAS BEEN PURSUING the second path to power. Although he described himself as “America’s best friend in Iraq,” he recently has devoted increasing attention to leading Shiite leaders, including Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose pronouncements repeatedly forced the CPA to back down, and even militant cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose followers are now in open revolt against the U.S. During the drafting process for an interim Iraqi constitution, Chalabi pushed to increase the role of Islam.
Indeed, another of Chalabi’s nephews helped draft the constitution and walked out of the proceedings to protest the decision dropping a provision basing family life on religious law. Then Chalabi joined four other Shiite representatives in refusing to sign the temporary constitution. His objection? Giving Kurds veto power over national laws. With two-thirds of the population, Shiites believe it is their turn to rule.
Moreover, of late he has been demanding a quick turnover of power to an Iraqi government. After the police raid, he declared: “My message is let my people go, let my people be free. We are grateful to President Bush for liberating Iraq, but it is time for the Iraqi people to run their affairs.” One Iraqi told author Andrew Cockburn that Chalabi’s “dream has always been to be a sectarian Shia leader. Not in the religious sense, but as a political leader.” Some critics theorize that he has been organizing Shiite forces to ensure that the CPA turnover of power to a U.N.-chosen technocratic government fails.
Despite U.S. disquiet with Iran, Chalabi recently visited President Mohammad Khatami. Indeed, Chalabi has been a regular in Tehran. Observes an analysis by the business forecasting firm Stratfor, “Chalabi has had and continues to have excellent relations with Iran, as well as with leading Shia in Iraq.”
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