It was just last January that Ahmed Chalabi occupied the coveted balcony seat next to First Lady Laura Bush and gazed out at Washington’s glittering elite who had gathered to hear President George W. Bush deliver his State of the Union Address from the Capitol’s imposing rostrum.
The darling of the neo-conservative hawks around Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, Chalabi had long been touted by his champions here as the future leader of a democratic Iraq, if not its “George Washington.” Indeed, he could legitimately claim credit for having been the Iraqi who was most responsible for persuading the Bush administration to oust Saddam Hussein.
So how is it that exactly five months later Chalabi was rudely interrupted when U.S. agents and soldiers burst into his bedroom Thursday morning as part of a series of coordinated raids at his residence and offices?
According to Chalabi’s account, combined Iraqi police and U.S. forces carted away files, computers and some of his aides during the operation.
In an angry press conference conducted a short time later Chalabi accused the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) of striking out against him for political reasons, particularly for his outspoken opposition to efforts by United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to appoint a new government that will assume formal sovereignty July 1.
“I’m calling for policies that would liberate the Iraqi people and give them full sovereignty now,” said Chalabi, who was careful to reiterate his gratitude to Bush for freeing Iraq from former President Hussein. “I’m doing this in a way they don’t like,” he said, adding that he was severing his relationship with the CPA.
But at the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher denied that politics was involved. “Clearly there were legal and investigative reasons for this event today and not political ones,” he said, stressing that the warrants for the raids were issued by an Iraqi judge and carried out by Iraqi police.
Whatever the reason and many could be relevant there is little doubt that Chalabi’s apparent fall from grace confirms that the two-year battle for control of U.S. policy in Iraq has reached a tipping point in favor of the realist faction in the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which has long considered Chalabi a self-dealing opportunist, a confidence man and a crook.
Their view appears now to be fully shared by Robert Blackwill, the National Security Council (NSC) official who heads the Iraqi Stabilization Group (ISG) that was created last October when it first became clear the U.S.-led occupation was in deep trouble. Since then, Blackwill, who has been working closely with Brahimi for several months, has been trying with increasing success to reduce the Pentagon’s influence in Iraq.
Conversely, the raids also signal the loss of credibility within the administration, at least so far as Iraq is concerned, of the neo-conservatives including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis Libby and former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle who championed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC) for much of the past decade.
Thursday’s raids came in the wake of the announcement earlier this week that the Pentagon was cutting off $335,000 in monthly payments to the INC, which it had provided for the past two years as part of a classified program to help gather intelligence in Iraq. The decisions was criticized by Perle, who insisted Monday that the INC and “Chalabi in particular are the best hope for Iraq.”
The raids also came as reports of wrongdoing by the former exile including nepotism, bribery, corruption and even blackmail have been steadily piling up in recent months.
Despite his extremely low standing in recent public-opinion surveys, his position on the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), his influence over key government ministries and his control of intelligence files of Hussein’s Mukhabarat seized during the invasion have made Chalabi a formidable power who may no longer rely entirely on his standing in Washington.
While the administration could ignore much of this, more damaging charges have recently surfaced through a number of leaks that have made the continuing existence of a warm relationship with him increasingly untenable.
That INC-affiliated defectors, for example, provided much of the faulty pre-war intelligence on Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs which became the principal justification for the U.S. invasion has not gone done well in Congress, among either Democrats or Republicans.
And the fact that Chalabi has boasted about it “We are heroes in error” and “As far as we’re concerned, we’ve been entirely successful” has not helped his cause.
In addition, Congress’ watchdog, the General Accounting Office (GAO), is currently investigating reports that some of the $18 million provided by Washington to the INC between 1998 when Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act (ILA) and last year’s invasion was used by the group and its U.S. consultants to lobby the government for an invasion and to plant articles in the media. Both actions would violate U.S. law.
While these acts as well as the fact that Jordan has considered him a fugitive from justice since his conviction in absentia in 1992 for bank fraud that led to the collapse of the country’s second largest bank may be forgivable, recent moves by Chalabi have put greater strains on his relationship with the administration.
Electronic intercepts by U.S. intelligence agencies suggested he was cultivating Iran’s leadership a little too fervently, even to the extent of providing “sensitive” information on the U.S. security operations next door in Iraq of the kind that, according to one source cited by Newsweek, could “get people killed.” That information, which was leaked late last month, gave even some of Chalabi’s neo-con supporters pause.
At the same time, Chalabi, who as an IGC member organized a sweeping purge of Ba’athists (members of Hussein’s ruling Ba’ath Party) from the government, was infuriated by CPA chief Paul Bremer’s decision to reverse the IGC by hiring back thousands of former party members to positions in the security forces.
After the Marines permitted former senior Iraqi military offers to take control of Fallujah, Chalabi, a secular Shiite, began publicly campaigning against a “re-Ba’athification” of the country, which he compared to the hiring of Nazis in post-war Germany.
In recent weeks, he has tried to stoke fears among the majority Shia and Kurdish communities that the United States was delivering Iraq back to the Ba’athists and minority Sunnis by attacking Brahimi as a Sunni Muslim and an “Arab nationalist,” presumably determined to bring about a Sunni or Ba’athist restoration.
He also rejected U.N. and U.S. demands to turn over intelligence files seized by the INC during the invasion, which allegedly documented massive corruption by U.N. and other officials in the world body’s Oil-for-Food Program, to a U.N.-sponsored probe which Chalabi claims will be a whitewash.
All of these activities represent serious threats to U.S. plans as vague as they continue to be to transfer sovereignty to a new government July 1, which, given the ongoing chaos in Iraq, is as far ahead as policymakers can think for the moment. “He’s trying to destabilize the process,” said one official, adding, “He’s not on our team any more.”
Chalabi on Thursday begged to differ, warning, “When America treats its friends this way, then they are in big trouble.”
For more on Chalabi, see this by Andrew Cockburn.