Chalabi Roundup

Yesterday’s news the one-time Pentagon favorite Dr. Ahmad Chalabi’s home was raided by Iraqi and US forces, coming a day after lavish funding for his Iraqi National Congress was abruptly cut off, has a lot of us scratching our heads. Several pieces in today’s major papers try to clarify the situation.

NYT — Chalabi’s Seat of Honor Lost to Open Political Warfare With U.S. [RSS]

By Thursday morning, when his home and office were raided by the Iraqi police and American troops seeking evidence of fraud, embezzlement and kidnapping by members of his Iraqi National Congress — and perhaps an explanation of his dealings with Iranian intelligence — Mr. Chalabi was already engaged in open political warfare with the Bush administration.

Now he says that with the liberation of Iraq, the United States should get out of the way. “My message is let my people go, let my people be free,” he said, clearly angry that his bedroom had been invaded and that his computers and papers had been confiscated. “We are grateful to President Bush for liberating Iraq, but it is time for the Iraqi people to run their affairs.”

***

Mr. Chalabi had no doubt what his role was: the man who led the liberation of Iraq. In an interview last winter, when he was leading an effort to keep the Iraqi Governing Council in power even after a new Iraqi government took office, Mr. Chalabi argued that he and others on the council “are the ones that opposed Saddam Hussein for all those years and, allied with the United States, overthrew him.”

“Now the United States wants to overthrow us?” he asked.

Reacting to that, Sheik Ghazi Marshal Ajil al-Yawar, another council member who is its president today, shook his head and said: “They think they are entitled to a role because they believe they overthrew Saddam Hussein. It was the United States that overthrew Saddam while we were eating TV dinners.”

Quite so.

LA Times — From Ally To Outcast In U.S. Eyes

Although Chalabi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, may still find himself in an important role in Iraq, his split with U.S. authorities invalidated one of the administration’s assumptions about the war. They had bet on the wrong man.

Chalabi was one of the primary advocates for the war, and he was well positioned to argue the case as head of an umbrella exile group called the Iraqi National Congress, which he helped organize in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Chalabi, whose father once headed the Iraqi Senate, was educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and fled to Jordan with his family after a coup in Baghdad in 1958.

As head of the INC during the 1990s, he cultivated the support of influential members of Congress and leading neoconservatives. The most dramatic sign of U.S. confidence in Chalabi came on April 6, 2003, when U.S. forces airlifted him and about 500 INC fighters from northern Iraq to the southern city of Nasiriya, to help stabilize the country as American forces prepared to seize Baghdad.

As recently as March, one U.S. official marveled at Chalabi’s skills in making the Americans think he was their most important contact with the Iraqis, and making the Iraqis think they needed him to get what they wanted from the Americans.

***

U.S. officials have been irritated at the adversarial role he has played within the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council. He has openly clashed with L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, and pushed for the new Iraqi government to have more power, including over security forces and oil revenues.

He has been in the middle of an increasingly bitter fight with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority over the investigation of the United Nations’ “oil-for-food” program. U.S. officials are unhappy that he has been unwilling to turn over documents scooped up after the war that bear on the investigation.

Some U.S. officials complain that Chalabi has been parceling out the documents in small numbers each month to justify the $340,000 in U.S. aid to the INC. U.S. officials announced this week that the money was being halted because Iraq was about to regain its sovereignty.

NYT — Friends Like This [RSS]

Yesterday, American and Iraqi security forces raided and ransacked Mr. Chalabi’s home and offices in Baghdad, supposedly as part of an investigation into still-unspecified offenses. Earlier in the week, the United States halted the monthly $335,000 payments it had been giving to the Iraqi National Congress, the Chalabi political organization. The money was supposed to be for intelligence gathering, and it had continued to flow even after it had become apparent that much of the information Mr. Chalabi had produced was dead wrong. He was one of the chief cheerleaders for the theory that Iraq had vast quantities of weapons of mass destruction. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s disastrous misstatements to the United Nations about mobile weapons labs in Iraq now seem to have been based on fabrications by an informer linked to Mr. Chalabi.

Lately, Mr. Chalabi — who has no genuine political base — has concluded that anti-Americanism is the key to political popularity. He is also an opponent of Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations official whom the United States is counting on to form a new Iraqi government by June 30. As the Chalabi and American interests diverged, the relationship naturally soured. Nevertheless, the sight of American-controlled forces smashing their way into the home of a leading politician, even one this unappetizing, was troubling. American authorities’ claims that it was an Iraqi operation were implausible; they failed to explain who would order the police to attack a member of the Governing Council because the interior minister said he had not.

Many people in the Bush administration have been growing angry at the way Mr. Chalabi keeps biting the hand that fed him so well for so long. Some of them also say the rosy picture he and his fellow exiles drew of Iraqis’ welcoming the American troops along those never-seen flower-strewn highways contributed to one of the most disastrous miscalculations of the war: Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to send too few troops to secure the country after Saddam Hussein fled.

There’s little to recommend Mr. Chalabi as a politician, or certainly as an informer. But he can’t be made a scapegoat. The Bush administration should have known what it was doing when it gave enormous credence to a questionable character whose own self-interest was totally invested in getting the Americans to invade Iraq. Mr. Rumsfeld desperately wanted to prove his theories of light warfare, and everyone in the White House, with their eyes on that big tax-cut plan, wanted to believe that Iraq was as the exiles said: practically begging to be invaded, and possible to run on the cheap.

Even at this late date, it’s good to see that Washington is distancing itself from the man who is the symbol of all those disastrous blunders. But so far, the ham-handed raid seems only to have given the opportunistic Mr. Chalabi, with his absurd “let my people go” sound bite yesterday, a way to portray himself as a martyred Iraqi patriot.

I can’t disagree with any of this.

WSJ, perhaps not surprisingly, disagrees: The Chalabi Treatment

Someday we hope U.S. officials will explain to us how in scarcely a year they managed to turn one of our closest allies in ousting Saddam Hussein into an opponent of American purposes. We’re referring to Ahmed Chalabi, the member of the Iraqi Governing Council whose home and office were raided by coalition forces yesterday in Baghdad.

A coalition spokesman said the raid wasn’t aimed at either Mr. Chalabi or his political organization, the Iraqi National Congress. Instead, U.S. sources say the police were looking for evidence as part of an Iraqi-led fraud probe into Iraqis connected to the Ministry of Finance that Mr. Chalabi has supervised as a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. We suspect that distinction will be lost on most Iraqi news reports.

For his part, Mr. Chalabi blamed a political vendetta inspired by U.S. regent L. Paul Bremer. And he claimed the police were hunting for records related to the U.N.’s corrupt Oil for Food Program that he’s been investigating. His ties with the coalition are now “non-existent,” the businessman and former exile added.

We don’t know enough of the facts to take sides. But we certainly think Mr. Chalabi deserves the benefit of the doubt, especially in light of his treatment by many U.S. officials over the past year. Some reporters still refer to him as the Pentagon’s “favorite” to rule Iraq. If that’s true we’d hate to see what happens to a non-favorite.

He’s been vilified repeatedly in background quotes by U.S. “sources,” especially by State Department and CIA officials who won’t forgive him for opposing their status quo views of Saddam and the Mideast. Far from being anointed as Iraq’s version of Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, Mr. Chalabi was named by Mr. Bremer as just one of 25 members to the unwieldy Governing Council.

***

One other irony, we suppose, is that yesterday’s coalition raid might actually help Mr. Chalabi in political terms. It should certainly free him of any taint of being an American puppet. With Mr. Brahimi likely to freeze him out after June 30, Mr. Chalabi will be able to devote himself to building a party to run in the elections currently scheduled for January 2005. It’s no compliment to our work in Iraq that we may have turned opposition to America into an Iraqi political asset.

True, although hardly surprising.

WaPo’s Jim Hoagland — Cutting Off Chalabi

More recently Chalabi added White House staffers and occupation chief Paul Bremer to the long list of those he has offended and challenged with his domineering manner, prickly sense of nationalism and unshakable self-confidence. By coming out in open, bitter opposition to the latest U.S. transition plan and its rehabilitation of senior Baathists, Chalabi seems to have crossed a final red line.

There is a hugely serious argument to be had at this crucial time on the future of Iraq. Neither Chalabi nor the Americans have all of the answers exactly right. But the impression that heavy-handed tactics have been used primarily to silence an effective critic of re-Baathification is inescapable.

A moderate Shiite who once worked with the shah of Iran (and others) against Hussein, Chalabi has also clashed with Washington over his effort to forge better relations with the current regime in Tehran. And Bremer recently moved to undercut the Chalabi-initiated investigation into kickbacks and corruption in the United Nations’ oil-for-food program.

The idea that this raid had nothing to do with Chalabi’s bitter opposition to U.S. policy will be seen as laughable by Iraqis and other Arabs. They know of the long American record of supporting or accepting national kleptocracies in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. This raid at this time, when police and military power are urgently needed elsewhere, can only further deepen skepticism about America’s dedication to the rule of law and basic fair play in Iraq.

Iraq is not Vietnam. But Baghdad is rapidly turning into a latter-day Saigon — a place where intelligence agents and prison guards are laws unto themselves and take revenge on uppity locals while senior Americans help or look the other way. Is this the “democracy” President Bush promised to Iraq?

Of course, Chalabi wasn’t elected by anyone.

Obviously, Chalabi has been damaged goods for some time. He also didn’t help matters by acting as if he were in charge when he clearly isn’t or by biting the hand that was quite literally feeding him. Still, the timing of recent events is puzzling. Two potential explanations are, as one of the editorials implied, that Chalabi is being positioned as a scapegoat to take the blame for an operation that has been politically damaging. Aside from the moral implications of that, though, it makes little sense politically since most Americans don’t know who Chalabi is and, regardless, will hold the president accountable for the war. Another possibility, which is a bit devious and conspiratorial, is that the Administration still believes Chalabi is the best option available and is trying to bolster his reputation by making him seem more heroic in Iraq. That seems flawed on a host of levels. A third possibility, and the most likely, is that it’s more complicated than either of those explanations.

UPDATE: More detail on something alluded to in other accounts may explain things much better:

CBS News — America’s ‘Best Friend’ A Spy?

Senior U.S. officials told 60 Minutes Correspondent Lesley Stahl that they have evidence Chalabi has been passing highly-classified U.S. intelligence to Iran.

The evidence shows that Chalabi personally gave Iranian intelligence officers information so sensitive that if revealed it could, quote, “get Americans killed.” The evidence is said to be “rock solid.”

Sources have told Stahl a high-level investigation is underway into who in the U.S. government gave Chalabi such sensitive information in the first place.

In addition, sources told Stahl that one of Chalabi’s closest confidantes — a senior member of his organization, the Iraqi national congress — is believed to have been recruited by Iran’s intelligence agency, the Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS) — and is on their payroll.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Iraq War
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Paul says:

    ya might add this:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/05/20/iraq/main618637.shtml

    CBS says he was giving info to Iran. But it is Lesley Stahl so take it with a grain of salt.

  2. Paul says:

    But it would explain things.