Joe Conason's Journal

The Pentagon appears to back an Iraqi expat once convicted of embezzlement and theft to lead the post-Saddam government. But at least one prominent neocon has voiced doubts about Ahmed Chalabi.

Published April 3, 2003 5:55PM (EST)

Tammany on the Tigris
As American troops prepare for the perilous assault on Baghdad, others gather around the pools and beaches of Kuwait City. Anticipating the inevitable victory, the contractors, oil companies and bureaucrats await the spoils -- and the decision about who will divide them.

A bitter struggle is raging already over the post-Saddam administration, with the major figures lined up more or less as they did in the pre-war struggle about whether to seek the U.N. imprimatur for the invasion. The Pentagon hawks want a military government controlled by the United States rather than the U.N., while the British government and the State Department regard an international presence as important to legitimize the new Iraq in the eyes of its neighbors and the world.

The excesses of the neoconservatives, as they concoct their postwar plans, are addressed in a surprisingly strong editorial today in the Washington Post, one of the nation's most hawkish newspapers. The Post editorial board worries that "a secretive Pentagon-led group is already far advanced in plans to unilaterally install a postwar regime dominated by Americans and Iraqi exiles -- one that would effectively exclude not only the United Nations but also European and Middle Eastern allies whose support will be essential to stabilizing the country. Even the State Department's nominees would be shut out by Defense Department leaders who talk of leaping from military rule to an interim Iraqi government in 90 days with the help of the American officials who would run Iraqi ministries. This narrow approach could compound the diplomatic damage of the war and expose the United States and its soldiers to large and unnecessary risks."

What that "Pentagon-led group" (shorthand for Rumsfeld, Cheney, Perle and Wolfowitz) appears to be imposing is their version of a Tammany-style patronage clubhouse, fronted by the U.S. military. For years now, the neocons have wanted to replace the Baathists with the Iraqi National Congress and their pal Ahmed Chalabi, its leader. Achieving this objective while simultaneously building democracy raises a troubling contradiction, however -- since almost nobody in Iraq has ever heard of Chalabi, scion of a privileged Iraqi family that left the country decades ago. And many of those who have heard about him, over there and back here, would be none too pleased to see him in power.

Yet there are unmistakable signs that the Pentagon will try to wire Iraq for the Chalabi outfit. In today's New York Times, a revealing report by Jane Perlez indicates that Rumsfeld has already leaked his choice to head the "all-important" new Ministry of Information in Baghdad. That would be R. James Woolsey, the former CIA director who now toils at the Booz Allen Hamilton international management consulting conglomerate. As an attorney, Woolsey has represented the Iraqi National Congress; his law firm, Shea & Gardner, registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for the INC. In short, Chalabi's lawyer may soon be serving as information minister for the interim Iraqi government.

Among the harshest accounts of Chalabi's career (aside from this excellent American Prospect profile by Robert Dreyfuss) was written last December by Arnaud de Borchgrave, former editor of the Washington Times and longtime fellow traveler of the neocons who has maintained an independent skepticism about this war. In that article, de Borchgrave recounts the unappetizing tale of Chalabi's fraud conviction in Jordan, where the Iraqi exile was a favorite of the royal family until his bank failed spectacularly:

"No one is more upset at the idea of Mr. Chalabi becoming Washington's man in Baghdad than Jordanian leaders, past and present. He was sentenced April 9, 1992, to 22 years hard labor by a Jordanian state security court on 31 charges of embezzlement, theft, misuse of depositor funds and speculation with the Jordanian dinar. The court also handed down harsh sentences and fines to 16 others, including several brothers and close relatives who were members of the board of Mr. Chalabi's Petra Bank, or owners of affiliated companies.

"Mr. Chalabi, a one-time favorite of King Hussein's royal court, had already skipped across the border to Syria hidden in the trunk of a royal palace car. Mr. Chalabi says former Crown Prince Hassan drove him to the border. Both the driver and the woman friend who organized the getaway deny this.

"No sooner did Mr. Chalabi reach London from Syria than he denounced the late King Hussein, accusing him of profiting from smuggling and weapons trading deals with Saddam.

"What was undeniable was that Mr. Chalabi's Petra Bank, Jordan's third largest, had gone belly up and some $300 million in depositors' accounts had suddenly vanished."

This is a remarkable piece, all the more so because it appeared in the pages of the Moonie paper. I found it on the Web site of Benador Associates, the New York public relations firm that represents Woolsey, Perle and many other members of the neocon network, including de Borchgrave.

Is installing Chalabi the true purpose of this war? Wouldn't that be like appointing Ken Lay as president of the United States? That may not go over too well with the Iraqi people, or with Americans who believe we are sacrificing our young people to bring democracy to Iraq.

[10:06 a.m. PST, April 3, 2003]

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