When puppets pull the strings

Ahmed Chalabi, the neocons' choice to run Iraq, appears to have been responsible for the disastrous decision to move against Muqtada al-Sadr.

By Martin Sieff

Published April 14, 2004 12:47AM (EDT)

Why did they do it? It seemed a safe bet to the civilian echelon policymakers at the Department of Defense when they approved Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer's fateful decision to close down the newspaper of Muqtada al-Sadr and to arrest an aide to the young firebrand Shiite cleric. Even after Shiite Iraq had erupted into fury over the moves on Saturday, April 3, top-level Pentagon policymakers were privately still convinced it was all a storm in a teacup.

A small event on Sunday, April 4, the very day after the move against al-Sadr prompted the revolt, provides the missing piece to the puzzle. For that was when the CPA announced the name of Iraq's putative new defense minister for the post-June 30 government. His name is Ali Allawi and he is a loyal, close associate of Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress. More, he is Chalabi's nephew.

Chalabi, longtime exile leader, has never had a power base within Iraq. He is a smooth operator, convicted of embezzling millions from the Petra Bank of Jordan -- sentenced in absentia to 22 years of hard labor -- but championed by the neoconservatives of Washington. They had lined up Chalabi to be their man in Baghdad years before the conquest of Iraq. Although he is a Shiia, the 60-year-old Chalabi had not lived there since age 12, and when he returned he surrounded himself with a U.S.-paid personal militia but had no political following. Without his U.S. sponsors, he would not last five minutes as a force. He is widely suspected of profiting enormously from U.S. contracts in the country. After the war, Chalabi proudly boasted of providing misleading intelligence to the U.S. government that was indispensable in spurring the invasion. He remains on the Pentagon's payroll -- $340,000 a month -- not counting the $40 million that he's received at the insistence of the Republican-dominated Congress over the past decade. He is a focal point of mistrust on all sides within Iraq.

Just as Bremer will not make the slightest move without the approval of his Pentagon bosses, the Defense Department policymakers continue to rely on Chalabi alone for their political assessments on Iraq. In private conversation, as in public, they remain amazingly enthusiastic about Chalabi's supposed political skills, and even genius, and proclaim repeatedly that he is the only man with the brilliance to hold Iraq together and make it work. Give Chalabi a free hand after June 30 and give him all the U.S. firepower he wants to crush his foes -- this is their master plan; there is no other.

The CPA actually had some "hard" data to support this wildly inaccurate interpretation. For U.S. military intelligence assessments in Iraq had concluded that al-Sadr was a fading force. The crowds attending his sermons were smaller. The number of armed supporters he could count on to exert his will was decreasing. The tone of his public pronouncements was becoming shriller and more desperate as the June 30 hand-over date to Iraqi leaders approved by the U.S. authorities came closer.

This information was not false or wishful thinking. It appears to have been entirely accurate. The problem was that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, without whose say-so Bremer does not even dare to breathe, misinterpreted it. By moving against al-Sadr when they did not have to, they revived the firebrand's credibility throughout Iraq's 65 percent majority Shiite community. And they also opened the door for something neoconservative pundits had unanimously agreed was impossible: They made common ground between Sadr's Shiite supporters and the Sunni Islamist guerrillas who have been fighting the United States implacably in their own heartland of central Iraq.

There is no way that the move against al-Sadr was undertaken without Chalabi's prior knowledge and explicit approval. Instead, given the extraordinary degree to which the Pentagon policymakers and Vice President Dick Cheney continue to privately disparage the far more accurate, sober and reliable professional assessments of the U.S. Army's own tactical military intelligence in Iraq, it appears clear that, yet again, Chalabi was the tail that wagged the dog. He could have been expected to urge the move on al-Sadr in the first place.

The benefit to him is obvious. Chalabi believes -- as do his still-worshipful Pentagon backers -- that he has the blessing of supposedly moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the mainstream chief religious authority of the Iraqi Shiites, to take power on July 1 with the force of 110,000 U.S. soldiers and their automatic weapons behind him.

However, just as the neocons lead President Bush by the nose, and Chalabi leads them by the nose, Sistani and the Iranians have been leading him by the nose.

Sistani's policy toward the CPA and Chalabi has been no different from the way he survived as an ayatollah all those years under Saddam Hussein, which was no mean feat. Sistani is playing a cautious waiting game and avoiding the ire of those who currently are top dog in Baghdad. He will drop Chalabi -- and the United States -- at the drop of a hat as soon it becomes clear that they cannot run or tame Iraq.

Chalabi and the neocon geniuses in the Pentagon are all willfully blind to the wafer-thin nature of the "support" they enjoy from Sistani. From their perspective, Muqtada al-Sadr was the only fly left in the ointment. Much better, from Chalabi's point of view, to have the United States to do the dirty work and get al-Sadr out of the way so that he could then emerge as Iraq's unifying leader with his hands clean on July 1 rather than risk the opprobrium of eliminating al-Sadr himself.

Of course, it has not worked out that way. Instead, the Shiite rising has spread like wildfire across all southern and central Iraq. The Sunni insurgents have rallied to al-Sadr's cause as well. The worst thing that could possibly happen now is that al-Sadr, whom Bremer rapidly proclaimed an outlaw, may be killed by U.S. forces, thereby activating the most passionate and extreme martyrdom emotions of young Shiites across Iraq. And as soon as the rising began, the much-touted Iraqi police and security forces that Bremer had claimed were progressing so impressively turned tail and ran from every confrontation.

The myth of Iraqization of this war is now dead. The Pentagon masterminds remain determined to push Chalabi through as prime minister and absolute ruler of Iraq de facto on July 1. GOP heavyweights have even been assured around Washington that hundreds of millions of dollars in kickbacks from U.S. companies to Chalabi to do business in Iraq will be used for a good cause: to spread democracy in -- read, destabilize -- neighboring Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But the al-Sadr revolt means Chalabi will now only be able to rule on the shoulders of at least 110,000 U.S. soldiers. It may take twice as many. That means that Iraq will not settle down nicely in time for the Republican National Convention in New York. Far from dramatically reducing the level of U.S casualties by Iraqizing security, the hand-over will almost certainly dramatically boost the scale and rate of U.S. fatalities and casualties. U.S. forces will not be able to remain in the passive-reactive mode of hunkering down in their bivouacs that they have followed in recent months in central Iraq to reduce casualties. They will likely be forced to take the offensive in cities across Iraq on a far wider front against infinitely more enemies than they had faced before April 2.

This latest catastrophic bungle by Bremer and his bosses to clear the way for Chalabi is the biggest yet. You think this is bad? To quote Al Jolson, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."

Martin Sieff

Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for United Press International in Washington.

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Dick Cheney Donald Rumsfeld George W. Bush Iraq War