The judge who issued arrest warrants against controversial Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi and his nephew Salem, the head of the tribunal that will try Saddam Hussein, yesterday denied the move was politically motivated and said he would pursue the extradition of the two men if they refused to return to Iraq.
Zuhair al-Maliky, the senior investigative judge at the central criminal court of Iraq, established by the U.S. occupation authorities, told the Guardian: "I am simply the judge who signed the documents. Anything that either of the two wanted men have to say should be said in court in Iraq, and if they don't come here we have our channels and we will contact Interpol."
He declined to reveal the nature of the evidence that had prompted the charges, but said: "This is nothing to do with politics. We are trying to introduce the rule of law and these men must be questioned, and if there is enough evidence they should go to trial."
Ahmed Chalabi, the founder of the Iraqi National Congress and a key U.S. ally in the run-up to the invasion, is accused of counterfeiting money.
More seriously, Salem Chalabi, a U.S.-educated lawyer who heads the Iraq special tribunal, is wanted for the murder of Haitham Fadhil, a senior official with the Ministry of Finance.
Both men deny the charges.
The latest controversy to engulf Ahmed Chalabi, who has fallen out with his former U.S. sponsors, was dismissed yesterday as a minor storm by Iraqi government officials.
They are more concerned, however, that the allegations against Salem Chalabi could undermine Iraqis' faith in the process of trying the former dictator and his henchmen. "It does not look good," an Interior Ministry official said. "But Salem is only the organizer and he is not a judge."
In Jordan, one of Saddam's lawyers called Salem Chalabi's warrant a victory for his client.
Salem Chalabi said yesterday the charges would only benefit former Baathist officials, including Saddam, who is facing trial for war crimes. "They can easily make allegations that this whole process is fraud because the director of the tribunal has all these charges against him," he said in London.
He said he would return to Iraq to fight the charges and bring Saddam to justice, but wanted guarantees of his safety.
The charges against Ahmed Chalabi relate to a raid on his Baghdad house in May by Iraqi police and U.S. troops. An INC spokesman in Baghdad said that the raid had turned up just 3,000 dinars.
Ahmed Chalabi, who is in Tehran, said the charges were political. "The idea that I was involved in counterfeiting is ridiculous."
He also hit at the investigating judge. Maliky "is not a bona fide Iraqi judge but rather an unqualified person who was put in his position by the American occupation authorities," he said. "He has pursued a political vendetta against the Iraqi National Congress."
Supporters said yesterday that the timing of the warrant could be designed to prevent Ahmed Chalabi from mediating in the crisis in Najaf.
A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister, Iyad Allawi, said the interim government would not interfere in the judicial procedure. "We will wait and watch. Unlike under the former regime, the courts and judges must remain free and independent," he said.