Chalabi's curtain call

The White House resets the stage yet again for the notorious Iraqi expatriate who helped cook the case for war.

Published November 10, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

On the street in Iraq, people give nicknames to the big longtime-expatriate politicians whom the Americans brought back to Iraq. They call former transitional Prime Minister Iyad Allawi "Iyad the Baathist" because of his background in that party. And they call Ahmed Chalabi "Ahmed the Thief." How appropriate that Chalabi has again made a splash in a Washington, D.C., that looks increasingly like a kleptocracy itself.

On the surface Chalabi ought to be finished in Iraqi politics. But until Dec. 15, he is a deputy prime minister. His meetings in Washington this week with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley acknowledge his high political office -- even though not so long ago the Bush administration tried to destroy him. What accounts for the turnabout in his political fortunes in the United States? Credit the shifting political winds in Iraq -- and perhaps yet more savvy back-channel dealings by Chalabi with the Bush administration. It can't be because of his rap sheet, whole reams of pages long.

Chalabi provided copious amounts of false intelligence to the United States in the late 1990s and through the run-up to the Iraq war. The defectors, con men and crooks he supplied to the CIA and the Pentagon made all sorts of extravagant and ridiculous claims that were eagerly swallowed by the hawks in the Bush administration.

One source, known as "Curveball," alleged that Iraq had mobile biological weapons labs, which is a contradiction in terms. One can only imagine what would have happened to Saddam's biologists, experimenting with dangerous microbes, when the trailer had a flat tire or hit a pothole. Chalabi's source nevertheless succeeded in getting such absurdities included in Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003.

Chalabi was convicted of massive bank fraud in Jordan in the early 1990s. He was given millions by the State Department and the CIA for the overthrow of Saddam, funds he never properly accounted for. When those agencies dropped him as a result, he cultivated contacts in the Pentagon instead.

In the spring of 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputies, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, had a secret plan to install Ahmed Chalabi as a soft dictator of Iraq and to arrange some sort of phony elections that would make it look as though he had a mandate. Larry Diamond, in his book "Squandered Victory," writes that their plan was foiled by the State Department, which found out about it. The State Department convinced George W. Bush that it would be a disaster, and he agreed to send to Iraq a former State Department official, Paul "Jerry" Bremer to forestall such Pentagon flights of fancy.

By the spring of 2004, serious charges were launched against Chalabi, presumably at Bremer's behest. He was accused of passing top-secret information to the Iranian government: that the United States had broken Iranian encryption codes. That is, before Chalabi allegedly spilled the beans, U.S. intelligence had deep access to what Iranian government officials said among themselves. After the Chalabi incident, Iran became more opaque to the United States, which already struggled to find out about what was going on inside the country. Chalabi was also charged with having in his possession counterfeit bills.

He managed, however, to survive the indictment. Soon after his indictment the Americans "transferred sovereignty" to the appointed government of Iyad Allawi. Further prosecution of Chalabi would have undertaken by the new government, which apparently was not keen to follow up. It remains unclear how it transpired or who was behind it, but gradually the judge in the case was marginalized and reassigned.

By the fall of 2004, Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress had joined the major Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, and he gained the no. 10 spot on the party slate. The UIA, which was endorsed by the spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, won 51 percent of the 275 seats in the Iraqi Parliament and was able to form a government in coalition with the Kurdistan Alliance. Chalabi managed to get himself installed as a deputy prime minister. He then parlayed that position into oversight of foreign contracts proposed for Iraq.

While Chalabi was able to ride the coalition of religious Shiite parties to significant power in the new system, despite being a secularist himself, that ride appeared to come to an end last month. Chalabi had been offered only three places on the United Iraqi Alliance slate, based on the coalition's estimate of the number of seats his slate would likely garner in open elections. Then Chalabi abruptly announced that he would not run on the UIA slate, but that his Iraqi National Congress would stand for election alone.

Chalabi explained in an interview with an Arabic-language magazine that his departure from the UIA was linked to the advent of the political movement of the young Shiite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. The original UIA had had a big bloc of moderate and even secular candidates, but its center of gravity was the religious Shiite parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Sadr, who turned to civil politics after his Mahdi Army was defeated twice by the U.S. Marines, had maintained neutrality on the elections last year, though some of his followers ran and got elected anyway. For the upcoming Dec. 15 elections, Sadr's followers were given 30 places on the UIA slate. The coalition was now swinging even further to the religious right -- and Chalabi maintains that there was no longer any place in it for secularists such as himself.

That explanation makes no sense. Chalabi had developed good relations with Sadr and had mediated between him and his enemies. Up until a few days before the deadline for filing coalitions, Chalabi seemed to be on board. Then it was revealed that Muqtada al-Sadr had made it a prerequisite for his joining the UIA that it pledge not to recognize Israel. Chalabi had signaled he would do just that, and he therefore could no longer hope for the support of the American neoconservatives, his main backers, if he remained within the UIA framework. Sadr's positions made that coalition an inhospitable environment for Chalabi's kind of politics, which depends on his contacts and commitments in foreign capitals, and so he left.

The Iraqi National Congress is dominated by longtime expatriates and seems unlikely to do well in the elections scheduled for Dec. 15. Some observers are hoping that the Iraqi public will swing against the Dawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq because their prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, has been ineffectual and the new government has not provided security.

Such hopes are probably forlorn. Iraqis in recent elections have put more stock in identity politics than such considerations, and it is hard to imagine a pious pilgrimage center like the Najaf province voting for secularists at this time. Chalabi will be lucky to get enough votes even to get a seat in the Parliament if the elections are free and fair. Another old-time expatriate politician with secular leanings, Adnan Pachachi, found it impossible to get elected to Parliament last January.

Yet there is talk, both on the American and the Iranian scenes, of Chalabi's becoming Iraq's next prime minister. Somewhat bizarrely, Chalabi visited Tehran last weekend for warm consultations with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other politicians, just before his Washington trip. Then the Iranians came out and said that he would be acceptable to them as prime minister. Some speculate that Chalabi brought some sort of back-channel message from Washington aimed at reducing tensions between the two countries.

Could Chalabi come to power in Iraq? If the Shiite religious parties get a majority in Parliament, the post will certainly go to a UIA member. Chalabi and his backers may hope, however, that the United Iraqi Alliance will fall short of a majority this time. If so, it will need to form a coalition, and Chalabi may hope that he will be acceptable to all members of the resulting government. That is, he would emerge as a minority prime minister but with the acquiescence of much bigger parties.

It's worth noting that Washington's hopes of shaping Iraqi politics have, to say the least, often proved impractical. It is clear that the Bush administration had hoped to shoehorn the old CIA asset and ex-Baathist Iyad Allawi into power as prime minister last Jan. 30. The Americans gave Allawi all the advantages of incumbency by joining with the United Nations to appoint him transitional prime minister. In fact, his slate only got 14.5 percent of the vote and Allawi was quickly marginalized by the religious Shiites and the Kurds. The same thing could easily happen to Chalabi.

That Chalabi, a wily schemer and convicted crook, should continue his sleazy attempts to get control of Iraq's billions in petroleum revenues is completely unsurprising. That a scandal-ridden Bush administration should warmly welcome the fraudster to Washington yet again and have him hobnob with top officials shows profound disrespect for U.S. troops risking their lives in Iraq. Chalabi lied to and manipulated the American public, reportedly passed top-secret information to Iran, and for a while allied with Muqtada al-Sadr. Officials in the administration are apparently hoping that the American public won't notice that they are playing the same old games, with U.S. foreign policy and with Iraq. As we know all too well by now, they are disastrous games.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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