Everything old seems new again in Iraq, including Chalabi


Ahmad ChalabiHe took millions of dollars from the C.I.A., founded and was accused of defrauding the second-biggest bank in Jordan and sold the Bush administration a bill of goods on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

At first championed by the Bush administration’s neoconservatives as a potential leader of Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi ended up persona non grata, effectively barred from the wartime American Embassy here. Now, in an improbable twist of fate, Mr. Chalabi is being talked about as a serious candidate for prime minister. He has also been back to the embassy.

With Sunni insurgents rampaging across the country and sectarian killings on the rise, everything old seems new again in Iraq — including, apparently, Mr. Chalabi.

And on Monday, Obama administration officials said that about 200 more troops had been sent to protect the American Embassy in Baghdad and the Baghdad airport. The additional troops, who arrived on Sunday, will operate helicopters and drones to “bolster airfield and route security,” Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.

In addition to those forces, another 100 troops who the Pentagon had previously said would be sent to Iraq are headed to Baghdad to help with security and logistics. The moves will raise the total number of American troops deployed to Iraq for security and advisory missions to about 750.

As Iraq’s political parties held round-the-clock meetings the past three days to try to agree on the shape of a new government in time to convene Parliament on Tuesday and begin choosing new leaders, Mr. Chalabi’s name was one of two being prominently mentioned to replace the incumbent prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

Mr. Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress has only one seat in the Parliament, his own, and it is a measure of his skills as a political operator that he is even under consideration.

It is also a measure of the desperate state of the effort to forge a new government amid severe sectarian strains and demands from bothAmerican and Iranian allies that Sunnis and Kurds be included — all while the country is under severe threat from Sunni-based Islamic extremists.

“Our candidates for prime minister are Adel Abdul Mahdi or Ahmad Chalabi,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a prominent leader in the parliamentary bloc of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, which in turn is part of the National Alliance, a coalition of all Shiite groups.

The alliance is trying to persuade the State of Law party of Mr. Maliki, also a Shiite, to stand aside for another Shiite. “If State of Law refuses to accept any other candidate, we will ally with the Kurds and the Sunnis to form a government,” said Mr. Zamili, who was accused of organizing death squads when he served as Iraq’s deputy health minister.

“You know, there is a saying in Arabic that when you have seen death, you don’t mind a high fever,” said one aide to Mr. Maliki who is among a growing number of Mr. Maliki’s own supporters hoping that he will bow out. The aide’s point was that almost anything was possible in the contorted state of Iraqi politics.

The normally garrulous Mr. Chalabi did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.

On the face of it, Mr. Chalabi as prime minister seems, at best, highly unlikely. His exile-based, C.I.A.-financed Iraqi National Congress never built much of a grass-roots following in Iraq, and he suffered from the Americans’ growing unpopularity as the war dragged on. His role in promoting what many now view as concocted evidence of weapons of mass destruction under Saddam Hussein badly tarnished him.

Only a year after the invasion, American special forces raided his home in the upper class Mansour neighborhood, apparently in a vain attempt to prove him a spy for Iran. Unlike many returning exiles, Mr. Chalabi stayed in Iraq through all the bad years, and not without risk; one suicide bomber narrowly missed him, killing six of his bodyguards.

Iraqi politicians clockwise from top left: Bayan Jabr, Ayad Allawi, Ahmad Chalabi, Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Iraqi politicians clockwise from top left: Bayan Jabr, Ayad Allawi, Ahmad Chalabi, Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Spurned by the Americans, he became an ally of Mr. Sadr, the radical Shiite leader, a friend to Iran and a regular visitor to the Shiite ayatollahs in Najaf. OPEN GRAPHIC

Mr. Chalabi, 69, put skills honed during long years of exile in Washington as a communicator and back-room operator to good use, though, forging alliances with the Sadrists and their Iranian patrons, and also with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiites’ supreme religious leader.

Some argue that Mr. Chalabi is at best a long-shot candidate, but so is every Maliki opponent at this point. Mr. Maliki’s State of Law party gained the biggest number of seats in the April 30 election, and now claims 95, well short of the 165 needed to make a majority in the 328-seat Parliament. But Mr. Maliki has lost support from the powerful Shiite clerics who, like the Americans, have politely but clearly signaled they would prefer he step down.

Replacing Mr. Maliki is one of the few things nearly all other politicians agree on — the other Shiite parties, as well as the Sunnis and Kurds and a host of tiny parties, which together could theoretically control as many as 233 seats in the Parliament.

Mr. Maliki’s State of Law supporters say the arithmetic is all on the incumbent’s side, however, and scoff at suggestions any other candidate could replace him. “Even if other parties don’t attend the first session, the State of Law with other small parties joining it will have enough seats to form a government,” said a party leader, Alia Nussif.

Nevertheless, at least four State of Law political leaders have said they want to see Mr. Maliki leave for someone whom all Shiites could coalesce around and other groups would find acceptable. That could either be some other figure in his party or, more likely, someone from one of the other major Shiite parties, most likely the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

That is where Mr. Chalabi’s chance comes into play. In the recent elections, he ran as an independent with the Islamic Supreme Council alliance, whose leading candidate was Bayan Jabr. Mr. Jabr, however, was the interior minister during some of the worst days of sectarian violence, when police and security forces were deeply implicated in the killings of Sunnis.

Mr. Chalabi, a secular Shiite, would not have that problem, although he was in charge of the de-Baathification commission that stripped Sunni officials of their positions. Lately, he has called for de-Baathification to be ended in the interest of healing differences between sects.

Mr. Chalabi also has the support of the followers of Mr. Sadr, whose Mahdi Army battled the Americans in the streets until he made peace and joined the political process. Mr. Sadr’s allies control 34 seats in the new Parliament, even more than the Islamic Supreme Council, once the biggest Shiite party, with 29.

The other candidate some of the Sadrists are talking about is Adel Abdul Mahdi, a former vice president and stalwart of the Islamic Supreme Council. Mr. Abdul Mahdi is tarnished by the years that he spent in government, however, and reputedly does not enjoy the level of Iranian support that Mr. Chalabi and the Sadrists have.

“Ahmad Chalabi is close to all the parties and is a good candidate,” said Nahida al-Daini, a leader with the Sunni Mutahidoon party. “But accepting him will also depend on internal and external approvals.” She apparently was referring to Iraqi religious leaders and foreign countries like Iran. Mr. Abdul Mahdi was also a possibility, she said.

Ahmed al-Sharifi, president of an Iraqi think tank called the Center for Strategic Studies, based in Karbala, in southern Iraq, said Mr. Chalabi was the most likely candidate to emerge as prime minister, at least in part because his lack of a political organization puts him in the role of an independent, and because he also enjoys support from the powerful marja, as the council of ayatollahs in Iraq, led by Mr. Sistani, is called.

“He’s a technocrat, an independent within the Shiite alliance, and he’s a man everybody can agree on among Sunnis and Kurds,” Mr. Sharifi said. Even his old C.I.A. connections are no longer a liability, he said. “Nobody cares about that stuff anymore.”

NY Times



One response to “Everything old seems new again in Iraq, including Chalabi”

  1. 5thDrawer Avatar

    All old little despots … something like Lebanon.

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