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The Chalabi Affair - 2004-06-03


Skilled, smooth-tongued foreigners have often intruded on American affairs, such as Citizen Genet, ambassador from revolutionary France in 1793. Enthusiastically received by Americans opposed to monarchy, he even outfitted warships in American ports for use against Britain. But President George Washington finally had enough and sent him packing. There was to be no U.S. involvement in European wars.

Today, another impetuous foreigner has had better luck. Iraqi-born Ahmed Chalabi was determined to bring the United States into war with Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Well spoken and well dressed, he combined charm with conviction and won many recruits to his cause.

The war occurred, but like Citizen Genet, he is now paying a price for it. He is accused of providing false information about pre-war Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and its ties to al-Qaida, and more ominously of passing top U.S. secrets to Iran.

Phil Giraldi, a former CIA officer in the clandestine service, says this information could not have been more sensitive. According to a report in the New York Times based on U-S intelligence sources, Mr. Chalabi told Iran that the United States had broken the secret communications code of its intelligence service a vital means of following events in Iran. Mr. Giraldi says the information was passed to Mr. Chalabi by civilians in the Defense Department, who are now under investigation by the FBI.

"The suspicion would be that the information was passed to him because it was the type of information that would have benefited him in terms of his relationship with his competitors in Iraq and for that reason was given to him. But of course, it wound up in Iran."

Mr. Chalabi vehemently denies passing any classified material to Iran, and Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, backs him up. The CIA has turned on him, says Mr. Perle, because he refuses to be their puppet. "He has a mind of his own." Even so, observers say his long association with the United States government, which funded him, has come to an end. His once strong support has waned, culminating in a raid on his Baghdad headquarters.

Mr. Chalabi has great ambitions for Iraq that may not be fulfilled now, says Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College:

"Despite all the perks that he has received from the Defense Department and the State Department and even the CIA, I think he has failed to establish himself on the Iraqi scene, and American officials now are coming to recognize that he has become a liability to the American political project in Iraq."

Mr. Chalabi was so intent on going to war, says an article in The New Yorker magazine, that he even ran a forgery shop in northern Iraq which churned out documents in support of his positions.

Mr. Chalabi courted power brokers in Washington, says The New Yorker, stressing his good will toward Israel and the possibility of restoring an oil pipeline from northern Iraq to Haifa. But there were many warning signals, notes Professor Gerges, such as Mr. Chalabi's 22-year prison sentence in absentia for defrauding a large bank in Jordan.

"He has basically tried to play the world players, local players and regional players against one another. And finally, I think his game has caught up with him. It seems to me that Ahmed Chalabi has now become a casualty of his own game."

Mr. Chalabi still has his defenders, especially among so-called neo-conservatives who were equally determined on war with Iraq. Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says Mr. Chalabi is more victim than villain.

"I do not think anybody knows whether the wide variety of accusations against him and his personnel are true or whether various people within the American Government are playing out a longstanding vendetta against him."

Ms. Pletka says he has been targeted by opponents of the Iraq war because he favored it. That also explains his close ties to Iran which wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein as much as he did. She believes he still has a future as a man utterly devoted to his country - Iraq:

"It is very clear that he has to translate his own political views and his own ideas into an Iraqi political agenda. If he is able to do that and is successful, then good for him. If he is not successful, then that is what we mean by democracy."

At the moment, says The New Yorker, Mr. Chalibi is reinventing himself as a religious leader with a Shi'a following and recently joined an anti-American protest in Iraq. A skeptic notes Mr. Chalabi will become an Imam if he has to.

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