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Iraqi Politician Ahmad Chalabi Falls Out of Favor with US - 2004-05-21

Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, once considered by U.S. officials a potential leader in post-war Iraq, has fallen out of favor. He is being accused of corruption and of passing secret information to Iran. The Pentagon earlier this week cut off its monthly payments to his group, the Iraqi National Congress - the INC.

When Ahmad Chalabi arrived in Baghdad a week after the major battles had ended last year, he was guarded by a U.S.-trained militia. He had been flown into the country by the Pentagon. American tanks were parked outside his headquarters.

The exiled politician initially said he would not take part in any U.S.-led interim government. But then, he accepted an offer to join the Iraqi Governing Council.

Top U.S. defense officials and many lawmakers considered Ahmad Chalabi a potential leader of post-war Iraq, even though the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency had distanced themselves from his group.

Congress had approved tens-of-millions of dollars to his opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, which vowed to oust Saddam Hussein from power.

The INC provided intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons programs before and during the war. After the war, Mr. Chalabi's group passed on information about outlawed Saddam loyalists and insurgents fighting U.S. forces. But the accuracy of that information has now been brought into question.

Last week, the Pentagon abruptly halted its monthly payments to Mr. Chalabi. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said it was part of the transition to Iraqi sovereignty. And, he responded to Chalabi critics, who accuse him of misusing the funds and providing misleading or faulty information.

?There has been some very valuable intelligence that has been gathered through that process that has been very important to our forces. but we will seek to obtain that in the future through normal intelligence channels,? Mr. Wolfowitz said.

A few days after the Pentagon halted its payments, Iraqi forces raided Mr. Chalabi's Baghdad home and office, and hauled off documents and computers. An Iraqi judge said he ordered the raid in connection with an investigation that linked several close Chalabi associates to a corruption scandal.

Mr. Chalabi blamed the raids on what he called U.S. political motivations. His relations with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority have been deteriorating steadily, amid a rising chorus of doubts about his financial and political activities.

In turn, Mr. Chalabi has criticized U.S. and U.N. plans for the transitional government that is to take control of Iraq on June 30, and which most likely would exclude him from any influential position.

Speaking to reporters after the raid on his house on Thursday, Mr. Chalabi lashed out at the U.S. occupation.

?I am now calling for policies to liberate the Iraqi people, to get full sovereignty now. And I am putting the case in a way, which they [the coalition] don't like,? he said.

But political analyst Aldo Borgu of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute lists several reasons for Mr. Chalabi's current dilemma.

?There has been a lot of speculation in terms of money that has been paid to Chalabi from the State Department and from the U.S. administration,? Mr. Borgu said. ?He has obviously got previous fraud allegations against him and outstanding warrants from Jordan. And combined with the fact that he has become more critical of the U.S. policy in Iraq probably all adds to the fact that he is no longer in favor.?

Ironically, Ahmad Chalabi is not much favored in his own country either. Few Iraqis had heard of the exiled politician when he returned after having lived outside the country for more than four decades.

If they had heard the name, many associated it with corruption and a financial scandal in neighboring Jordan, where Mr. Chalabi was convicted in 1992 in absentia for bank fraud.

In a recent opinion survey conducted in Iraq, respondents ranked him at the bottom of the list, when asked who they would trust to lead post-war Iraq.

Joseph Biden, the top ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, says the close U.S. ties with Mr. Chalabi weakened U.S. credibility in Iraq.

?I could never quite understand the incredible preoccupation of the administration with Mr. Chalabi. And I think that alliance has done us great damage, in terms of establishing legitimacy,? he said.

Senator Biden also raises other concerns about Mr. Chalabi, a self-described secular Shi'ite Iraqi, amid reports he may have passed secret information to the Iranian government, a charge Mr. Chalabi has denied.

?In recent months, Chalabi has moved closer and closer to the religious elements in Iraq, apparently belying his claims to be a secular leader,? said Senator Biden. ?And his close association with hard-liners in Iran, including Ayatollah Khamanei, has been a matter of mystery and some suspicion.?

In the wake of the raid on Mr. Chalabi's home and the Pentagon's cutoff of funds, Ahmad Chalabi's special relationship with Washington appears to be over. He himself now describes it as non-existent.