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Ahmad Chalabi Fights to Reverse His Fall From Grace - 2004-09-07

Just months ago, Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi was a guest of honor sitting behind Laura Bush at the State of the Union. Today Mr. Chalabi has been mostly abandoned by his U.S. allies who once touted him as a realistic contender for the post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi presidency. What brought about his fall from grace? VOA's Patricia Nunan sat down with Mr. Chalabi to discuss what happened.

Ahmad Chalabi says the controversy that surrounds him dates back to April, with the emergence of media reports about a memo written by a member of the National Security Council in Washington. Reports say the memo, entitled "Marginalizing Chalabi," outlines ways to remove Mr. Chalabi from any influence in post-war Iraq.

Weeks later, Iraqi and U.S. forces raided Mr. Chalabi's house and office in Baghdad amid charges that he had provided Iran with classified U.S. intelligence.

More recently, a U.S. newspaper, The Washington Post, reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, is also investigating whether Mr. Chalabi received intelligence about Iran from a leak inside the Pentagon.

Mr. Chalabi claims these press reports are false. He says he has never been contacted by officials about any investigation.

"We read about it in the press and our lawyers in the U.S. have written to the attorney general and the director of the FBI offering cooperation in this investigation - if it exists," he said. "We have had no answer. The lawyers have written several months ago - so we don't know."

As leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group set up in 1992, Mr. Chalabi played a key role in the run-up to the war with Iraq. He found defectors who affirmed suspicions that Saddam was building weapons of mass destruction. In exchange for information on Saddam's regime, the U.S. government paid Mr. Chalabi's group nearly $335,000 a month.

But since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, Mr. Chalabi appears to have fallen out of Washington's favor. Some analysts say Mr. Chalabi has taken the blame for the failure of the U.S. to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - the main reason outlined by the White House for invading. Others say he deliberately misled the U.S. claiming the Iraqi people would greet American liberators with open arms; that his militia, the Free Iraqi Fighters, would restore order; and that, after a few months, the vast majority of U.S. troops could go home.

Mr. Chalabi rejects any assertion he is a scapegoat or a victim of rivalries between officials or agencies in Washington. Still, he says Iraqi police backed by U.S. troops continue to raid INC offices in Baghdad - a fact he blames on Washington politics.

"It's the exigencies of politics," he said. "Washington has allies here in this region. And some of them view me as a danger to them and my political program and what I am advocating is dangerous. And they may have decided to do a deal in Washington with their allies in exchange for something else. I don't know. But what is happening is certainly not natural."

The storm surrounding Mr. Chalabi does not end there. Last month an Iraqi judge issued arrest warrants against him and his nephew Salem Chalabi. The elder Mr. Chalabi was charged with allegedly counterfeiting the Iraqi currency. His nephew, who is the head of the tribunal that will try Saddam Hussein on war-crimes charges, was charged with the murder of an Iraqi finance official and could face the death penalty.

Both denied the charges, and since then, each arrest warrant has been changed to court summons. Mr. Chalabi refuses to comment further on the specifics of each case. But he rails against the political dimension to the charges against his nephew.

"This is a bonanza for the pro-Saddam people and it will definitely cast a big shadow over the credibility of the tribunal if the director of the tribunal and if the symbol of the tribunal - which has become Salem because he's worked hard on it - is charged with a heinous crime," he said. "My belief [is] that he is totally innocent."

If the legal and political turmoil were not enough to keep Mr. Chalabi on edge, there was also an attempt on his life last week. Gunmen, whom he assumes were Saddam Hussein loyalists, attacked his convoy on the outskirts of the city of Najaf - the same area where three journalists have been abducted. Four of Mr. Chalabi's bodyguards were killed.

"They opened fire on my convoy and they hit a car wounding some people," Mr. Chalabi said. "Some people stayed behind to get the vehicle back, they were captured by them and subsequently killed?It's the same group that did this murder as the group that kidnapped the French journalists ? and who beheaded the Italian journalist recently."

Mr. Chalabi has also been critical of the U.S. government for what he calls its "flawed" handling of Iraq since the invasion. He calls the security situation in the country "ugly," in part because of competing interests between the U.S. and its neighbors. He says talks should be held to resolve this.

"Iraq does not need enemies. Iraq needs friends," said Mr. Chalabi. "And Iraq cannot be the battle ground to settle scores of others. We want to engage our neighbors in constructive dialogue? so that the U.S. also feels comfortable that we Iraqis can move forward in a different way which is not only based on military power and confrontation, but rather on dialogue on discussion with our neighbors to secure our borders and also to help secure the situation in the country. Making charges and escalating the rhetoric with the neighbors is not the way forward at this time."

Mr. Chalabi clearly believes that he is an Iraqi leader who is here to stay.