Chalabi, Shunted to Sidelines, Shares His Playbook for Iraq
Party Leader Emphasizes Elections, Shaking Off U.S. Tutelage
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 30, 2004; Page A12
BAGHDAD, June 29 -- Ahmed Chalabi smiled contentedly at the thought. L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator who ran Iraq like a viceroy for more than a year, was reduced to a hasty exit with a stealthy helicopter ride to the airport, seen off without fanfare by no one higher-ranking than a deputy prime minister.
"Bremer put his hand in his pocket and went to the airport ignominiously," Chalabi chortled Tuesday, the day after Bremer's departure. "And Dan Senor with him," he added, referring to Bremer's spokesman, who had denigrated Chalabi on television.
In essence, Chalabi was saying, Bremer is now gone, Senor is now gone and Ahmed Chalabi is not.
True, Chalabi has been disowned by the Pentagon and his other sponsors in Washington, the ones who not long ago were paying him for intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that seems to have been groundless. Thanks in part to Bremer, he also was excluded from the new government headed by his longtime rival from exile days, Ayad Allawi. And warrants or subpoenas have been issued for about 15 of his aides, including his intelligence chief, while sources in the United States, speaking anonymously, suggest he may have passed U.S. secrets to Iran. Chalabi, who was not charged, has denied any wrongdoing by himself or his associates.
Now, as the Bush administration's efforts in Iraq enter a new phase and many key Americans have departed, Chalabi remains.
The cunning and determination that served him during more than a decade of encouraging the United States into war against Saddam Hussein have not deserted him. From headquarters in Mansour, Baghdad's toniest neighborhood, the former exile leader, the former Washington protégé, the former Iraqi Governing Council member has taken to watching, waiting and laying closely held plans.
Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, which once drew funds from the CIA and the Pentagon, has not gained a high profile as a political force in Iraq, but neither have the other exile groups. The INC will participate as a political party in next January's elections, Chalabi said. But in a shirt-sleeves conversation at his expansive residence, the portly campaigner, 59, danced and jabbed relentlessly when asked about what is left of his own political ambitions.
When pressed, he cited a bit of wisdom attributed to Imam Ali, a 7th-century warrior who married a daughter of the prophet Muhammad and became a central figure of Shiite Islam: "He who seeks authority should not be given authority." In more modern terms, he said he was lying low because "people immediately ascribe to me aims and ambitions of achieving power."
Chalabi, a secular Shiite, has kept only a modest hand in public affairs since the Governing Council on which he served disbanded a month ago. He has helped organize the grand assembly convening next month to pick a quasi-legislature, and he meets regularly with the Shiite Caucus of Iraq's Shiite political leaders. But he is the only senior figure in the U.S.-backed exile movement whose group was frozen out of the new government by the Bush administration's political process.
Yet even from the sidelines, Chalabi said, he has clear ideas about what the Iraqi government should do -- ideas formed in years of maneuvering through the many agencies of the U.S. government. His ideas, forcefully expressed, have gotten him into trouble before, he acknowledged, generating hostility at the CIA, enraging Bremer and irritating even fellow members of the Governing Council.
The CIA had a long grudge against him, he said, because he warned that Iraqi intelligence had penetrated a 1996 coup plot supported by George J. Tenet, then deputy director of intelligence. Bremer turned against him because of his repeated insistence that Iraqis be given authority more swiftly to run their own country, Chalabi said.
It was Bremer, he said, who was behind the raid May 20 in which his office was searched for compromising documents on the strength of a warrant issued by an Iraqi judge. However, Senor, Bremer's spokesman, said at the time that Bremer's only connection with the case was administrative. "Ambassador Bremer doesn't intervene in these respective cases," Senor said then, "he just handles the procedural matter of referring it."
Now things have changed. Bremer has gone home and the Bush administration has cut its ties, leaving Chalabi in Baghdad with a future just as uncertain as that of the rest of his 25 million countrymen. As the new government takes its first steps with restored political authority, there was no longer any reason not to lay out his ideas.
The first imperative, Chalabi said, is to make sure the elections scheduled for January are carried out as promised. Allawi suggested over the weekend that the voting might have to be postponed until February or March if the security situation did not improve. But he swiftly disavowed the idea of delay the next day, recognizing the issue's sensitivity in a country repeatedly told that democracy had arrived.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Ahmed Chalabi, center, excluded from Iraq's interim government, watched Monday as new officials were sworn in.
(David Guttenfelder -- AP)