By Jonathan Finer and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 6, 2005
BAGHDAD, Nov. 5 -- Ten months ago, after Ahmed Chalabi had been accused of misleading the United States into war and his longtime American patrons began investigating him for espionage, aides to the controversial Iraqi politician lamented that Washington's stance on looming parliamentary elections seemed as simple as ABC: Anybody But Chalabi.
With a new round of elections slated for Dec. 15, Chalabi is making his first official visit to Washington in two years for cabinet-level meetings -- with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow in the following days. Chalabi and some U.S. officials say those talks signal a fresh start, for now.
"If I visit Washington, it means there is no ice wall between us," Chalabi, Iraq's deputy prime minister, told reporters this past week.
"Think of him as a former football player -- that was all then. That's what he did in his other life," said a senior Bush administration official who has dealt with Chalabi. He spoke on condition of anonymity because Chalabi remains a divisive figure within the administration.
A Western diplomat in Baghdad was more circumspect. "I wouldn't read more or less into it than that we have important issues to discuss with the man and we are going to discuss them," he said, briefing reporters on the condition that he not be named.
In apparently synchronized language, several U.S. officials described Chalabi's visit as routine, one of several by Iraqi politicians this year. A State Department official said Chalabi's reception would feature "no favors, but no snubs."
Chalabi's return to Washington's corridors of power comes amid speculation in the United States and in Iraq that, despite his damaged reputation, he remains a top contender to become Iraq's next prime minister.
With his cherubic face and Cheshire cat grin, Chalabi became the most famous and influential figure in a group of Iraqi exiles during Saddam Hussein's rule and spent a decade working to topple the dictator through the Iraqi National Congress, a U.S.-funded opposition group he helped found. The MIT-trained former banker and businessman is described by admirers and critics alike as perhaps his country's most gifted political operator. But he is also often derided as a man too often tied to scandal.
After the 2003 invasion, much of the information the Iraqi National Congress provided to the U.S. government about Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction proved inaccurate, administration officials said. Last summer, U.S. forces raided Chalabi's Baghdad office after he was accused of sending secrets to Iran, whose government he retains close ties with. Chalabi has denied those allegations and has not been formally charged. On Saturday, Chalabi traveled to Tehran, where he met with top Iranian officials to discuss bilateral relations, according to Iran's official news agency.
The fallout from last year's raid led him to lower his public profile for much of the past year, minimizing media coverage and focusing on an essential, if uncelebrated, job of coordinating the Iraqi government's energy policy and protecting its oil infrastructure.
But Chalabi has remained a political power broker. He worked to bring radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr -- whose Mahdi Army militia clashed with U.S. forces last summer and fall -- to the negotiating table and eventually to embrace politics over violence.
He made headlines again this summer, and drew criticism, when reports surfaced that a commission he chairs -- charged with ridding the Iraqi government of former high-level members of Hussein's Baath Party -- attempted to remove some of the judges on the special tribunal that will hear the former dictator's cases. He also played a leading role in framing Iraq's draft constitution, which passed a nationwide referendum on Oct. 15.
Last month he helped negotiate the release of kidnapped Irish journalist Rory Carroll, according to Carroll and Chalabi aides. Carroll was freed into Chalabi's custody after a night in captivity.
But the revival of Chalabi's political fortunes suffered a setback last week when he quit the Shiite Muslim political coalition he helped found, stunning many political observers here. In negotiations over whether he would remain with the coalition -- an alliance of Shiite groups that won the most votes in January's elections -- Chalabi insisted on an assurance that party leaders, such as Abdul Aziz Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, would back his bid to become prime minister when a new government is formed next year.
At a dinner meeting at Hakim's Baghdad home on the evening before the deadline for coalition lists to be submitted, Hakim balked at the demand, two Chalabi aides said. So Chalabi, a secular Shiite, walked away from the coalition, opting instead to lead a smaller corps of lesser-known candidates unveiled this week.
"We have been quite open about his desire to be prime minister. For some parties that may have been an insoluble demand," said Francis Brooke, a senior Chalabi aide who also was targeted in the espionage investigation last year. "We think this is our time."
Yet U.S. officials note that all reliable opinion polls show Chalabi with an almost negligible political base. Others questioned whether his leaving the alliance was a miscalculation.
"He is a brilliant tactician but he does not have a lot of popular support. He needed the alliance more than they needed him," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "I think he defeated his chances to become prime minister."
But many Iraqis are frustrated with the current government, controlled by the Shiite parties Chalabi left, for failing to deliver such basic services as electricity and to quell a violent insurgency. And the highly influential clerical council that supported the Shiite alliance in January's elections has said it will stay on the sideline this time. Some observers say that opens the door to secular candidates such as Chalabi and former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, who also has close ties to the U.S. government and is considered strong on security issues by many Iraqis.
"Chalabi is one among three who at this point are front-runners to assume higher position after the Dec. 15 elections," said a second senior State Department official, who also mentioned Allawi and the Supreme Council's Adel Abdel-Mehdi, who will also visit the United States this month. "No one has forgotten the past. But this is a very important election, and [Chalabi] is a good and resourceful politician."
Brooke contends that Iraq's current prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari, has faltered over the past year and that Allawi, his predecessor, was too tainted by charges of corruption. Jafari's government has issued arrest warrants for 27 senior aides from Allawi's administration over alleged embezzlement of more than $1 billion from the Defense Ministry. Allawi's office declined interview requests for this story.
Chalabi, in 1992, was convicted in absentia by a Jordanian court of bank fraud and embezzling millions of dollars and was sentenced to 22 years of hard labor. Chalabi has maintained that he was set up by Jordanian regulators at the behest of Hussein's government.
"We plan to beat the corruption drum every day of the campaign," Brooke, the Chalabi aide, said.
During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended this past week, Chalabi hosted regular dinners for more than 100 tribal sheiks, politicians, journalists and others at his sprawling compound in the Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiyah.
One recent evening, he made his way through the crowd, laughing and slapping backs before breaking off for political discussions with small groups of potential supporters.
Some guests said Chalabi would attract more popular support than expected because of his wealth. "In Iraq, the most important power is money," said Najeeb Salihi, a politician from the Free Officer's Movement, which was formed to oppose Hussein's rule. "The same person, if he lives in a small house, might get 2,000 people" to support him, "but if he lives in a castle, he'll get 50,000 people."
Several guests, asked if they thought Iraqis trusted Chalabi enough to vote for him, said they preferred not to answer.
After dinner, in a brief poolside interview with reporters, Chalabi was reflective and coy when asked about his ambitions.
"I feel very good. I'm energized," he said. "Historically I had three targets. First, overthrow the dictatorship. Second, establish a constitutional, parliamentary, federal government. Third, put Saddam on trial. All these have been achieved."
And becoming prime minister? "It's not such a big deal," he said with a grin and a shrug.
Wright reported from Washington. Special correspondent Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad contributed to this report.