By Ernesto Londoño and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 27, 2010; A01
BAGHDAD -- Ahmed Chalabi, the onetime U.S. ally, is in the limelight again, and his actions are proving no less controversial than they did years ago.
On the eve of Iraq's parliamentary elections, Chalabi is driving an effort aimed at weeding out candidates tied to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Chalabi is reprising a role he played after the U.S.-led invasion -- which many critics believe he helped facilitate with faulty intelligence -- and, in the process, is infuriating American officials and some Iraqis, who suspect his motive is to bolster his own political bloc.
Chalabi, a Shiite, has defended the work of the commission he is leading as legal and crucial during a period of transition to Iraq's first sovereign government. But his reemergence on the political scene has rankled U.S. officials and fueled concerns that Sunnis and other secular Iraqis will be marginalized.
Some Iraqi and U.S. officials think Chalabi might have his eyes on the ultimate prize, however unlikely he can attain it.
"Even if it kills him, he's going to stay in Iraq to try to become prime minister," said Ezzat Shahbandar, a Shiite lawmaker from a competing slate who has known Chalabi for more than 20 years. "This issue is the only tool he has, because he has nothing else going for him."
Chalabi fell out of favor with the Americans in 2004, after they accused him of spying for Iran. The year before, though, he had been appointed to head a U.S.-formed commission to rid the government of officials tied to Hussein's regime.
The hasty, wholesale purge that the commission conducted is now widely seen as a catalyst of the insurgency and Iraq's sectarian war. Today, however, Chalabi remains at the helm of a similar "de-Baathification" panel, the Justice and Accountability Commission, because parliament has not appointed new members.
When the commission recently announced the disqualification of nearly 500 candidates from the March 7 parliamentary elections, critics noted that candidates from Sunni-led and mixed secular coalitions were disproportionately targeted. Many of those ousted were rivals of Chalabi's bloc.
A court impaneled to review the cases carried out a cursory review behind closed doors. Candidates were allowed to submit written appeals but were never told the specific nature of the allegations against them. The court disqualified 145 candidates; most others dropped out or their parties replaced them.
Now the disqualifications are widening sectarian and religious divides in Iraq, even as it continues to reel from decades of authoritarian rule, occupation and bloodshed. This week, in an apparent attempt to allay some of the bitterness, the government said it would reinstate 20,000 former army officers ousted because of their ties to Hussein.
But the political disqualifications threaten to undermine the elections, overshadowing campaign issues such as security, unemployment and basic services.
At the center of it all is Chalabi.
In campaign posters, Chalabi, a onetime Iraqi exile, bills himself as "the Destroyer of the symbols of the Baath." Placards for other candidates on his political slate, the Iraqi National Alliance, are graced with the words "No space for the Baath," written in crimson letters that suggest blood.
The alliance is a Shiite coalition of parties whose most prominent figures are former Iraqi exiles in the current government. Those parties did poorly in provincial elections in January 2009.
"The provincial elections showed the limits of the appeal of sectarianism," a senior Western diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer candid analysis. By fanning fears of the return of the Baathists, the official added, "they may be hoping that Baathism will help them get past that limit."
Chalabi, 65, comes from an elite Baghdad family. He formed the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group, in the early 1990s with U.S. backing.
He has long had a strong relationship with Iran. But he became close to the CIA and the Pentagon in the run-up to the invasion, as U.S. officials used his group to muster opposition against Hussein. The U.S. government funneled millions to his group, which provided it with intelligence reports that later proved to be erroneous. In 2004, Chalabi was a guest of President George W. Bush at the State of the Union address.
Many Iraqi Shiite politicians have little regard for Chalabi because he left in the late 1950s, avoiding authoritarian rule. Many of his peers were imprisoned, tortured and forced into exile.
Despite his lack of popular support, Chalabi has remained relevant. Even his rivals allow that he has keen political instincts, a sharp mind and a knack for influencing powerful people. He also does not shy from controversy.
This week, his deputy on the commission, Ali Faisal al-Lami, said hundreds of officials in Iraq's intelligence, army and police agencies are subject to dismissal for links to the Baath Party.
"We believe there are thousands of others who will be found," he said in an interview. "These measures will seriously enhance security in Iraq by dismissing any bad elements that carry the Baath ideology."
If that effort gains traction in the weeks ahead, U.S. officials say, political violence could very well follow. U.S. commanders could also suddenly lose key Iraqi officers who they have trained and mentored over the years.
"They will try to get rid of pro-U.S. generals, but more importantly, they are stacking the deck with pro-Iranian officers, which will damage U.S. long-term interests in the long run," a senior U.S. military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to talk to reporters. "This is why many neighboring Arab countries aren't so happy about us modernizing the Iraqi military with some of the latest equipment."
Chalabi did not respond to calls, e-mails and text messages seeking an interview. In a recent statement, he said his commission was "carrying out its legal, moral and nationalistic duty to protect the political process against infiltration by the Saddamist Baathists."
Ryan C. Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 until last year, said Chalabi is no one's "agent."
"He's an opportunist and he's a nationalist," Crocker said, "and he will use whatever vehicle or platform that presents itself to further his own agenda."
Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.