You are hearing a lot about Ahmed Chalabi right now. Much of it is not true. Worse, you are not hearing what you need to know about a man who is neither an Iraqi puppet for U.S. forces nor a conniving political fortune hunter taking the Bush administration for a ride.
Who is Chalabi? The antiwar, anti-Bush, anti-change-in-Iraq crowd spreads the puppet version to smear this Iraqi exile leader, while State Department and CIA senior officials peddle the fortune-hunter image. Both groups use Chalabi as a dartboard to serve their own interests or those of their Arab clients. Their objections reveal more about their politics than his.
Like Iraq itself, Chalabi has learned in a lifetime of fighting Saddam Hussein from abroad to keep things hidden. We have known each other for 30 of his 58 years. But it was only two years ago that I fully understood why he had given up a banker's fortune, a life of academic achievement and material comfort and precious time with children he manifestly adores to oppose the Iraqi dictator in his every waking moment.
His sister had just died. A distraught Chalabi was preparing to leave London to arrange for her burial in the Syrian capital of Damascus. "This is the worst part," he said over the telephone. "I have to bury one more member of my family outside our country. I have buried my parents and my brother outside Iraq already. When will I bring them home?"
Chalabi was much closer to achieving that goal yesterday when I reached him by satellite telephone in Nasiriya. He and at least 700 members of the Free Iraqi Forces being trained by the U.S. military were flown over the weekend from northern Iraq into that southern city, which is inhabited largely by Iraqis who follow the Shiite branch of Islam -- as does Chalabi.
His religion is important both to the U.S. troops trying to work with Shiite clerics to calm the population in the south and to his critics in the State Department, who identify American interests with the authoritarian Sunni elites who run the Arab world. When you hear Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage maligning Chalabi, you hear the institutional voices of Saudi Arabia and Egypt speaking through him.
Chalabi was too busy yesterday to worry about the ugly polemics and race for influence that the impending collapse of Iraq's dictatorship has sparked in Washington. He had just returned from the town of Suq ash-Shuyukh, where seven civilians had been killed or wounded by U.S. forces in a "fog of war" incident.
"We were able to work out problems both sides felt they had in this tragedy," said Chalabi, who went on in exasperation: "This could have been avoided. It was a result of lack of knowledge by the U.S. soldiers about the region. We are here to participate in joint operations that will free and protect Iraqis, not to be anybody's puppets."
Like exiles and oppressed people everywhere, Chalabi has been forced to take support for his cause wherever he could find it. He worked closely with the shah of Iran in the 1970s to spark a rebellion against Baghdad, and with the CIA and the Clinton administration in the 1990s, until they too abandoned him.
Today it is Vice President Cheney, some Pentagon planners and neoconservative intellectuals (among others) who have absorbed his analysis of Iraq. That fact is offered as prima facie evidence that Chalabi is their creation and must be stopped. But that is the kind of guilt-by-association politics that Cheney once practiced in denouncing Nelson Mandela's African National Congress because it took support from Moscow and Moammar Gaddafi when American help was not available.
Such character assassination by remote control was wrong when practiced by the political right. It is no less wrong now for having been taken up by the left, by ex-Clintonites who fought Chalabi when he sought their help, and by those with personal or ideological scores to settle against Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Perle. The attempt to get at them -- and ultimately at Bush's presidency -- by libeling Chalabi sets a new low in the stinking mess known as Washington politics.
This former math professor takes more pride in the doctorate his daughter Tamara has just received from Harvard than in any of his own accomplishments. He will be nobody's puppet. I doubt he will agree to serve in the Iraqi Interim Authority that will be created by a U.S. military government he has sought to prevent.
Chalabi has a more pressing, more personal agenda in liberated Iraq. He first has to find burial plots for his family.