The warnings to Ahmed Chalabi from U.S. officials who run the increasingly troubled occupation of Iraq have been both subtle and brutal in recent weeks.
They have ranged from a small bureaucratic victory for the CIA, which persuaded the Bush administration to cut off funding for Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (INC), to an admonition voiced by a senior U.S. official to a friend of the once-and-future Iraqi dissident:
"We can bring the full force of U.S. power to bear against him. He should not forget that."
The threat turned into harsh reality in Baghdad Wednesday night when Iraqi policemen stormed into Chalabi's bedroom, allegedly searching for six lower-ranking members of his political organization who may or may not have been involved in car theft, currency fraud or other unspecified misbehavior, according to assorted and authorized media leaks in Washington. In the end, the police carted off at least one computer, files and, most critically, a score or more of weapons from the Iraqi politician's own security guards.
Overseeing the raid were uniformed U.S. military police officers and armed Americans in civilian clothes who refused to identify themselves to Francis Brooke, Chalabi's American political adviser. Brooke -- who once worked for a CIA front organization -- said from Baghdad yesterday that he had no doubt that the civilians were U.S. intelligence agents.
In the chaos rapidly enveloping the occupation of Iraq, the scene can only encourage Baathist killers or others who would be willing to rid the occupation authority of this meddlesome Shiite politician. Torture by proxy is already an issue in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Murder by proxy now seems within the realm of the possible in U.S.-occupied Iraq.
The raid carved into concrete and then flashed a spotlight on the message that Chalabi will receive no protection from U.S. occupation forces. It was also a direct statement about the low ebb of the former exile's political fortunes in the Bush administration. Those who once supported him, including Vice President Cheney, seem either powerless or not disposed to help him now, while his foes treat the Baghdad raid as a victory lap.
I met Chalabi in Beirut in 1972 in the early stages of his long campaign to bring down Saddam Hussein. Going it alone and engendering controversy are nothing new for this U.S.-educated math professor, whose Amman bank was confiscated by Jordanian authorities in 1989 amid allegations of corruption.
Those allegations did not prevent the Clinton administration from approving CIA funding of Chalabi's INC organization for nearly four years in the 1990s. Only in 1997, when he went public in an interview with me about the CIA's expensive, ambivalent and failed covert efforts to overthrow the Iraqi dictator, did Chalabi become a target of agency ire, defamatory leaks and worse.
More recently Chalabi added White House staffers and occupation chief Paul Bremer to the long list of those he has offended and challenged with his domineering manner, prickly sense of nationalism and unshakable self-confidence. By coming out in open, bitter opposition to the latest U.S. transition plan and its rehabilitation of senior Baathists, Chalabi seems to have crossed a final red line.
There is a hugely serious argument to be had at this crucial time on the future of Iraq. Neither Chalabi nor the Americans have all of the answers exactly right. But the impression that heavy-handed tactics have been used primarily to silence an effective critic of re-Baathification is inescapable.
A moderate Shiite who once worked with the shah of Iran (and others) against Hussein, Chalabi has also clashed with Washington over his effort to forge better relations with the current regime in Tehran. And Bremer recently moved to undercut the Chalabi-initiated investigation into kickbacks and corruption in the United Nations' oil-for-food program.
The idea that this raid had nothing to do with Chalabi's bitter opposition to U.S. policy will be seen as laughable by Iraqis and other Arabs. They know of the long American record of supporting or accepting national kleptocracies in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. This raid at this time, when police and military power are urgently needed elsewhere, can only further deepen skepticism about America's dedication to the rule of law and basic fair play in Iraq.
Iraq is not Vietnam. But Baghdad is rapidly turning into a latter-day Saigon -- a place where intelligence agents and prison guards are laws unto themselves and take revenge on uppity locals while senior Americans help or look the other way. Is this the "democracy" President Bush promised to Iraq?