"IRAQ IS A SOVEREIGN nation now," said Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, when asked this week to comment on the arrest warrants recently issued against Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi political figure, and his nephew, Salem Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi tribunal prosecuting Saddam Hussein. "This latest investigation, that is a matter for Iraqi authorities to handle," he continued. "The rule of law is part of the new Iraq, and so we would expect there to be due process."
As a matter of publicly stated official policy, that was probably the right answer. For now, the exact nature of the charges, and the evidence backing them up, remain unclear: The Iraqi judge who issued the warrants has accused Ahmed Chalabi of counterfeiting and Salem Chalabi of murder, but no further details have emerged. Both Chalabis have responded, in turn, by accusing the judge of playing politics. The senior Chalabi, a former member of the Iraqi Governing Council, says that the new government, with the blessing of the CIA, wants to eliminate him from the political process. The younger Chalabi suspects that members of the previous regime want to prevent him from bringing not only Saddam Hussein but a host of former senior Baathist officials to trial. Given the murkiness and the lack of evidence, there probably isn't a useful way that the White House, or any other branch of the American government, can intervene at this precise moment, except to call for due process.
In the longer term, however, the administration cannot wash its hands of the Chalabis, nor can it pretend, indefinitely, that their affairs have nothing whatsoever to do with the United States. Ahmed Chalabi played a prominent role in convincing many people in Washington of the threat Saddam Hussein posed to this country, and his Iraqi National Congress received U.S. intelligence resources and funding to help overthrow the Baathist regime. The American administration in Iraq played a role both in appointing him to the Iraqi Governing Council and, later, in limiting his influence. As many remember, Mr. Chalabi sat behind Laura Bush this year during the president's State of the Union speech. If he is a fraudster, then those who supported him must be held accountable for doing so. If he is not, then the United States has an obligation to insist, publicly, that he not become the new Iraq's first political prisoner.
Although his uncle's relationship to the United States is deeper and more complex, the outcome of the case against Salem Chalabi could conceivably have a broader impact on the future of Iraq. One of Saddam Hussein's defense lawyers has already called the charges against the younger Mr. Chalabi "a gift from God," because even if they cannot be used to invalidate the decisions of the Iraqi special tribunal, they can be used to discredit it. We have argued before that the trial of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen will play a critical role in providing Iraqis with a clearer sense of their own history as well as a set of reasons to keep fighting the insurgents who want to bring down the new system. If the trial is botched, the impact on the new Iraqi government could be devastating. Yet the tribunal will operate under a cloud until Salem Chalabi resigns -- or until his name is cleared. The United States has a very clear interest in ensuring that one of these outcomes takes place quickly, and we hope that officials are only pretending not to understand that.