-- Iraqi police backed by U.S. soldiers on Thursday raided the home of Ahmed Chalabi, a Governing Council member who was once the Pentagon's pick to run postwar Iraq. Officials later said they were seeking 15 people, including at least one member of Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, on charges including fraud and kidnapping.
In coordinated searches, U.S. troops seized computers, files and dozens of rifles from two offices of the INC, a coalition of political parties that opposed former president Saddam Hussein. Boot prints marked several doors kicked down in the raids, which included a top-to-bottom search of the INC intelligence center that U.S. authorities once turned to for help in searching for former top Hussein officials and weapons of mass destruction.
A visibly agitated Chalabi told reporters after the raids that they were retribution for his increasingly strident criticism of the American management of post-Hussein Iraq. "I call to liberate the Iraqi people and get back our complete sovereignty," he said, speaking in English, "and I am raising these issues in a way that the Americans don't like."
But Hussein Muathin, a judge with the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, said the raids were part of an investigation into such crimes as the detaining and torturing of people, theft of government cars and illegal seizure of government facilities. Eight people, including Aras Habib, Chalabi's security and intelligence chief, have been declared fugitives. Chalabi was not charged.
U.S. and Iraqi officials said that the arrest orders originated in the Iraqi justice system and that senior U.S. occupation officials did not know about the warrants until they were served.
The raids appeared to complete Chalabi's fall from grace in the eyes of U.S. officials over the last difficult year of the occupation. In recent weeks, occupation authorities have cut off a $335,000 monthly subsidy to the INC's intelligence arm and have pursued an investigation focusing on alleged fraud against government agencies by Sabah Nouri, a Chalabi aide who served as the anti-corruption chief at the Ministry of Finance.
This pressure comes as occupation officials are preparing to hand limited authority to Iraqis on June 30 and oppose a government role for such former allies as Chalabi.
The raids alarmed other members of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, several of whom called on the United States to apologize to Chalabi immediately. "Doing such a thing to a Governing Council member proves that they do not acknowledge this council, which they formed and appointed," said Songul Chapouk, a council member and women's rights activist. "This is an insult to this council."
In his news conference, Chalabi said an urgent council meeting had been called for Friday to address the board's relationship with the United States in light of the raid and the assassination this week of the council president as he waited to enter the compound of the U.S. occupation authority.
Chalabi, a wealthy businessman who returned to Iraq after decades of exile in Britain, won favor among Pentagon officials before the war as a prolific source of information on Iraq's weapons programs. He is also a moderate Shiite Muslim, making him a potentially important bridge to Iraq's majority religious community.
Chalabi's organization received $33 million from the United States between March 2000 and September 2003, which made it the leading exile opposition organization to Hussein. But it became clear after the fall of Baghdad that Chalabi enjoyed little support in Iraq, and much of his prewar intelligence has turned out to be wrong or "intentionally misleading," according to a recent U.S. assessment.
Lately, Chalabi has blamed U.S. officials for allowing members of Hussein's Baath Party to reemerge as a security force in the city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad. He called U.S. security policy a failure after the assassination of Izzedin Salim, the council president who was killed Monday in a suicide car bombing. He has also clashed with L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq, over who should manage an investigation of Hussein-era corruption inside the U.N.'s oil-for-food program.
INC officials said U.S. troops and Iraqi police fanned out in the elite Mansour neighborhood, the location of Chalabi's house and the INC offices, around 6 a.m. A few hours later, the officials said, soldiers and police arrived at Chalabi's home and demanded to be let inside. The officers said they were pursing several suspects, INC officials recounted, but would not disclose the reason or produce an arrest warrant when asked.
Haider Musawi, an INC official, said Chalabi conducted negotiations from inside his home. He eventually allowed one Iraqi police officer to enter and search the premises for the suspects. No one was found.
The police and soldiers moved next to the INC offices, housed in a lavish Chinese-style mansion that was once a perk of the director of Hussein's intelligence agency. Several guards on duty said as many as 100 U.S. soldiers arrived.
By their account, six Iraqi police officers entered with an American dressed in civilian clothes and body armor. One of the guards said the American directed the Iraqi police, who they said kicked down doors and smashed a picture of Chalabi. Damaged picture frames, including one holding a photograph of Chalabi, were seen by a reporter in one of the ransacked offices.
Haider Ridha Mohammed, a guard on duty at the time, said he asked the police officer why he had tossed the framed photograph on the ground. Mohammed said the officer responded, "He's gone now, Ahmad Chalabi is finished."
A senior Iraqi police official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, denied that the officers vandalized the offices in any way.
For several months, U.S. officials have been investigating people affiliated with the INC for possible ties to a scheme to defraud the Iraqi government during the transition to a new currency that took place from Oct. 15 last year to Jan. 15, according to a U.S. occupation authority official familiar with the case. The official said the raids were partly related to that investigation.
At the center of the inquiry is Nouri, whom Chalabi picked as the top anti-corruption official in the new Iraqi Finance Ministry. Chalabi heads the Governing Council's finance committee and has major influence in its staffing and operation.
When auditors early this year began counting the old Iraqi dinars brought in and the new Iraqi dinars given out in return, they discovered a shortfall of more than $22 million. Nouri, a German national, was arrested in April and faces 17 charges including extortion, fraud, embezzlement, theft of government property and abuse of authority. He is being held in a maximum security facility, according to three sources close to the investigation.
In recent weeks, several other Finance Ministry officials have been arrested as part of the investigation. A U.S. official familiar with the case said, "We are cracking down on corruption regardless of names involved."
Staff writer Ariana Eunjung Cha in Washington and correspondent Sewell Chan and special correspondents Huda Ahmed Lazim and Bassam Sabti in Baghdad contributed to this report.