Counterfeiting charges against Ahmed Chalabi and murder charges against his nephew provoked a dizzying array of questions yesterday among both Iraqis and U.S. officials -- and even fueled some suspicion that the warrants may have been designed in part to affect the country's politics at a pivotal moment in its transition.
An Iraqi judge charged the two men simultaneously Sunday when both were out of the country. The warrants came a week before a national conference in which Chalabi was widely expected to make a play to revive his troubled political career.
Officials in Baghdad and Washington were unsure what exactly was going on. "If you're dealing with political figures, it's hard to say politics is not part of the equation. But then again, to say there is somehow a conspiracy that has been orchestrated over some time is grasping at straws. It's hard to substantiate," said a senior State Department official familiar with the charges.
Both men yesterday pledged to fight the allegations. Ahmed Chalabi, a former Pentagon favorite, charged that the CIA and followers of Saddam Hussein are out to discredit him. "There are also non-Iraqis involved. . . . [Former CIA director George J.] Tenet and his organization are after me. Tenet is gone, but I can tell you this process is continuing," he told Agence France-Presse from Iran. The CIA dismissed the charges as "ridiculous."
In an e-mailed statement, Chalabi called the judge, Zuhair Maliky, an unqualified magistrate put in place by the United States: "He has consistently attempted to manipulate the justice system. . . . He has pursued a political vendetta against the Iraqi National Congress," the political party Chalabi formed when he was in exile.
Salem Chalabi, who is wanted for questioning in the killing of a Finance Ministry official investigating the Chalabis, said he never met the man. The charges reportedly allege Chalabi threatened Haithem Fadhil if he did not drop the inquiry into whether homes and property belonging to former Iraqi officials were confiscated by the Chalabis and their supporters.
"I don't have any recollection of meeting him. I've never been in his office. I don't own any properties in Iraq. I stay at a friend's house. These allegations, to say the least, are ludicrous," Chalabi told the Associated Press in London. He said the charges had political motives with ominous implications about the future of Iraq.
The controversy began on Sunday when Maliky issued warrants against the Chalabis, both U.S.-educated former exiles well connected in Washington. Ahmed Chalabi, who sat with first lady Laura Bush at the State of the Union address this year, was once envisioned by some U.S. policymakers as a potential successor to Hussein. But he has fallen into disfavor after weapons of mass destruction that were alleged to be in Iraq failed to materialize.
He was also one of 25 members of Iraq's now-disbanded Governing Council but was notably excluded from the new interim Iraqi government selected by U.S. and U.N. officials. He was criticized this spring for allegedly informing Iran that U.S. intelligence had cracked Tehran's encryption codes.
Salem Chalabi gained prominence as head of the tribunal prosecuting Hussein. "The fact that [the warrant] was leaked means that there is some element of a smear campaign against me and therefore against the tribunal," he told AFP.
But Maliky stood firm yesterday, vowing to ask for international assistance to bring the Chalabis to justice. They "should focus on the accusations, rather than the personality of the judge," Maliky told AP in Baghdad. "My advice to them is to find good lawyers."
The extent of the evidence against the Chalabis is unknown, even to top U.S. and Iraqi officials. Both critics and supporters of Ahmed Chalabi note his earlier conviction for fraud at one of Jordan's largest banks, for which he was sentenced in absentia to 22 years of hard labor and a $100 million fine.
Yet the charges come at an interesting political juncture, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.
Failing to rally significant support, Chalabi has recently tried to build a base among followers of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr who are now battling the U.S.-led multinational force. The shift of allegiances, from the United States to the largest militia challenging the U.S.-backed government, reflects the transformation of Chalabi, who has a reputation as a wily political survivor, the officials said.
Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who has his own long rivalry with Ahmed Chalabi, vowed over the weekend to crack down on Sadr's Mahdi Army.
The warrant also comes on the eve of the national conference, which will bring together 1,000 prominent Iraqis to select a 100-member council to oversee Allawi's government. Iraqi and U.S. officials had expected Chalabi to try to win a council leadership position, which could pit him against Allawi in elections next year.
"This is Allawi establishing political control and taking decisive action on many fronts to show he's in charge. He's tying up loose ends and not leaving things to chance," said Henri J. Barkey, a professor at Lehigh University who served on the State Department's policy planning staff from 1998 to 2000. "Chalabi has been flirting with Shiite extremists, so Allawi's message is that he's not going to let anyone create mischief."
Whatever the next legal steps, Chalabi's political future is in question, officials say.
More perplexing are the murder charges against Salem Chalabi, say U.S. and Iraqi officials, who describe him as a stark contrast to his flamboyant uncle. A quiet lawyer who once worked for Clifford Chance, an international law firm, he was handpicked by the U.S.-led occupation to prosecute Hussein.
The Bush administration publicly opted to stay out of the brewing legal drama.
"Iraq is a sovereign nation now. They're moving forward on building a free and peaceful and stable future," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "This latest investigation, that is a matter for Iraqi authorities to handle. . . . The rule of law is part of the new Iraq, and so we would expect there to be due process."