The U.S. military authorized the arrest and interrogation last year of a top aide to Ahmed Chalabi on suspicion that the aide served as a liaison to a Shi’ite group thought responsible for the 2007 execution-style slayings of five U.S. Marines and other violence against foreigners and Iraqis, U.S. officials and the aide say.
The group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or the League of the Righteous, also has been implicated in the kidnappings and slayings of four British contractors in 2007. The British government is negotiating for the release of a fifth abductee, Peter Moore.
Mr. Chalabi is a top Iraqi politician best known in the West for helping to persuade the Bush administration to go to war to remove Saddam Hussein from power. In 2004, he sat with first lady Laura Bush during Mr. Bush’s State of the Union address to Congress.
He continues to be influential in the country. He has forged close ties with militant Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and has formed a new electoral alliance for the country’s 2010 elections that excludes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Three U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition they not be named because they were discussing sensitive matters, accused Mr. Chalabi of providing crucial guidance to the league - charges that led the U.S. government to sever ties with the mercurial Iraqi in May 2008 and to arrest his aide three months later. Two of the U.S. officials and a third coalition official who also spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed that the aide was held for more than a month in a secret prison before being transferred to a facility at a U.S. base. The aide, Ali Faisal al-Lami, was released without charge earlier this month.
Mr. Chalabi and Mr. al-Lami both denied wrongdoing. The case, however, dramatizes how far the banker turned politician’s star has fallen with U.S. authorities since the days when he was a close ally of senior Bush administration officials.
The incident also suggests that U.S. contractors maintained secret detention facilities in Iraq far longer than had been disclosed.
Mr. Chalabi has long maintained ties with Iran, as have most other Iraqi Shi’ite politicians. However, U.S. concerns about those links deepened with the escalation of attacks in 2007 by so-called special groups - Shi’ite militants supported by Iran.
One U.S. official said that Mr. Chalabi, through Mr. al-Lami, provided tactical intelligence to the leaders of the League of the Righteous in spring 2008 when U.S. and Iraqi forces began targeting Shi’ite militias in the aftermath of an offensive that restored central government control over the southern city of Basra. Mr. Chalabi had access to sensitive information about the campaign against the special groups through his relationship with the Iraqi government and U.S. military.
“This was a friendship killer,” the U.S. official said, leading the U.S. military to cut ties with Mr. Chalabi in May 2008.
Mr. Chalabi denied providing information to the special groups but confirmed the cut in ties with the U.S. Mr. al-Lami told The Washington Times that he was a “political supporter” of the league but denied any role in its violent activities.
Another senior U.S. military intelligence official who worked in Iraq at the time of Mr. al-Lami’s capture said Mr. Chalabi was “facilitating and providing strategic and operational guidance” to the league, to “improve what they are doing, who they could go to for sustenance and support and making the right connections to help people.”
A thirdsenior U.S. military officer familiar with the arrest said, “I don’t think we felt that special group leaders escaped because of help from Chalabi; however, he clearly was in contact with, and seemed to be helping to some degree, Shia extremist leaders supported by the Quds Force [an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards]. In truth, though, it was difficult, as he seemed to be playing various sides of the fence simultaneously.”
Allegations of mistreatment
Mr. al-Lami said he was flown to a secret prison soon after he was arrested at Baghdad International Airport on his way home from Beirut with his family on Aug. 27, 2008.