- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

The Bush administration yesterday avoided criticizing Ahmed Chalabi — its one-time favorite to lead Iraq’s reconstruction — even as Iraqi police and civilian employees of the Pentagon raided his Baghdad home.

Administration officials pointed out that members of Mr. Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC), a group of exiles opposed to Saddam Hussein’s regime — not Mr. Chalabi personally — are the target of an investigation ordered by an Iraqi judge.

“Clearly, there were legal and investigative reasons for this event today, and not political ones,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. “I wouldn’t make any sweeping observations at this point.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Mr. Chalabi “has been working with the coalition in the past. In terms of going forward, it’s going to be up to the Iraqi people to determine who it is that represents their country.”

The raid and the Pentagon’s recent decision to cut off monthly funding of about $340,000 to the INC were viewed by many as a clear sign that officials at the highest level had abandoned Mr. Chalabi.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat and ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration’s stepping away from the INC leader had been “a long time coming.”

“I could never quite understand the incredible preoccupation of the administration with Mr. Chalabi. I think that reliance has done us great damage in terms of establishing legitimacy,” Mr. Biden said.

In the past decade, the INC received hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States. Mr. Chalabi lobbied U.S. officials for years to overthrow Saddam.

He also brought U.S. officials much of the intelligence — later discredited — that vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were hidden in Iraq.

Last year, the Pentagon trained and armed a group of several hundred Iraqi fighters, ostensibly under Mr. Chalabi’s control, and flew them into southern Iraq as U.S. forces moved north to capture Baghdad.

At the time, a post-Saddam Iraq with Mr. Chalabi at the helm was an option favored by the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney.

From the outset, the State Department and the CIA were reluctant to back Mr. Chalabi, realizing that he had little support among ordinary Iraqis, officials said.

Opposition to Mr. Chalabi grew when U.S. forces failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as well as CIA Director George J. Tenet have acknowledged publicly that some of the agency’s sources, who were recommended by Mr. Chalabi, had proved to be unreliable.

Still, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz tried this week not to link the Pentagon’s decision to stop the INC funding to flawed intelligence, saying the decision was made in the light of the planned handover of political power to Iraqis on June 30.

“We felt it was no longer appropriate for us to continue funding in that fashion,” Mr. Wolfowitz, another longtime backer of Mr. Chalabi, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. Chalabi says he never vouched for the intelligence gathered from the sources he referred to the CIA, and that the intelligence community should have ensured that the information was correct before acting on it.

“We are heroes in error,” he told the London Daily Telegraph last month. “As far as we are concerned, we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important. The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat. We are ready to fall on our swords.”

Lately, Mr. Chalabi has been critical of the U.S.-led occupation. He balked at signing an interim constitution that is slated to take effect June 30.

He also has criticized U.S. plans to let the United Nations play a key role in setting up a transitional government to take over on June 30.

In addition, he seeks to include Iran in plans for Iraq’s postwar reconstruction — a position that put him even more at odds with the Bush administration.

Mr. Chalabi, 59, fled Iraq with his family after the 1958 revolution, which deposed the British-installed King Faisal II.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a former Chalabi backer, said yesterday that he had no advance knowledge of the raid on Mr. Chalabi’s house.

“I certainly was not aware that there was going to be a raid on a home if, in fact, there was,” he said.

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