- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2005

Iraqi political sources say Ahmed Chalabi is actively seeking U.S. support in his rear guard bid to become his nation’s prime minister in spite of a highly publicized break with the Bush administration last year.

The polarizing Iraqi National Congress leader still has supporters within the administration who see him as an alternative to the more religious elements in the Shi’ite electoral slate that won a legislative majority in the Jan. 30 elections, Iraqi sources say.

The electoral commission officially certified the results of the vote yesterday and allocated 140 National Assembly seats to the United Iraqi Alliance, giving the Shi’ite-dominated coalition a majority in the new parliament.

The two leading parties in the Shi’ite coalition ” which comprises 16 political groups ” previously had agreed behind closed doors to back the moderate and soft-spoken Shi’ite Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Islamic Dawa party, sources said.

But faced with Mr. Chalabi’s push for power, they have placed another name in the ring ” Adel Abdul Mahdi, a French-educated economist who belongs to the Iranian-linked Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.

The result could be the disintegration of the United Iraqi Alliance, warned Phebe Marr, an expert on Iraqi politics at the United States Institute of Peace.

The alliance is expected to decide among the three candidates in a secret vote by the 140 members who won seats in the 275-seat National Assembly.

But even if he fails there, Mr. Chalabi could try to secure power by allying a rump faction of the alliance with the powerful Kurdish Alliance, which won 75 seats, or the secular Shi’ite alliance of the current prime minister, Iyad Allawi.

Analysts inside and outside Iraq do not expect the outcome of the latest power struggle to become clear before next week at the earliest.

“This is going to be a game of musical chairs for some weeks to come. The bargaining and trading is just going to go on for some time,” said Ms. Marr.

“Chalabi is a polarizing figure. He is an opportunist. But [he] has trouble allowing others to take authority. He could split the alliance,” she said.

Once the Pentagon’s most favored politician among a welter of anti-Saddam Hussein exiles, Mr. Chalabi appeared to have fallen from favor after he was accused of giving top-secret code information to Iran.

Disliked by both the CIA and the State Department, Mr. Chalabi also was criticized in Washington as having been the source of exaggerated prewar information on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.

But U.S. diplomat Robert Ford visited the pro-Western secular politician in his compound last week as part of a series of meetings with Iraqi leaders, reported the New York Times.

Mr. Chalabi’s spokesman in Washington, Entifadh Qanbar, insisted that the former banker had the votes within the alliance to secure the post of prime minister.

Critics of Mr. Chalabi said despite U.S. statements that Washington is willing to go along with any choice made by the Iraqis, “somebody, somewhere, is pushing for Chalabi” to lead the country.

“We cannot keep this position for such a controversial man. It is not the time for Chalabi,” said one source close to the ongoing political talks. “Everything is still under negotiation.”

Another source taking part in the discussions said Mr. Chalabi clearly had the support of some within the Pentagon.

“He wants to market himself to the Americans,” the source said, adding disdainfully, “He is like a drum ” loud noise but empty inside.”

Chalabi supporters, for their part, accused the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad of “intervening” on behalf of Mr. al-Jaafari.

The truth may lie somewhere in between, Ms. Marr said.

“I don’t know the extent of U.S. influence on this process ” I can’t imagine that we have no influence. There are some people in the Pentagon who still support him,” she said.

“There are people in this town who are viscerally opposed to him and others who are more favorably disposed,” she added, describing Mr. Chalabi as a quintessential political survivor.

“You can rent him, but you can’t buy him,” Ms. Marr warned.

Although few, apart from his followers, think Mr. Chalabi can get enough support to beat Mr. al-Jaafari, there is fear that the competition will weaken whatever government emerges.

This, in turn, will affect both the new government and the assembly’s ability to deal with the four major questions they will face ” how to deal with the Kurds and their quest for increased autonomy; how to bring the militant Sunnis into the political process; how great a role religion should play in the constitution; and how long U.S.-led international forces should remain.

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