- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

An aide to Ahmed Chalabi says the new Iraqi deputy prime minister expects to be exonerated for his conviction in a fraud that brought Jordan’s banking system close to collapse.

Such a ruling from the Jordanian government would quash Mr. Chalabi’s sentence of 22 years at hard labor, passed in absentia after the collapse of Petra Bank in 1989.

It also would restore the political reputation of Mr. Chalabi, 60, an exile from Saddam Hussein’s regime who was instrumental in persuading Washington to topple Saddam.

His political fortunes in the United States plummeted amid claims he had supplied false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and provided sensitive information to Iran.

Mr. Chalabi denied the claims, and last week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned Mr. Chalabi to congratulate him on his appointment as deputy prime minister.

Mr. Chalabi has claimed that the Petra Bank scandal was a politically inspired plot to discredit him, but the conviction dogged his efforts to establish credibility among ordinary Iraqis.

The claim that a judicial exoneration is pending was made by Claude Hankes-Drielsma, a former executive with the auditors PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who has been an adviser to Mr. Chalabi and the fledgling Iraqi government.

“Given that there is a whiff of enthusiasm on both sides to resolve this matter, I am confident that it can be done in the very near future,” Mr. Hankes-Drielsma said.

“It will be most important for both Jordan and Iraq that a constructive new relationship can be developed, given that Mr. Chalabi is one of the most influential politicians in Iraq now.”

Jordanian officials, however, dismissed talk of an exoneration as “wishful thinking” on Mr. Chalabi’s part.

A member of a wealthy Shi’ite family that fled Iraq in the 1950s, Mr. Chalabi founded Petra Bank in 1978. Thanks partly to its financial clout, he came to political prominence in Jordan and the Middle East.

Petra Bank became one of Jordan’s leading banks before it collapsed in 1989 amid complaints of financial impropriety on the part of Mr. Chalabi. Millions of dollars were said to be missing from accounts.

Within weeks of the collapse, Mr. Chalabi fled the country. He was later convicted on 31 charges, including embezzlement, theft, forgery and making false statements. He was sentenced to prison and ordered to pay back $230 million.

Mr. Chalabi has said that he was framed after he complained about corrupt arms dealings between the Jordanian and Iraqi governments. He refused the offer of a pardon from King Abdullah’s late father, King Hussein of Jordan, because it would have involved admitting guilt.

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