- The Washington Times - Friday, August 28, 2009

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 third senior 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.

He said he was mistreated by interrogators who peppered him with questions about Mr. Chalabi and Mr. Moore.

“They kept asking me about Dr. Chalabi,” Mr. al-Lami told The Times through an interpreter by telephone from Baghdad. “They wanted to know his connections to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and my relationship to him.”

Mr. al-Lami said he asked to know the charges against him. His interrogator, whom Mr. al-Lami described as an American in civilian clothes, replied: ” ‘You are a dangerous criminal, and you support terrorism, and there are so many charges against you. … You are in the custody of coalition forces with the approval of the U.N. and Iraqi forces.’ ”

Mr. al-Lami said he was kept in a squalid cell infested with insects and fed military rations, known as MREs, that were past their expiration dates. The only furniture in his cell was a small metal bench and the temperature, he said, was near freezing.

He said he suffered from diarrhea but was not allowed to go to the bathroom for five days. As a result, he said, he soiled himself. He said he was deprived of sleep by a light that remained on at all times and by guards who would bang on the door when he started to nod off.

Mr. al-Lami also asserted that he was subjected to psychological pressure.

At one point, he said, he was shown pictures of his family in their backyard that appeared to have been taken from his house. He was told he would not see his family again - a threat he interpreted to mean that if he did not cooperate, his wife and children would be harmed.

Joanne Mariner, director of terrorism and counterterrorism for Human Rights Watch, also interviewed Mr. al-Lami and said she found his story credible.

“We know that since the occupation, the U.S. was using secret prisons,” she said. “There were secret prisons for high-value detainees, where the detainees were held incommunicado and mistreated. We have done quite a lot of reporting based on accounts of soldiers who witnessed some of this abuse from 2004 and 2005.”

She said, however, that until the interview with Mr. al-Lami, the organization had scant information about such facilities continuing in Iraq past 2005.

Mr. al-Lami was transferred on Oct. 3 to a U.S. base, Camp Cropper, outside the Baghdad airport. He was processed by coalition forces, allowed access to his family and was not mistreated there, he said.

He was released without charge Aug. 14 under the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement that requires the U.S. to transfer prisoners at the request of Iraqi authorities. The release also was part of an Iraqi government effort to reconcile with the League of the Righteous. In June, the U.S. military released Laith al-Khazali, a league leader suspected to have masterminded the 2007 attack in which Iraqis dressed in U.S. uniforms killed five Marines in Karbala.

Capt. Brad Kimberly, a spokesman for Task Force 134, the unit that handles detainees for the U.S. military in Iraq, said Mr. al-Lami “was in-processed to Camp Cropper on Oct. 3, 2008, which is when Task Force 134 took custody. I cannot speak to the time between his capture and his in-processing at Cropper - only that he did not claim abuse and that upon in-processing he was given a thorough medical examination.”

U.S. officials declined to comment on Mr. al-Lami’s treatment before he was sent to Camp Cropper.

Mr. al-Lami said that he was arrested by a private security contractor, placed in a white Nissan van and taken to the headquarters of the contractor before he was transferred to the secret prison.

The arrest had reverberations in Washington, where Mr. Chalabi has had many supporters - and detractors.

Francis Brooke, a longtime Chalabi aide, said he asked John Hannah, who was national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, to look into the case after the August arrest.

“I knew al-Lami was not guilty of the charges leveled against him,” Mr. Brooke said.

In Baghdad, Mr. Chalabi launched his own campaign, asking Iraqi judges to intervene with the U.S. military and to provide a fair trial.

Mr. Chalabi, speaking by phone from Baghdad, told The Times that he was asked by an aide to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, not to go to the media on Mr. al-Lami’s behalf.

“I issued a statement the first day he was arrested,” Mr. Chalabi said. “I got a call from an adviser to Petraeus protesting my statement. They say he is a bad guy. I meet him three times a week. … I know he is not a bad guy.”

Mr. Brooke said Mr. Hannah told him later that the U.S. military considered Mr. al-Lami a terrorist and that there was a “50-50 chance” that Mr. Chalabi would be arrested as well.

Mr. Hannah told The Times that he had no recollection of having suggested that Mr. Chalabi was on the verge of being arrested, but Mr. Hannah had confirmed that “in the military’s view, al-Lami was indeed a bad actor who was linked to people involved in killing Americans.”

Chalabi’s controversial history

The charges are the latest to swirl around Mr. Chalabi, a man who has long aroused controversy. A graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former banker who left Iraq in 1958 at age 13, he became the leader after the 1991 Gulf War of a coalition of exiles that lobbied successfully for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Among Mr. Chalabi’s old allies was Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense in the first term of the George W. Bush administration, and Richard Perle, chairman of an influential Pentagon advisory board for the administration.

Mr. Chalabi also provided to news outlets Iraqis who claimed that Saddam had active programs for making biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. When no such stockpiles were found, critics blamed Mr. Chalabi for misleading the intelligence community, although subsequent bipartisan inquiries discredited claims that the community relied on his information.

Still, the Iraqi politician had a working relationship with U.S. military and civilian authorities in Iraq and became part of the country’s first post-Saddam government. In 2004, he sat with first lady Laura Bush during Mr. Bush’s State of the Union address.

A few months later, Iraqi police and U.S. troops raided Mr. Chalabi’s Baghdad compound amid charges that he gave critical intelligence to Iran, including information that the U.S. had cracked Iranian secret codes.

Mr. Chalabi was never prosecuted, and no U.S. official went public with the charge. He subsequently served as a deputy prime minister in Iraq. He has remained influential, forging close ties with militant Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and forming a new electoral alliance for 2010 elections that excludes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. With the death Wednesday of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, another prominent Iraqi Shi’ite leader, Mr. Chalabi may see his influence rise further.

Many critics regard Mr. Chalabi as an opportunist.

“This is a guy who is interested primarily in achieving powerful status in Iraq and he has calculated that to achieve that requires allegiance to and alliance with powerful figures in Iran, figures who are actively working to undermine the U.S. position in Iraq and more broadly the region,” said Kenneth Katzman, a senior Iraq expert at the Congressional Research Service.

Mr. al-Lami, who has returned to his job with a commission Mr. Chalabi helped establish in 2003 to purge the Iraqi government of senior members of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, has a different view.

Mr. Chalabi is “a unique, patriotic politician,” Mr. al-Lami said. “If it was not for Ahmad Chalabi, Iraqis would never have had the change in Iraq and the pluralism in Iraq. If it was not for Ahmad Chalabi, the coalition would not come to Iraq. If it was not for Ahmad Chalabi, we would never have had a permanent constitution in Iraq. If it was not for Ahmad Chalabi, the coalition would never leave Iraq.”

• Eli Lake can be reached at elake@washingtontimes.com.

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