Monday, August 9, 2004

BAGHDAD — An Iraqi judge has issued arrest warrants for leading politician and former Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi as well as his nephew, who heads the tribunal trying ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

Zuhair al-Maliki, chief investigative judge of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, yesterday said the warrants sought Ahmed Chalabi’s arrest on charges of money laundering and counterfeiting and nephew Salem Chalabi’s arrest on a murder charge.

Ahmed Chalabi, whose sources and information helped persuade the United States to go to war in Iraq, once was touted as a potential leader of the country after Saddam’s ouster. But he since has been spurned by Washington and many in Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s interim government.

Mr. Allawi, trying to quell a Shi’ite Muslim uprising, yesterday traveled to Najaf and ordered Shi’ite insurgents to lay down their weapons. But fighting raged on, with U.S. helicopter gunships pounding guerrilla positions.

In Karbala, a Shi’ite city 32 miles north of Najaf, an Iranian diplomat was kidnapped by militants, according to the Iranian Embassy, becoming the second foreign diplomat seized in a wave of kidnappings since April.

Intense fighting over four days in the heart of Najaf, across southern Iraq and in several districts of Baghdad has killed or wounded hundreds of Shi’ite militants, the U.S. military says, and piled pressure on Mr. Allawi’s six-week-old administration.

The interim government has sought to stanch the Shi’ite radicalism of rebel Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, also sought under a warrant for his reputed role in the slaying of a rival cleric last year, as well as a 16-month Sunni insurgency. Over the weekend, Mr. Allawi offered an amnesty for low-level guerrillas while reinstating the death penalty for serious crimes.

Despite that carrot-and-stick approach, however, fighting shows little sign of abating. Kidnapping — a common currency of insurgents in recent months — continues apace.

“There is no negotiation with any militia that bears arms against Iraq and the Iraqi people,” Mr. Allawi told reporters in shell-scarred Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad. “I believe gunmen should leave the holy sites … quickly, lay down their weapons and return to the rule of order and law.”

Mr. Chalabi, who fell out with Washington over accusations that he provided false information on weapons of mass destruction, said he would fight the charges brought by the U.S.-appointed judge. He said the charges were politically motivated.

Iraqi police, backed by U.S. troops, found counterfeit money along with old dinars during a raid on Mr. Chalabi’s house in Baghdad in May, Judge al-Maliki said. He is accused of mixing counterfeit and real money and changing them into new dinars on the street, the judge said.

“There is no case here, and I will go to meet those charges head on,” Mr. Chalabi told CNN, speaking from Iran. “I have been fighting Saddam for many years, and we survived that, and we are certainly not going to be intimidated by this judge.”

Officials in Washington have said Mr. Chalabi also was being investigated on suspicion of leaking secrets to Iran. In 1992, he was convicted in absentia of bank fraud by a military court in Jordan. He says those charges, too, were politically motivated.

Salem Chalabi, a lawyer, is leading the Iraqi Special Tribunal, which will try Saddam. He told CNN the charges appeared strange.

“The warrant for me has to do with the fact that apparently I threatened somebody,” he said, speaking from Britain. “I have no recollection of ever meeting that person, but apparently, I threatened somebody who subsequently was killed.”

Two Apache gunships fired missiles yesterday at defenses manned by Sheik al-Sadr’s militia near Najaf’s ancient cemetery. The militia, known as Mahdi’s Army, dug in, laying mines around the burial ground’s crypts and mausoleums.

U.S. soldiers advanced on the Imam Ali shrine, the holiest site in Shi’ite Islam, tightening a noose around insurgent positions, while loudspeakers exhorted the militia to fight back, ordering, “Engage in jihad.”

Clashes erupted anew in the Baghdad slum district of Sadr City and in other neighborhoods, while across southern Iraq, tensions remained high in several Shi’ite-dominated cities, including Nasariyah, Amara, Basra and Diwaniyah.

After dark, insurgents fired mortars and rockets in central Baghdad, wounding at least four persons.

The string of abductions, most targeting foreign truck drivers, appears aimed at forcing foreign governments to pull their troops out and foreign companies to cease operations.

Backing up Mr. Allawi’s threats to get tough with insurgents, the interim government reinstated the death penalty for crimes including murder, kidnapping and drug offenses.

Capital punishment, used liberally during Saddam’s rule, was suspended by U.S. occupying authorities last year. Since coming to power June 28, the new government repeatedly had threatened to reintroduce it.

It was not clear whether the law would be retroactive, casting doubt on whether Saddam and his henchmen could face death if found guilty of crimes.

The law’s introduction came a day after Mr. Allawi announced a 30-day amnesty for insurgents who have committed minor crimes — an effort to draw less-militant elements to the government’s side.

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