Tuesday, March 30, 2004

With only three months to go before L. Paul Bremer trades in his Iraqi proconsul baton for beachwear and a hard-earned vacation, the country’s most controversial politician is already well-positioned to become prime minister.

Ahmed Chalabi, the Pentagon’s heartthrob and the State Department’s and CIA’s heartbreak, has taken the lead in a yearlong political marathon.

Temporary constitutional arrangements are structured to give the future prime minister more power than the president. The role of the president will be limited because his decisions will have to be ratified by two deputy presidents, or vice presidents. Key ministries, such as Defense and Interior, will be taking orders from the prime minister.

Mr. Chalabi holds the ultimate weapons — several dozen tons of documents and individual files seized by his Iraqi National Congress (INC) from Saddam Hussein’s secret security apparatus.

Coupled with his position as head of the de-Ba’athification commission, Mr. Chalabi, barely a year after he returned to his homeland from 45 years of exile, has emerged as the power behind a vacant throne.

He also appears to have impressive amounts of cash at his disposal and a say in which companies get the nod for some of the $18.4 billion earmarked for reconstruction. One company executive who asked that both his and the company’s name be withheld said: “The commission was steep even by Middle Eastern standards.”

Mr. Chalabi is still on the Defense Intelligence Agency’s budget for a secret stipend of $340,000 a month.

The $40 million the INC has received since 1994 from the U.S. government also covered the expenses of Iraqi military defectors’ stories about weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi regime’s links with al Qaeda, which provided President Bush with a casus belli for the war on Iraq.

When Mr. Chalabi established the Petra Bank in Amman, Jordan, in the 1980s, he favored small loans to military officers, noncommissioned officers, royal guards and intelligence officers. He developed a close rapport with Crown Prince Hassan, who borrowed a total of $20 million. After Petra went belly up with a loss of $300 million at the end of the decade, Mr. Chalabi escaped to Syria in a car supplied by the crown prince — minutes ahead of the officers who had come to arrest him for embezzling his own bank. The Petra debacle left him sufficient funds to create the INC a few days later.

Today, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained mathematician says he has the documents that will prove he was framed by two Husseins — Saddam and the late king of Jordan — who wanted to put an end to his anti-Iraqi activities. Jordan used to get most of its oil from Iraq free of charge or heavily discounted, which explains why King Hussein declined to join the anti-Iraq coalition in the 1991 Gulf war.

Sentenced in absentia in Jordan to 22 years of hard labor for massive bank fraud, Mr. Chalabi hints he also has incriminating evidence of a close “subsidiary” relationship between Jordan’s present King Abdullah and Saddam’s sadistic elder son, Uday, killed last year in a shootout with U.S. troops.

Potentially embarrassing for prominent U.S. citizens, Mr. Chalabi’s aides hint his treasure trove of Mukhabarat documents includes names of American “agents of influence” on Saddam’s payroll, as well as several Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV news reporters who were working for Iraqi intelligence.

The final selection for prime minister will need the assent of the president and his two deputies — representing the country’s three principal ethnic and religious groupings.

Standard-bearer for Iraq’s 60 percent Shi’ite majority and free Iraq’s first president will be Abdulaziz al-Hakim. He is the brother of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, killed last year with 90 worshippers when a car bomb rocked the country’s holiest Shi’ite shrine in Najaf. With an Islamic green light from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Mr. Hakim almost certainly will opt for Mr. Chalabi, a fellow Shi’ite, as prime minister.

Slated for one of the two vice-presidential slots is Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni octogenarian with a secular liberal outlook. He served as foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations before the Ba’athists seized power in a military coup in 1968. Mr. Pachachi’s nod also may go to Mr. Chalabi.

For the third leg of the troika, rival Kurdish parties have agreed to unite behind Jalal Talabani, chief of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. His vote, now believed to be favorable, would make it three out of three for Mr. Chalabi.

Referring to Mr. Chalabi, a former U.S. ambassador recently back from an extended trip to Iraq, said: “Anyone who can get the U.S. to invade Iraq must be a very clever politician. As for the people his INC coached in London to disinform the U.S. intelligence community about Saddam’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, you’ve got to hand it to the guy. Don’t blame him. Blame the Pentagon for not seeing through him.”

If Mr. Chalabi’s fast track to power is not derailed and he becomes prime minister in July, the president won’t be able to fire him unless his two deputies agree. The provisional constitution seems tailor-made for Mr. Chalabi to call the shots into 2005.

As head of the Governing Council’s economic and finance committee, Mr. Chalabi already has maneuvered loyalists into key Cabinet positions in the provisional authority — finance, oil and trade. The Central Bank governor, the head of the trade bank and the managing director of the largest commercial bank also owe their positions to his influence.

While in exile in London, Mr. Chalabi cultivated close contacts with Israeli officials.

He also has visited Iran several times to confer with leading ayatollahs in a bid for their support. He was given permission to open an INC office in Tehran.

His strongest backers in Washington are Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and neoconservative theoretician (“An End to Evil”) Richard Perle.

• Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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