- The Washington Times - Friday, December 4, 2009

BAGHDAD | Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi politician who successfully promoted the war that Barack Obama opposed as a presidential candidate, has sent the U.S. leader “sincere congratulations” for winning the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr. Chalabi, who cultivated neoconservatives and the George W. Bush administration when he was an exile drumming up support against Saddam Hussein, told The Washington Times that he is a big fan of Mr. Obama.

“The few months of your administration have produced a sea-change in the perception of the United States of America in the world and specifically among Muslims,” he wrote to Mr. Obama in a recent letter that he shared with The Times. “Your historic speech in Cairo has become a beacon of hope for the coming era.”

Mr. Obama is scheduled to pick up his prize in Oslo next week.

Mr. Chalabi said he would have voted for Mr. Obama in the 2008 presidential election and that his longtime aide, Francis Brooke, who lives in Washington, did.

“Obama has the right attitude in Iraq,” Mr. Chalabi said in an interview at one of his family’s gated estates in northern Baghdad. “He wants to transform Iraq’s relationship in the United States beyond security and intelligence to a meaningful alliance between two countries which see great mutual benefit in cooperation in terms of oil, the economy, development, culture, education and democracy.”

An early and ardent supporter of regime change in Iraq, Mr. Chalabi left the country at age 13 and spent much of his life in London. Educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, he cultivated anyone who could help his cause, from American Democrats to the Iranian government.

He told The Times that he began pressing Congress for support for an Iraqi opposition as early as 1991 and said Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania and former Vice President Al Gore are among many Democrats who had expressed support for his cause in the 1990s but turned against the 2003 invasion.

During the administration of George W. Bush, Mr. Chalabi became close to neoconservative Republicans, among them Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Pentagon policy adviser Richard Perle and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Relations frayed after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Mr. Chalabi began wooing Iran-backed Iraqi leaders such as Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr.

Security contractors, in coordination with the U.S. military, arrested a close aide to Mr. Chalabi in August 2008. At the time, Mr. Chalabi was suspected of aiding Iranian-backed militias known as “special groups.” Mr. Chalabi denies the charge but makes no secret of his political group’s ties to Iran and that country’s influential Revolutionary Guards.

“We never hid our relationship with the Iranians,” he said. He added that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was “very [angry] about us having this office in Tehran” before the war. But he said the State Department was paying for the office. “They knew they were funding it. We got an [Office of Foreign Assets Control] exemption; it was not a secret.”

The State Department stopped funding Mr. Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress in 2002, claiming he failed to account for millions of dollars for intelligence collection. The Pentagon took over the project. Mr. Chalabi had alienated the CIA during a 1995 debacle in which Saddam sent troops to northern Iraq and put down an abortive uprising.

“I am close to Iran, but there are a lot of people in Iraq more close than me,” Mr. Chalabi said. “What does too close mean? I dispute it. They are a very important neighbor and they do not control the Shi’ite parties.”

Mr. Chalabi ran for parliament in 2005, but his independent list did not win a single seat. He is running again in next year’s elections, this time in a coalition of Shi’ite parties that include followers of Sheik al-Sadr and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a party founded in Iran in the 1980s.

The elections are supposed to be held by the end of January but are expected to be delayed until February or March because of parliamentary disputes over representation for different regions and ethnic communities.

Mr. Chalabi also has his eyes on the wider region. In his letter to Mr. Obama, he asked for support “to develop a concordat among the modern states of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran” - a region known in Islamic geography as “al Iqleem al Rabi’i” or “the fourth territory.” Mr. Chalabi’s letter to Mr. Obama said such an alliance “will be the rock on which extremism in the Muslim world will shatter.”

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

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