Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Pacific News Service > News > Chalabi's Return -- After Fallout With U.S., Former Iraqi Exile Plays All Sides

Pacific News Service
Chalabi's Return -- After Fallout With U.S., Former Iraqi Exile Plays All Sides

Commentary, William O. Beeman,
New America Media, Nov 08, 2005

Editor's Note: Never mind that former Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi was convicted of embezzlement and mislead the U.S. about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The savvy politician has remade himself, still has significant support in Washington and may become Iraq's prime minister.

Like a bad penny, Ahmad Chalabi is again turning up, and miraculously the United States is set to back him as prime minister of Iraq in the upcoming Dec. 15 elections for the first "real" government in the country. His visit to Washington is scheduled for November 7-12.

Never mind that Chalabi was convicted of embezzlement, that he was accused of misleading the United States on the issue of weapons of mass destruction prior to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, or that he guaranteed a loving welcome for U.S. troops from Iraqis, who he claimed would be grateful and ecstatic to be rid of Saddam Hussein. Never mind either that he was receiving $300,000 a month for some time to provide unspecified services for Viceroy Paul Bremer's interim government, or that he led the de-Baathification effort to purge Iraq of his political enemies.

Forget all that! Chalabi is the probable winner in the upcoming elections. That is all Washington needs to know, and if he was reliably in bed with the U.S. government once, the neocons know that he is likely to jump in once again if he comes to power, bringing with him control of Iraq's petroleum and sanctioning a permanent U.S. military presence.

Chalabi's family has a pedigree that goes back to the founding of the Iraqi state by the British in the 1920s. The Chalabi's were the only Shia family to be represented in government cabinets during the Iraqi monarchy, which ended in the 1958 revolution that ushered in the age of military dictatorship culminating with Saddam Hussein. He believes that he has a presumptive right to rule, and is willing to stop at nothing to achieve his ambitions.

Since he was "ousted" from power by the Bremer administration, Chalabi re-invented himself as an anti-American Shiite adherent. He visited Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, and got himself on the Shiite religious party list to participate in the interim government. (Iraqis voted not for individuals, but for political parties.) When his party list captured a plurality in the election, he worked his way into being Deputy Minister of oil -- a powerful position that allowed him to secure a substantial income for himself running an oil-field security operation.

Now that the Iraqi constitution has been ratified, and election campaigns for a permanent government are underway, Chalabi has suddenly become friendly with the United States again. But he has also learned a lesson about Washington politics. After the Washington schedule was announced, he cleverly first paid an unannounced visit to Iran and held talks with newly elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Nov. 5. No mean politician, Chalabi clearly knows how to play enemies against each other. By talking with Ahmadinejad, he will guarantee that he will receive serious attention in Washington.

Besides, Chalabi still has friends in Washington. His Washington talks include a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Nov. 9.

Bush administration advisor Richard Pearle has supported him loyally throughout his exile from Washington's favor. He is still supported by historian Bernard Lewis. This week he will address the neoconservatives in their bastion of power, the American Enterprise Institute.

A look at his election campaign explains his appeal to Washington. His call for a "national unity government" pulls out all the stops. He appears in public flanked by two women also running on his ticket, but appearing in traditional all-encompassing chadors covering everything but their faces. His coalition consists of his own National Iraqi Congress, along with Kurdish and Turkomen groups. He publicly affirms his loyalty to Ayatollah al-Sistani, but he also includes a group that favors restoration of the Iraqi Hashemite monarchy, most likely in the person of Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan. A constitutional monarchy for Iraq would require another modification of the constitution, but it is a course favored by Bernard Lewis and former CIA Director James Woolsey, and many others in Washington, because it would cement an alliance between Iraq and Jordan, and draw Iraq out of the sphere of Iran.

At this juncture, it seems that Chalabi miraculously has no serious rivals for power. One other ticket headed by former U.S. appointed Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (a relative by marriage of Chalabi) is not likely to garner many votes. Other major tickets consist of a Kurdish party and a coalition of three Sunni Arab parties. Chances are good that Chalabi's ticket will win a roaring victory -- and voila! He will be prime minister.

Washington is not going to stay mad at Chalabi if he brings stability to Iraq. The conflict there is a festering canker on the George W. Bush presidency. To have even a crook, a liar and a cheat in office will be welcome if it rescues America from the Iraqi quagmire.

PNS contributor William O. Beeman is professor of Middle East Anthropology at Brown University. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years. His forthcoming book is "Iraq: State in Search of a Nation."