Chalabi to be arrested
The political season in Iraq is turning extremely nasty. Not only were over 20 persons killed and dozens injured in bombings of a Shiite mosque and a Shiite wedding by guerrillas, but charges and counter-charges among politicians have now resulted in the prospective arrest of long-time Iraqi expatriate politican Ahmad Chalabi.
Interim Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan announced on al-Jazeerah Friday that Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi would be arrested after the three-day Eid al-Adha celebrations that end Saturday.
[Update 12:35 pm: Interim Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib has denied that there is any warrant outstanding for Chalabi. Al-Naqib had in the past been a fairly close ally of Shaalan, but the two appear to have broken over this initiative of Shaalan's, which may be personal rather than representing an Allawi government stance. Allawi has never seemed able to control Shaalan's outbursts and I have long wondered why he kept him on as Defense Minister.]
Shaalan said that Chalabi would be turned over to Interpol to face justice in the embezzlement of $300 million from his own Petra Bank in the late 1980s, for which he was convicted in absentia in Jordan in 1992. Although Chalabi maintains that the conviction was politically motivated (he claims Jordan had a tacit alliance with his enemy, Saddam), the bank’s Switzerland branch was audited and what auditors found was not pretty. Some 14 percent of the bank’s loans went to family members and close friends, some $100 million, and most of those were not paid back. When the Jordanian government insisted in 1989 that banks keep 30 percent of funds on hand, Petra was over-extended and unable to comply.
I saw Shaalan on al-Jazeerah. He laid a number of other charges against Chalabi, saying he had engineered the dissolution of the Iraqi military in May of 2003, which threw the country into chaos and harmed its interests. He also tried to blame Chalabi for the Kurdish mini-civil war of the mid-1990s, which briefly brought Saddam’s troops back up north.
Shaalan also accused Chalabi of defaming him. CNN expressed puzzlement about the latter, but the reference is in part to charges Chalabi made of financial corruption against Shaalan, involving a shipment last week of $300 million in cash to Beirut for an arms deal that, Chalabi implied, may have involved kickbacks. He was also referring to Chalabi’s charges that Shaalan spied for Saddam in 1998 through 2003 and even spied on Chalabi (reported here a couple days ago from Chalabi’s web site.) Chalabi was attempting to smear Shaalan as an unreconstructed Baathist and Saddam collaborator, and he was at the same time attempting to smear interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and Allawi’s al-Iraqiyah slate in the elections, by association.
Chalabi’s latter move was typically sleazy and implausible (the Americans are better at vetting people than to allow a recent Saddam spy to become Minister of Defense), and was extremely troubling. It wasn’t just down and dirty campaigning. It was closer to a kind of McCarthyism. I don’t like Shaalan or his hardline views, and do think he still has some Baath attitudes (especially his anti-Iranian racism). But I very much doubt he was spying for Saddam in 2002! Whether the arms deal and the cash shipped to Beirut was irregular, I don’t know. Chalabi’s partisans will argue that Shaalan is just trying to prevent Chalabi from auditing the government books if the UIA comes to power.
On the other hand, for the Allawi government to make this particular response is also troubling. Chalabi is a candidate for parliament on the United Iraqi Alliance list, which groups the major Shiite parties. Shaalan has hinted around that the UIA is a stalking horse for Iran, and choosing the week before the election to announce the arrest of one of the list’s top-ranking figures (# 10)–on thirteen-year-old charges– could be seen as a way of attempting to damage its popularity. That is, getting Chalabi could actually be a way of getting Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the UIA leader who also heads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (which had been based in Iran for over two decades). We know what Shaalan thinks of Iran and can imagine what he thinks of al-Hakim.
Moreover, it wasn’t criminal for Chalabi to advocate dissolving the Iraqi army (though it was highly unwise and possibly sleazy), and it is disturbing that Shaalan is throwing that charge into the mix. Shaalan did not say so, but given his anti-Iran impetus, and given the charges against Chalabi that he has passed sensitive information on to Tehran, it could be that Shaalan thinks Chalabi pressed for the dissolution of the Iraq military because Tehran urged it. A former ambassador told me he that Chalabi was getting money from Iran, so he may have owed the ayatollahs. Of course, most of Iraq’s neighbors would have welcomed and perhaps secretly lobbied for the dissolution of the Iraqi military, including Kuwait and Israel.
Chalabi was charged in May of 2004 with having passed sensitive US intelligence (the fact that the US had broken Iranian codes) to Iran, but the charges were ultimately quietly dropped and the prosecuting judge shunted off to desk work. It seems clear that in summer, 2004, Chalabi still had powerful supporters in the Pentagon who shielded him. Either that support has by now collapsed, or Shaalan is attempting to present them with a fait accompli. The State Department and the CIA, which have gained more power in Iraq in the past 8 months, dislike Chalabi and saw him as a corrupt “Gucci revolutionary” who never delivered and could not account for the money they gave him.
Given that the Iraqi government closed down the al-Jazeerah offices in Baghdad, saying that the channel was biased against it, it is odd that Shaalan chose that network to give this interview on. The chic anchor could barely suppress a smirk as she announced the interview.
[In the light of al-Naqib's later denial, it seems possible that Shaalan went to al-Jazeerah for the same reason everyone else does. It isn't controlled and will put on virtually anything except a criticism of the Qatar government. If Shaalan had gone to al-Iraqiyyah or Radio Sawa Iraq, he might have been stopped by Allawi or the Americans. It now seems possible that this affair will profoundly hurt the chances of the Allawi list in the elections (even though Shaalan is running on the Yawir list). The spectacle of the Defense Minister trying to have a political opponent arrested just as a matter of personal fiat, and being contradicted by the chief law enforcement officer, al-Naqib, is wholly unedifying. The news, which Chalabi publicized, that Shaalan recently sent $300 million in cash to Beirut to buy tanks and other weaponry on a covert basis also raises many questions about the probity and intentions of the interim government.]