Chalabi’s House Raided; He is Suspended from the Interim Governing Council
Ahmad Chalabi’s house was raided in Baghdad by US troops on orders of an Iraqi judge. He is said to have been suspended from the Interim Governing Council, though he maintains that Ghazi al-Yawer, the current president of the IGC, has called him to a meeting on Friday afternoon at 4 pm Baghdad time.
Rumors are swirling in Baghdad that Chalabi had been taking a percentage of some contracts or that he had been trying to transfer government assets to the Iraqi National Congress before the transfer of sovereignty on June 30. There are also rumors that his militia, which Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had flown into Iraq last year on a Pentagon aircraft, has engaged in coercive or extortionate activities. The problem is that these sorts of rumors have been swirling in Baghdad for many months. So why did the US move now?
Chalabi is charging that the crackdown on him is an attempt by the United Nations to squelch investigations into the bribes Saddam had paid UN officials under the oil for food program, and on which Chalabi had information. The Pentagon had quite outrageously turned over to the Iraqi National Congress the intelligence files of the old Saddam government, which Chalabi has threatened to use to blackmail officials of neighboring governments. Chalabi’s charge is implausible and he is just trying to waft some smoke into the public’s eyes.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the special UN envoy, had made it clear over a month ago that he would not appoint Chalabi to the caretaker government. In response, Chalabi has become increasingly critical of the US. He complained that rehabilitating the Baathists after the siege of Fallujah failed was tantamount to putting Nazis in power. He has recently loudly complained about the crackdown on the militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, saying that it has cost 1500 Iraqi lives, more than should be spent to arrest a single man.
Chalabi came on television on Thursday and said his message to the US was “Let my people go!” He is now playing an Iraqi Martin Luther King! He says he wants an immediate turn-over of all authority in Iraq to the Iraqis. I.e. he now has adopted the Dennis Kucinich position. Assuming that he manages to stay out of jail, Chalabi will run for political office in January, 2005, and will probably represent himself as an anti-Occupation Iraqi nationalist. You know, the wily old chameleon could still come out ahead.
Chalabi was for long a darling of the Department of Defense and VP Dick Cheney, and their initial plan had been to turn Iraq over to him. The State Department, the CIA and (I am told) Tony Blair all intervened in April 2003 to stop DoD from simply handing the country over to him. Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress supplied to the US government and to Judith Miller of the New York Times false and misleading “intelligence” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, a nuclear weapons program, and was connected to al-Qaeda. Chalabi later all but admitted that these allegations had been false, and said they didn’t matter because Saddam had been overthrown.
The State Department and the CIA became increasingly less enamored of Chalabi in the course of the 1990s. In part, he could not account for the money they gave him. In part, his harebrained schemes to overthrow Saddam went awry. He retained strong supporters in Neoconservative circles, however, especially Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz. Rumsfeld and Cheney were also big boosters, at least until recently. The CIA and State Department appear to have leaked to Newsweek a couple of weeks ago intelligence that Chalabi had been sharing sensitive information with Iran, and was tilting toward Iran. Some Neocons have felt betrayed by Chalabi’s inability to get Iraq to recognize Israel or provide it with petroleum, as he appears to have pledged to them.
One problem with the way the US has been behaving in Iraq, whatever the merits of this case, is that it is alienating all major political forces in the country. First its radical debaathification (so that a high school teacher out in Ramadi who had joined the Baath party but never done anything criminal was fired and excluded from civil society) alienated the Sunnis. They have not been mollified by recent steps belatedly to reverse this policy. Then the US came after Muqtada al-Sadr and began alienating a lot more Shiites. Now it has turned the Iraqi National Congress against it. The INC, whatever one thinks of it, has strong Kurdish and Shiite allies. What happens to a ruler without strong allies? Can you say Louis XVI?
Andrew Cockburn is worth reading on all this. But 1) I think calling what Chalabi had in mind a “coup” is exaggerated; 2) I think the idea that the Sadrists would follow a multi-millionnaire dapper expatriate is implausible and 3) the issue of Chalabi’s nepotism and financial irregularities cannot be underestimated as an impetus for the raid. Brahimi and Bush in some sense need now to get back the Iraqi government from Chalabi’s carefully planted nephews, sons-in-law and long-time associates, who control key ministries. In some senses, it is the CPA that made the coup.