When Iraqi opposition figures — no longer “opposition,” really — meet in Nasiriyah Tuesday with top U.S. officials to begin the process of creating a transitional authority, the leader of the umbrella organization of pro-democracy groups, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), won’t be there — but two of his biggest detractors will be. That has many inside and outside the administration scratching their heads.
Representing the U.S. at the meeting will be General Jay Garner, head of the U.S. postwar operations, and a pair of officials each from the State Department, National Security Council (NSC), and Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). Each group offered up two people, but NSC’s people, Zalmay Khalizad and Regis Matlock, are joined at the hip with State’s, tipping the balance in State’s favor. In addition to sending pro-Saudi diplomats Ryan Crocker and David Pearce, State has decided to “bend” the rules and send a third person. That third wheel is none other than Yael Lempert, who was cited in internal State documents — reported last week in the Wall Street Journal — as explicitly trying to “shut down” the INC.
That Journal editorial, which several administration officials say has sent Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on a “witch hunt” to find the leak, quoted the minutes of a May 17, 2002 meeting where Lempert took the highly unethical approach of getting Office of Inspector General (OIG) auditors to — although she didn’t exactly use these words — falsify their audit of the INC. “During the meeting, Ms. Lempert stated that NEA would appreciate any assistance the OIG could provide with NEA’s desire to ‘shut down the INC.’” The “NEA” in question is the Near Eastern Affairs bureau, which often acts as the unofficial lobby for the Saudi Arabia and is home to both Crocker and Pearce. And given that this transpired after President Bush had made it unequivocally clear that he supported the INC, Lempert was openly flouting the wishes of the leader of the free world. But since Lempert was merely carrying out the orders of NEA — and apparently Armitage himself — she is being rewarded, not punished.
On the other side of the meeting is someone who shares Lempert’s hatred of the pro-democracy INC and has recently partnered with a man openly backed by the House of Saud — all while on the payroll of the U.S. taxpayer. By day, Laith Kubba is a project manager for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a taxpayer-funded organization that provides grants — at least ostensibly — to groups that help further the cause of democracy. By night, however, Kubba is angling for a leadership role in the post-Saddam Iraq, forming the Iraqi National Group as an alternative to the INC earlier this year. But when his group wasn’t gaining enough traction, Kubba decided to join forces with Adnan Pachachi, the octogenarian former foreign minister who has two main supporters: the U.S. State Department and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A Sunni Arab, Pachachi is seen as the figure most likely to lend “stability” to Iraq — and as the best bet to edge out the INC’s leader, Ahmad Chalabi.
Kubba has already used the U.S. taxpayer funds he controls to damage the INC, as well as burnish himself. The first grant he issued to an Iraq-based group was to the inappropriately named Iraqi Institute for Democracy. IID is based in the Kurdish-controlled north and has conducted several polls that purport to show that Chalabi and the INC have little support in the region. Aside from the polling, IID officials openly badmouth the INC in the press, doing everything they can to play into State’s strategy of delegitimizing Chalabi and the INC. And when IID isn’t busy beating up on the INC, it promotes Kubba to officials in Washington. Several months ago, IID President Hussein Sinjari lobbied administration officials on Kubba for president of a post-Saddam Iraq, apparently not fazed by the apparent — or actual — impropriety of lobbying on behalf of the man who issued grants to his organization. There is no indication Kubba pressured or even suggested Sinjari do this, but it was still done by someone on the receiving end of a Kubba-administered grant.
When some inside the administration pointed out that Kubba’s U.S. taxpayer-funded job may prove a conflict of interest with his role in Iraqi politics — particularly since some Iraqis in that movement might like NED grants he controls — Khalizad may have budged somewhat. According to one administration official, Kubba was asked to take a one-week leave-of-absence to attend the meeting — nothing more (How about resigning?) But even more troubling than the ethical red flags should be Kubba’s past. He was a member of the Dawa party — responsible for the 1983 bombing of the embassy in Kuwait that killed six and injured dozens — until 1988, and according to several informed sources, he remains an Islamist to this day. Even if someone wanted to discount his past Dawa-party affiliation, Kubba has been on the wrong side of things up until the present. Although he claims to be a founding member of the INC, he did not support the legislation that initiated U.S. funding of the organization. According to the New York Sun, Kubba opposed the Iraqi Liberation Act in 1998. He has not changed much since. In 2000, he opposed sanctions against Iraq as “morally unacceptable.” And at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations meeting in early March, Kubba voiced opposition to the war.
So why are Lempert and Kubba — who openly flouted and publicly opposed the president, respectively — attending this important meeting? Some in the administration believe that it is a power play by State and Khalizad. With Garner running the meeting, State and Khalizad may be trying to exert maximum influence with strength-in-numbers. “They’re trying to suck in all the bad guys [from NEA] and get them to dominate the place. They are trying to single-handedly undo the president’s policy,” notes an administration official.
A State Department hijacking of the rebuilding of the Iraqi government would be a blow to the president’s vision of real democracy in the country — and an obstacle to the Iraqi people fully realizing their dreams of freedom.