On May 20, U.S. forces raided the home and office of Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi. At a press conference following the operation, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) spokesman Dan Senor told assembled journalists that U.S. forces did not participate. To be kind, Senor appeared to misspeak. There was a non-Iraqi American citizen in Chalabi’s house at the time of the raid. As armed men pointed guns at Chalabi’s head, the U.S. citizen demanded to know who was in charge. A number of heavily armed Americans (judging by language and accent) in civilian clothes, upon learning of the presence of a non-Iraqi witness, scurried outside and waited in U.S. military humvees while Iraqis searched Chalabi’s house. Those conducting the raid stole a Chalabi family Koran, smashed a portrait of Chalabi’s father, and destroyed computers and family heirlooms. Chalabi’s name did not appear on the warrant they presented. Iraqi police conducting the raid under American supervision sheepishly apologized in Arabic; they did not know they were to target Chalabi.
Iraqis–fans and foes of Chalabi alike–saw the raid as another sign of the contempt the CPA shows for ordinary Iraqis. By sending forces to break into Chalabi’s house and then by holding a Governing Council member at gunpoint, Bremer sought to humiliate Chalabi. Bremer has not learned from the Abu Ghraib scandal. Humiliation backfires.
Simultaneously, the inside-the-beltway rumor mongering made clear both the irrational contempt and ignorance that many professional pundits feel for any proponent of Arab democracy. Those academics, pundits, and commentators who have never met Chalabi reserve for him the greatest vitriol.
One expert claimed that U.S. forces raided Chalabi’s house because of evidence that he was planning a coup. Unclear is with what. Chalabi did gather a force of 700 men shortly before Iraq’s liberation. They were largely successful. While U.S. commanders allowed looting across Iraq; Chalabi’s militia kept order in Nasiriyah. But, last June, the militia dissolved.
The allegations against Chalabi grow more bizarre. Yesterday afternoon, a journalist asked me to confirm an intelligence source’s allegation that Chalabi’s (nonexistent) militia was behind the Abu Ghraib interrogations. The confidence of journalists and academics in anonymous intelligence sources is bizarre. In its official biography of Chalabi, the CIA even gets wrong the languages he speaks. If “anonymous intelligence sources” allege that Chalabi invented chicken pox, Newsweek would probably make it their cover story.
The raid on Chalabi’s house, personally approved by CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer, encapsulates what has gone wrong with the American administration in Iraq. Bremer came to Baghdad and planned to rule by dictate. He scuttled Jay Garner’s desire for early sovereignty. In late July, Bremer vetoed a Governing Council proposal to create a prime minister, saying that this might undercut his power. Fearing any challenge to his authority, Bremer gave a series of condescending radio addresses mocked by Iraqis. Rather than promote the new generation of Iraqi politicians, Bremer put himself at the center of press attention. For example, Bremer decided that he, rather than an Iraqi official, would announce the new Iraqi currency. Iraqification became second stage to Bremer’s desire to replace Secretary of State Colin Powell should Bush win reelection. There was no room for assertive Iraqis who refused to grovel.
Chalabi is not a populist politician nor does he claim to be. Rather, his strength is as a mediator and coalition-builder. The relationship between Bremer and Chalabi has been strained from the start. Bremer’s Achilles’ heel is his tendency to treat mediators as adversaries. Chalabi would visit Bremer to advocate the sense of the Governing Council. Chalabi’s statements would sometimes contradict official CPA reporting. Bremer would accuse Chalabi of lying; junior diplomats nod in assent. But, many Governing Council members told U.S. diplomats hanging out in the Governing Council lobby what they thought Bremer wanted to hear; they would say very different things at meetings in private homes late at night, when Americans were playing poker, drinking, or dancing in the Rashid Hotel disco.
Bremer personalized challenges and held deep grudges. In August, Chalabi told Bremer that he risked losing Iraqis’ goodwill if he continued to oppose sovereignty. Bremer was furious. When George Stephanopoulos confronted Bremer during a television interview with a Chalabi quote on sovereignty, Bremer lost his temper. He telephoned his deputy, Clay McManaway, in Baghdad. McManaway summoned Chalabi and, in front of junior American staff, proceeded to dress him down, concluding, “You are over.”
In November, the White House forced Bremer to reverse himself on sovereignty. Bremer outlined an elaborate caucus scheme. Chalabi visits often with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (as well as Sunni clerics); he refused to endorse the caucus scheme, and instead called for direct elections. Bremer was furious. But, Bremer and his top advisers do not speak Arabic; many State Department Arabists are unfamiliar with the Iraqi dialect and do not venture out of the Green Zone. State Department and British Foreign Office reporting is often inaccurate. An April 7, 2004, report from Kut written in the wake of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s uprising, concluded “The GC [Governance Coordinator] intentionally ‘toned down’ reports of insurgent activity to his superiors in Baghdad.” Bremer was furious with Chalabi, and said as much. He bad-mouthed Chalabi to Americans and to other Iraqi politicians. But, in the end, he found that Chalabi was right. In February, Bremer officially scrapped the caucus plan and proposed direct elections.
In March, Bremer blamed Chalabi for a delay in the signing of the Transitional Administrative Law. Bremer and Senor had carefully stage-managed a signing ceremony only to be left standing holding the pens in front of the media. Bremer seethed. He should not have. While the news media blamed the delays on Shia-Kurdish disputes, many Baghdadis had a different interpretation: Chalabi involved Sistani in a dispute, but then resolved it without any changes. In Iraqi eyes, Sistani lost prestige. Bremer could have seized the opportunity, but could not overcome his grudge.
More recently, Bremer and Chalabi have come to loggerheads with regard to United Nations’ participation in the transition. Foggy Bottom has long proposed a predominant U.N. role in Iraq. But, Iraqis do not want internationalization; they want Iraqification. Chalabi pointed out what Bremer and the White House did not want to hear: U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is unpopular among the Shia and the Kurds. While Americans tend to overlook family relations, Iraqis do not. Brahimi’s daughter is engaged to Prince Ali of Jordan, the brother of King Abdullah. Fairly or not, Iraqis see Brahimi as partial to Jordan.
Iraqis have a jaundiced view of the United Nations because of its perceived theft of Iraqi resources. Documents seized in the wake of Iraq’s liberation show that Benon Sevan, the head of the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food program, accepted kickbacks from Saddam Hussein. So did a number of other U.N. officials. As chairman of the Iraqi Governing Council’s finance committee, Chalabi helped oversee efforts to audit the program. Bremer initially did not interfere. After all, the political goal of occupation was to transfer responsibility for Iraqi affairs to Iraqis. After putting out tenders, the Finance Committee hired auditing firm KPMG which has proceeded to discover damning information with regard to the financial ties of several senior U.N. officials to siphoned-off Oil-for-Food cash.
When Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Blackwell pushed through the decision to transfer responsibility to the United Nations, Bremer changed tact. He ordered the Governing Council to delay its investigation by re-tendering the audit. The Finance Committee did but then Bremer, by fiat, announced the creation of a new Supreme Board of Audit. For the purposes of U.S. policy, the delay caused by the start-up of the Supreme Board of Audit would diminish the risk of any disclosure regarding the culpability of senior U.N. officials in connection with the missing interest on Oil-for-Food accounts. Bremer had extra insurance because he could appoint the Supreme Board of Audit members; he need not risk independent Iraqis. The flaw in Bremer’s approach, though, is that many Iraqis support the Finance Committee audit. The interim government will likely continue with the Finance Committee audit as soon as CPA ceases to exist on June 30, in all likelihood de-funding the Supreme Board of Audit. Eyewitnesses to the raid on Chalabi’s house said that, while Iraqi police came armed with a warrant targeting someone not resident at Chalabi’s house, they proceeded to search for U.N. documents. They found no documents, but took a computer off-duty guards used to play videogames.
It may be time for Ambassador John Negroponte to accelerate his stewardship in Iraq. By signing an order for the raid on Chalabi, Bremer undermined his own authority among a wide-array of Iraqis. He put Americans in the position of Koran-stealing vandals, responsible for the gratuitous and malicious destruction of property. He also set a dangerous precedent from a U.S. military context. U.S. forces are in Iraq for three reasons: to eradicate the terrorist threat in Iraq, to seek out and destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and to provide security. The raid on Chalabi’s house was political in motivation and a serious abuse of power. Bremer is playing the politics of personal vendetta. Iraqi Sunni, Shia, and Kurds–including many Governing Council members–often joke that living in Saddam’s palace has rubbed off a little too much on Bremer.
Chalabi may be a controversial figure and a lightening rod for criticism, but unlike figures like Muqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz Hakim, Chalabi has always voiced his dissent peacefully. Unlike Dawa, he has never resorted to a car bomb. Unlike Jalal Talabani and Masud Barzani, he has never kissed the hand of Saddam Hussein nor entered into business partnerships with Saddam’s sons. Unlike Adnan Pachachi, he has never called for the elimination of a neighboring Arab state or condemned the United States.
The situation in Iraq today is dire. Bremer has embarked on a policy which is as damaging in the region as the Abu Ghraib scandal. Across the region, Arabs and Iranians point to the raid on Chalabi’s house to show that friendship with America is futile; the United States cannot be an ally and should never be trusted. Democracy is not about crushing peaceful dissent. Across the region, Iraqis and Arabs juxtapose Bush rhetoric and implementation. The gap grows wide.
–Michael Rubin, a former Coalition Provisional Authority political adviser, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.