Politics & Policy

Arresting Iraqi Democracy

An American appointee goes after peaceful politicians.

On August 8, Iraqi judge Zuhair al-Maliky issued arrest warrants for Iraqi National Congress head Ahmad Chalabi and Salem Chalabi, a trilingual Yale graduate heading the special tribunal that is trying Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity.

Al-Maliky’s actions have less to do with imposing justice than obstructing it. Most Iraqi judges dispute not only al-Maliky’s credentials but also those of the Central Criminal Court over which he presides. The court is not Iraqi in its origins. Former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator L. Paul Bremer created it by fiat on June 18, 2003. The head of Iraq’s judicial union called the court unconstitutional and illegal. Most Iraqi judges consider it to be contrary to the Geneva Conventions; many Iraqis justices read several clauses in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 to forbid changing unnecessarily the judicial system.


In early 2004, Bush administration officials decided to transfer responsibility for Iraq to the United Nations. Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Blackwill directed a plan to take down Chalabi. He had his staff write a lengthy options paper entitled “Marginalizing Chalabi.”

Bremer laid the groundwork on April 22, when he revised his Order #13 to remove the requirement that appointees to the Central Criminal Court have five years judicial experience. With qualifications no longer an issue, Bremer appointed al-Maliky, a translator with no prior experience. He did meet one important qualification, however: He followed Bremer’s orders.

Less than a month later, al-Maliky proved his worth. He ordered a raid on Chalabi’s compound, ostensibly to serve a warrant on a few Iraqi National Congress members. American civilians driving military Humvees and using military communications gear also participated in the raid. Camera crews, tipped off ahead of time by American officials, accompanied U.S. forces. Holding Chalabi at gunpoint, Iraqi officials quickly established that no one named on the warrant was present.


The raid on Chalabi had little to do with justice. American civilians who accompanied Iraqi police used the opportunity to ransack Chalabi’s compound, demanding oil-for-food documents. The oil-for-food investigation had become politically uncomfortable in Washington. But despite Bremer’s frequent complaints about the Governing Council’s ineffectiveness, the Iraqi government had been proactive in its investigation of U.N. corruption. Bremer and Blackwill feared that documentary evidence implicating senior U.N. officials might complicate the administration’s desire to transfer responsibility for Iraq to the U.N., and as a result they sought to impede the investigation. Bremer dismissed the Governing Council’s jurisdiction, and instead empowered his own handpicked Board of Supreme Audit. He then effectively froze the probe by demanding that the auditing firm’s contract be re-bid multiple times. In doing so, Bush’s national-security team subordinated Iraqis’ interests to its own.

From Washington’s perspective, the raid on Chalabi’s compound backfired. Not only did U.S. authorities not find any significant documents, but Chalabi’s currency increased exponentially among Iraqis. Victimization is a political asset in the Shia world, and the smear campaign fell flat. Some journalists now realize they were used by intelligence contacts to play both Baghdad and Washington politics. No evidence has backed the charge that Chalabi passed information to the Iranians. Stories alleging polygraphs and investigations at the Pentagon were false, meant to sideline one sector in the policy debate.

Since the transfer of sovereignty, Chalabi has remained engaged in Iraqi politics, and is a political thorn in Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s side. Not only has Chalabi rallied the opposition to re-Baathification, but he has also organized Iraqis for the national conference to select an interim national assembly. Allawi has opposed the national conference, telling his cabinet that he prefers regional conferences, which would not produce an interim body that might check his own power.

Therein lays the timing of the latest charge. Al-Maliky told assembled journalists, “They [Ahmad and Salem Chalabi] should be arrested and then questioned and then we will evaluate the evidence, and then if there is enough evidence, they will be sent to trial.” Al-Maliky, Ayad Allawi, and some U.S. intelligence officials know well that even if the evidence fails to support the charge, Ahmad Chalabi will be knocked out of the national assembly and Salem Chalabi might be knocked off the war-crimes tribunal.

And neither charge will hold up. As Ahmad Chalabi explained, “In my position as chairman of the Finance Committee of the Iraqi Governing Council, I had the responsibility to oversee the Central Bank of Iraq. The finance committee had collected samples of counterfeit Iraqi currency as part of this oversight role. I held several meetings with the governor and deputy governor of the central bank on this issue. It is these samples that Iraqi police found when they illegally raided our offices last May. The idea that I was involved in counterfeiting is ridiculous and the charges are being made for political purposes.”

The murder charge against Salem Chalabi is no different. Based entirely on an allegation that Chalabi argued with the director general of the finance ministry several weeks before his murder, the charge appears aimed at derailing the war-crimes tribunal, behind which Salem Chalabi is the driving force. Allawi, a former member of the Baath party, may be uncomfortable with a lengthy judicial process that could shed light on his past. The U.N. is uncomfortable with the notion that the Iraqi tribunal is autonomous of career U.N. lawyers.


Al-Maliky has become the Al Sharpton of Iraq. Not beholden to the truth, he appears more interested in television cameras. He is quick to accuse, knowing that he will not be held accountable for slander.

While al-Maliky pursues spurious chares, more telling is what he has not investigated: On June 29, the first full day of Iraqi sovereignty, an Oregon National Guard unit witnessed severe abuse: Plain-clothed Iraqi security officers beat and tortured bound and blindfolded prisoners. U.S. soldiers briefly intervened. The prisoners reported that they had been starved, deprived of water, and tortured for three days. But because of the transfer of sovereignty, the National Guardsmen returned the prisoners to their tormentors’ custody. The transfer of sovereignty makes rectifying the matter an Iraqi responsibility. The Central Criminal Court of Iraq has yet to pursue the matter.

More troubling are allegations reported in the July 17 Sydney Morning-Herald. Veteran foreign-affairs correspondent Paul McGeough reported eyewitness accounts alleging that Ayad Allawi summarily executed blindfolded, handcuffed prisoners. According to one witness, “The prisoners were against the wall and we were standing in the courtyard when the interior minister said that he would like to kill them all on the spot. Allawi said that they deserved worse than death–but then he pulled the pistol from his belt and started shooting them.”

Sunday’s episode is shameful. To Iraqis, al-Maliky represents not justice but an American appointee pursuing a personal vendetta. They juxtapose his numerous warrants against Chalabi with his lack of investigation into others about whom accusations are far more serious and backed by a higher standard of evidence. The greatest danger to U.S. policy is the grave and growing gap between presidential rhetoric and policy implementation. Bremer established the Central Criminal Court for a short-term objective but instead enabled long-term abuse of power.

Al-Maliky’s actions do not bode well for the future. Iraq may be sovereign, but Washington will be blamed for putting a fox in charge of the hen house. Across Iraq and the Middle East, dissidents and freedom-seekers see al-Maliky persecute peaceful politicians while accomplices to murder walk free under an amnesty. The message is as loud and clear as it is tragic. The real victim is American prestige.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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