The Iraqi election was a moving display of courage and a great victory, for America, for Iraq, and for our much-maligned president. But when the full results of this historic election are released later this week, it’s a safe bet that we will find ourselves having to deal, once again, with another much-maligned man: Ahmed Chalabi. And since our CIA and State Department did the maligning, Chalabi’s expected election victory presents what diplo-speakers call “a challenge.”
Chalabi is a longtime Iraqi leader, a secular Shiite coalition builder, before the war and after. His prewar coalition, the INC, brought Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish anti-Saddam resistance parties together. Later, he played a role in mediating an armed conflict between the two main Kurdish parties, leading to a peace agreement that still holds. His postwar coalition, Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s United Iraqi Alliance, is struggling to bring rival Shia religious parties together in a way that Sunnis, secular Iraqis, and Kurds can live with. The UIA is the odds-on favorite to emerge with the most seats when the votes are counted, and Chalabi is number 10 on their list. He will be a key figure in the new, 275-member Iraqi national assembly (who has spoken out against an Islamic republic). So it’s a bit awkward that in the months leading up to the election, we tried to drive this man out of the country.
Our spooks and diplomats convicted him–in the old media but in no court–of a variety of crimes; invaded his home and office with American troops and the police of our Iraqi appointees; searched his premises, roughed up his staff, and threatened to arrest him and several of his relatives and friends if he didn’t leave Iraq. We were tougher on him than on murderous little Muqtada al-Sadr, but Chalabi didn’t run. He stayed, fought the charges legally, campaigned peacefully, and won. Despite this history, it is not yet clear whether his victory will turn out to be a good or a bad thing, for us and for the Iraq we hope to see. What is clear is that we have new leadership now, at CIA and State, and it’s in our interest to rethink our relations with Chalabi. To do that, we must look anew at the three main charges leveled against him, and at the evidence for them.
Charge one is that Chalabi is an out-of-touch exile phony, an upscale con-man with no accurate information about today’s Iraq, no base of support inside the country, and no significant allies there. His only real allies, our experts at CIA and State kept telling us, are naive neocon civilians at the Pentagon: Chalabi suckered them by feeding them lies they wanted to hear about the possibility of a democratic Iraq, free from old hatreds and conspiracy theories about America and Israel. The first two parts of this charge are clearly false. General Richard Myers is no neocon, and even as the leakers at CIA and State were telling any journalist who would listen that Chalabi’s information was no good, Gen. Myers was quietly reporting that the intelligence our commanders in the field got from Chalabi was very good. The claim that Chalabi has no base of support in Iraq and no significant allies there will, likely, be put paid by the election results, and by his continuing relationships with Sistani, with the Kurds, and other Iraqi players. The claim that Chalabi was insincere when he spoke of his hopes for a democratic, pro-American Iraq, unshackled from the old Arab League hate-propaganda and failure-excuses, is different. On this point, the available evidence is not yet sufficient. Even if he meant it when he said it, it’s not clear if he still does, or if our moves against him have left him bitter and vengeful. Here, Ronald Reagan’s advice is best: Trust, but verify.
Charge two is that whatever his political views, Chalabi can’t be trusted because he’s a thief and a crook, guilty of counterfeiting in Iraq, and bank fraud in Jordan. Again, the first part of this charge is simply false; the second is unproven. The counterfeiting charge stems from the fact that when our agents searched his premises, they found a small stack of fake banknotes with the word “counterfeit” stamped on them in red. This is hardly surprising: Chalabi was head of the finance committee in the Iraqi governing council and, if he intended to pass fake notes, it’s unlikely he’d have stamped them as such. The bank-fraud charge is based on the fact that Chalabi was convicted of that crime in absentia in Jordan in 1992. To evaluate it, it’s essential to consider some basic facts about Jordan that are persistently ignored in the media. Jordan has a relatively friendly ruling dynasty–the Hashemites–but it is not a friendly country. In opinion polls, Jordan’s population routinely scores near the top in hostility to America. The opposite is true of Saddam Hussein. He was, and to some extent remains, popular on the Jordanian street, and in many elite circles too. Add the fact that, despite large infusions of American aid, Jordan’s weak economy is heavily dependent on trade with Iraq, and it’s obvious that few Jordanian bankers supported the sanctions on trade with Iraq. Consider, too, the fact that Jordan’s courts have none of the independence we associate with American courts, and it’s easy to see how a lone, anti-Saddam banker in Jordan might be convicted on less than compelling evidence. Crown Prince Hassan, for one, was not impressed. The prince has a long record as the most pro-American, least anti-Israel member of the Hashemite dynasty, and Chalabi escaped arrest in Jordan because Hassan drove him out of the country in his own car. More recently, in Iraq, it was Chalabi who made the first big move to expose U.N. Oil-for-Food corruption by hiring the American accounting firm, KPMG International-al, to audit records he uncovered. Why Paul Bremer, our former viceroy, rushed to cancel that contract is not yet clear, but on its face, it raises more questions about Bremer than Chalabi. In sum, it is unreasonable to insist that Chalabi’s corruption is an established fact. There may be some legitimate questions here but, without credible evidence, this charge, too, must be regarded as unproven.
Charge three is that Chalabi is a traitor who deliberately fed us false information before the war, lying to us about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs and about the way the Iraqi people would respond to an American invasion. Chalabi’s enemies at State and CIA claim he did this to sucker us into invading Iraq, and then betrayed us by telling Iranian spies we had broken their secret communication code. Here, the first point to note is that Chalabi cannot be “a traitor,” because he is not an American. He’s not an obedient American agent either. Our CIA tried to force him into that mold before the war, but failed. They planned an uprising in the Kurdish north, and they didn’t take it kindly when Chalabi said: ‘Abort it; your security has been breached and if you go ahead, Saddam will crush it.’ His advice was rejected, but events proved him right, and that made him persona non grata to CIA experts with egg on their faces. As a result, it is ludicrous to assert that when George Tenet assured President Bush that Saddam’s possession of WMDs was “a slam dunk,” he did so because he trusted Chalabi. The CIA was contemptuous of him, and of his claim that a majority of Iraqis hated Saddam and would welcome his overthrow but, once again, the facts proved Chalabi correct. Finally, in evaluating claims that Chalabi told an Iranian spy we had broken their code, consider the fact that we supposedly learned this because the Iranian reported it to Tehran, using–you guessed it–that very same code. To believe that they would do this, instead of using the compromised channel to pass us disinformation, you have to believe Iranian intelligence agents are dumber than rocks, and the likelihood of that is near zero.
All in all, it is in America’s interest to explore the possibility of a new relationship with a newly empowered Ahmed Chalabi, because clinging to the old slanders is more likely to damage us than him. An apology for having maligned him unfairly in the past would be a good way to start.
–Barbara Lerner is a frequent NRO contributor.