I’m with Jonah in not really knowing what to make of all the Chalabi business, but I’ve always been a mild Chalabi skeptic. I take Michael Rubin’s points today in his fantastically well-informed piece that the raid on Chalabi’s compound was a mistake because: 1) it shows contempt for the Iraqi Governing Council, of which Chalabi is a member; 2) it shows that there is no benefit in being an ally (or at least a perceived ally) of the United States. But what I had always heard from a source I trust in Iraq is that no one trusted Chalabi and he was an incompetent politician who had developed no popular following. Here is how the Washington Post today describes what was supposed to be his grand march on Baghdad last year:
“‘It was the moment of truth for Chalabi, and it was literally a moment. It was over almost the minute it happened,’ said a senior U.S. official who worked with Chalabi and served in the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad. ‘Compared to [Charles] de Gaulle’s march to Paris [to liberate France], Chalabi’s march to Baghdad was a stone that went into the water without a splash.’
U.S. officials point to that early April 2003 covert operation as the turning point in their dealings with the charismatic U.S.-educated banker and convicted felon — a relationship that was always controversial but, nonetheless, has dramatically changed both Iraq and the Middle East over the past year.
Instead of being the warrior-king who liberated town after town, ‘he was jeered more than cheered. Iraqis were shouting him down. It was embarrassing,’ said another U.S. official familiar with Chalabi’s first public appearance in the Iraqi heartland after 45 years in exile. ‘We had to help bail him out.’”
It has been a little hard to figure out what exactly is the alleged offense that justified yesterday’s raid. Here are the best brief descriptions I can find today. The Washington Post reports:
“At the center of the inquiry is [Sabah] Nouri, whom Chalabi picked as the top anti-corruption official in the new Iraqi Finance Ministry. Chalabi heads the Governing Council’s finance committee and has major influence in its staffing and operation.
When auditors early this year began counting the old Iraqi dinars brought in and the new Iraqi dinars given out in return, they discovered a shortfall of more than $22 million. Nouri, a German national, was arrested in April and faces 17 charges including extortion, fraud, embezzlement, theft of government property and abuse of authority. He is being held in a maximum security facility, according to three sources close to the investigation.
In recent weeks, several other Finance Ministry officials have been arrested as part of the investigation. A U.S. official familiar with the case said, ‘We are cracking down on corruption regardless of names involved.’” And here is how that pro-Chalabi Eli Lake piece in the New York Sun reports it:
“That legal matter stems from the testimony of Sabbah Nouri Ibrahim al-Salem. He told Iraqi investigators that Mr. Chalabi’s organization instructed him to strong-arm bureaucrats and steal government property.
On March 24, Iraqi police arrested Mr. al-Salem, the office manager for the Iraqi finance minister,Kamil al-Gailani, on 17 charges including claims that he kidnapped and coerced confessions from bank tellers charged with stealing newly printed Iraqi dinars in January.
When he was arrested, according to two sources familiar with the investigation, he told Iraqi police that he was a friend of Aras Habib Karem, Mr. Chalabi’s intelligence chief,prompting Iraqi authorities to issue a warrant for Mr. Karem’s arrest.
Shortly after his detention in a minimum security prison in Baghdad, Mr. al-Salem got hold of a cell phone and called the judge from the Iraqi central criminal court investigating his case, Zuhair al-Maliky, threatening his life if he proceeded, according to these sources. He was then transferred to a maximum security prison, where he remains.
In interviews last month, INC officials said Mr. al-Salem was a low-ranking member of their organization and that he joined the INC shortly after the liberation of Nassiriyah.
’He was assigned to be a guard to the Ministry of Finance, he had a quarrel with a CPA Finance Ministry contractor. He was arrested and we don’t want to prejudice the investigation,’ Mr. Chalabi said in an interview last month with the Sun.
In another interview, a spokesman for Mr. Chalabi, Zaab Sethna, told the Sun Mr. al-Salem was a guard who was not a significant member of the INC.”