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There was a story making the rounds in foreign-policy circles last fall about an exchange between two of Ahmad Chalabi's most prominent patrons and detractors -- a juicy bit that rang true, but seemed hopelessly, tantalizingly just beyond the journalistic grasp. Ubiquitous as it had become in the halls of Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon, the standard for publication lay in the ability to get verbatim confirmation of the conversational back and forth -- something no one seemed able to satisfactorily secure.
Apparently destined for the realm of apocryphal anecdotes that hacks only laugh about at the bar, the tale suddenly appeared in print via the pen of Washington Post contributor Sally Quinn on November 24, 2003, as the coda to her 6,000-word anointment of Chalabi as a bona fide Washington player:
Not long after Chalabi announced in New York that he was more in agreement with France than with the United States about the timing of Iraqi sovereignty, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were having a conversation about him.
"He's your guy," Powell told Wolfowitz. "Get him back in his cage."
"I can't control him," replied Wolfowitz.
"Don't [expletive] with me, Paul," said Powell.
What was surprising -- though to some who had dealt with Chalabi, not all that surprising -- was that the anecdote was quoted to Quinn by Chalabi himself, who "[told] it with relish," as Quinn put it. A semi-retired CIA source who had dealt with Chalabi off and on into the late 1990s marveled to me about Chalabi's moxie; while Chalabi's courting of hubris was nothing new, the CIA man said, bragging about himself to the Post this way was really asking for it.
"I doubt he'll be telling it with relish a year from now, when he's either bleeding in a Baghdad gutter or on trial in an Iraqi court," the source said. "The guy's no democrat. He'd always tell us, 'Just put me in charge, I'll be America's friend, everything will be fine.' He's taken so much for granted in terms of his own importance, for Iraq and to Washington. I don't know if he's just working a con or actually believes his own line, but he'll end up taking himself out."
The prophecy seems ever closer to realization. Though down but not yet out, Chalabi's race to the bottom has been rapidly accelerating this month, courtesy both the First and Fourth estates. In April, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chief Paul Bremer moderated Iraq's "de-Baathification" program over an angry Chalabi's objections. On May 4, the Financial Times' John Dizard loosed an avalanche of insightful and uncomplimentary reporting on Chalabi on Salon, ably demonstrating why even some of Chalabi's longtime neoconservative boosters have come to hate their erstwhile ally.
In the May 10 edition of Newsweek, Mark Hosenball reported that administration concerns about Chalabi's ties to Iran had eroded the ground beneath his feet. "If Chalabi's support in the administration was once an iceberg," Hosenball reported, "says one Bush aide, 'It's now an ice cube.'"
Despite a vitriolic media campaign mounted by Chalabi against United Nations Iraq envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, U.S. government support has swung increasingly to the Algerian diplomat. Earlier this week, Wolfowitz announced that the Pentagon was phasing out the $340,000 monthly stipend Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (INC) has seen as sacrosanct. And on Thursday, Andrew Cockburn, a venerable investigative chronicler of Iraq, posted on CounterPunch's Web site a penetrating analysis of the "Ian Paisley of the Iraqi Shia, fomenting sectarian assertiveness and brokering deals."
Now, in perhaps the greatest ignominy yet, Chalabi's house and INC offices were raided by U.S. and Iraqi authorities Thursday morning. Though American military police were along for security, the principals of the U.S. contingent were FBI agents and CIA officers pursuing their investigations into how Chalabi allegedly came to possess some highly classified U.S. information that U.S. electronic intercepts indicate ended up in Iranian hands.
But as Friday morning's New York Times and Washington Post report, the American and Iraqi police who swept into China House (Chalabi's digs in Baghdad's upscale Mansour neighborhood) are also pursuing joint investigations into "kidnapping, torture, embezzlement and theft of government property," as the Times put it, by more than a dozen of Chalabi's underlings. Perhaps the most interesting strand of the investigation involves one Sabbah Nouri, an INC official whom Chalabi had installed in the Ministry of Finance earlier this year -- and who is virtually the star of a front-page story in today's generally Chalabi-friendly New York Sun .
Nouri has not been a particularly high-profile figure, but he could end up being the demolition man for Chalabi's political aspirations and the INC. Identified in a January 13 broadcast of the Voice of the Mujahideen (the short-wave program of the Shia Supreme Islamic Council for Revolution in Iraq) as the "director of the finance minister's office," Nouri popped up in a March 11 Washington Post story about millions of missing Iraqi dinars from Iraqi banks.
After Iraqis traded their old dinars for new ones late last year, a Finance Ministry bank audit revealed a $22 million gap. According to the Post, the Finance Ministry quickly rounded up scores of bank tellers, whom it accused of accepting counterfeit scrip or outright theft. Though lawyers for the accused noted that suspects extended beyond tellers, Nouri, identified as "head of the Finance Ministry's bank audit committee," asserted that "it was impossible that anyone but the cashiers could have inserted forged bills or taken some of the money," adding that "in the past, employees did not have any respect for law. We want to teach people this respect."
Nouri returns to the pages of the Post today (May 21) -- which fails to reference its earlier story -- and is now identified as being "at the center of the inquiry" into "a scheme to defraud the Iraqi government during the transition to a new currency." According to the Post, Nouri was "arrested in April and faces 17 charges including extortion, fraud, embezzlement, theft of government property and abuse of authority."
Similarly, the Times identifies Nouri as having been "arrested on corruption allegations that include stealing a dozen cars from the [Finance] Ministry" and standing accused of "theft, extortion, kidnapping and murder."
But the most thorough description of the Nouri investigation comes -- perhaps somewhat surprisingly -- in a front-page story Friday in the neocon's paper of record, The New York Sun .
According to that report, Nouri has told Iraqi investigators that "Mr Chalabi's organization instructed him to strong-arm bureaucrats and steal government property." Citing Nouri's arrest date as March 24, the story also reveals that his charges include "coerc[ing] confessions from bank tellers" in the dinar investigation, and that when arrested, he attempted to extricate himself by invoking the name of Aras Habib, the INC's intelligence director.
Alas for Nouri, reports the Sun, this did not have the desired affect, and in fact resulted in the issuance of a warrant for Habib's arrest. Then, after being thrown into a Baghdad minimum-security facility, Nouri somehow procured a cell phone and rang Zuhair al-Maliky, "the judge from the Iraqi central criminal court investigating his case, threatening his life if he proceeded" with his investigation.
The Sun goes on to cite an interview it conducted with Chalabi last month, in which Chalabi -- in contrast to the Post's March 11 identification of Nouri as head of the bank audit committee -- described Nouri as merely someone "assigned to be a guard to the Ministry of Finance," and whose arrest stemmed from a "quarrel he had with a CPA Finance Ministry contractor."
Yet the Sun goes on to quote a Finance Ministry adviser who says that many working at the ministry thought Nouri Chalabi -- not Finance Minister Kamil al-Gailani Chalabi -- was running the place. "He would often insist on attending meetings with the minister he had no business attending; he was able to fire people at the ministry. Many people believed he was effectively in control," the Sun quotes the adviser as saying.
Chalabi's response -- along with those of his dwindling allies in Washington -- to the raid and accompanying allegations is nothing new: It's part of the conspiracy by jealous and incompetent actors from the State Department, CIA, and CPA to undermine an always unfairly maligned person who would do right by Iraq if only everyone would recognize him as the indispensable man for Mesopotamian democracy that he is.
Newsweek, however, added to the canon of corruption coverage Thursday night with a brief article posted on its Web site that provides details on additional allegations that Chalabi and the INC engaged in democratic practices that more closely recall Tammany -- rather than Independence -- Hall. Doubtless Chalabi's most ardent supporters will continue to cast him as Iraq's version of Mr. Smith. But in the context of his alleged actions and fraying associations, with each passing day, he's looking more and more like Wilmer at the end of The Maltese Falcon .
Jason Vest is a Prospect senior correspondent.
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