One More Chalabi Black Eye

In January, when President Bush delivered his State of the Union speech to Congress celebrating the success of the "preemptive" war against Iraq, a controversial Iraqi exile named Ahmad Chalabi sat in a place of honor behind First Lady Laura Bush.

The symbolism was no accident: Despite being a fugitive from Jordan for a conviction in absentia on bank fraud charges, this darling of neoconservative hard-liners was the Pentagon and White House's favored and well-paid advisor on all things Iraq – including weapons of mass destruction, ties with Al Qaeda and the odds for a post-invasion insurgency. As is now apparent, he and his cronies seemed to have lied spectacularly about it all.

Then, as part of the invasion in 2003, Chalabi and a ragtag militia were flown into Iraq at U.S. taxpayer expense. Soon he was appointed by the U.S.-led coalition authority to the Iraqi Governing Council, and his power was enhanced as relatives and members of the organization he headed, the Iraq National Congress, were appointed to key ministries.

When his nephew Salem was named the lead prosecutor of Saddam Hussein, it appeared clear that despite polls showing him to be the least trusted politician in Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi was doing quite well for himself. Salem bragged on his law firm's website that through his influence, foreign investors could profitably participate in Iraq's $75-billion reconstruction effort.

Today, however, it is hard to imagine that anybody would want to be in Ahmad Chalabi's shoes – or those of the many top officials of Bush's White House, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who so assiduously backed him. The story reads like a trashy summer spy novel: Over the weekend while he was at his vacation home in Iran – you know, one of the "axis of evil" countries that actually has a nuclear weapons program – Chalabi was charged with counterfeiting by a U.S.- appointed judge in Iraq. Salem, in London at the moment, was charged with murder. The elder Chalabi is also still being investigated by U.S. intelligence agencies for his possible role in passing top-secret data to Iran.

For those keeping score at home, that's two indicted Chalabis, one huge black eye for the Bush administration and a healthy dose of vindication for the CIA and the State Department, both of which decided long ago that Ahmad Chalabi wasn't trustworthy and strongly objected to his being tapped as a handy George Washington for "liberated" Iraq.

Both Chalabis are declaring their innocence. Steady Chalabi defenders, led by New York Times columnist William Safire and Ahmad Chalabi himself, claim that all his problems stem from a vendetta by L. Paul Bremer III, the recently departed U.S. administrator of occupied Iraq. Could that possibly explain why Chalabi, once the U.S. invasion's loudest Iraqi backer, is now calling on fundamentalist Shiites to expel the Americans?

Ahmad Chalabi may be able to defend himself against these latest fraud charges, but that will hardly clear his name. His strong and continuing ties to Tehran and allegations that he has spied for Iran raise a very serious question few seem eager to confront: Was Our Man Chalabi a double agent working for the theocratic ayatollahs when he helped lobby and lie the United States into overthrowing Hussein, Iran's despotic but secular enemy?

And beyond Chalabi, why did it so thoroughly escape the Bush administration and much of the media that in deposing the secular Sunni tyrant Hussein we would open the door for the Iraqi Shiite majority to create its own regime – one that would most likely be sympathetic to Shiite Iran not only for religious reasons but because many of its new leaders had been sheltered, armed and financially supported by Tehran when they were in exile.

How ironic that a close alliance between Iraq and the fanatical ayatollahs of Iran is the most likely accomplishment of the U.S. invasion. That would lend credence to the claim in a revealing Newsweek cover story on Ahmad Chalabi's checkered past that "the Bushies were bamboozled by a Machiavellian con man for the ages."

Of course, if we reelect this president, then we'll be the dumbest marks of all.

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