"Weapons of Mass Deception"


The Rise and Fall of Chalabi: Bush's Mr. Wrong Part 1

Page 1: The Darling of Top Pentagon Officials

Ahmad Chalabi may go down as one of the great con men of history. But his powerful American friends are on the defensive now, and Chalabi himself is under attack.

By Evan Thomas and Mark Hosenball

May 31 issue - For the hard-liners at the Defense Department, the raid came as a surprise. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his senior deputies, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, got the news from the media. When Iraqi police, guarded by American GIs, burst into the home and offices of Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, looking for evidence of kidnapping, embezzlement, torture and theft, the men who run the Pentagon were left asking some uncomfortable questions. "Who signed off on this raid?" wondered one very high-ranking official. "What were U.S. soldiers doing there?" asked another, according to a source who was present in the room.
Until at least very recently, Chalabi had been the darling of these top Pentagon officials. How could it be that the men who run the most powerful military in the world could not know that their own troops were about to run a raid on a man once regarded as the hope of free Iraq? Just last January, Chalabi had been seated behind First Lady Laura Bush at the State of the Union Message. Now, according to intelligence officials, he is under investigation by the United States for leaking damaging secrets to the government of Iran.
A civil war simmered in Iraq last week, not between Sunnis and Shiites, but between American government officials. On the one side are the neoconservatives inside the Pentagon and the Bush administration who backed Chalabi as a freedom fighter; on the other are the spooks and diplomats who have long distrusted the former Iraqi exile with a taste for well-cut suits. The neocons, who once swaggered, seem to be slipping, losing confidence and clout. It is telling that the ground commanders in Baghdad who participated in the raid on Chalabi headquarters did not bother to inform their chain-of-command higher-ups at the Pentagon. (The raid was apparently OK'd by the American proconsul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, probably with tacit approval of White House officials.) Embarrassed by horrific images from Abu Ghraib, a growing number of uniformed soldiers are blaming their political bosses in Washington—Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith—for whatever goes wrong in Iraq.
Americans may be beginning to wonder: is anyone in charge over there? For an administration that prides itself on clarity of leadership, the Bushies seem to be lost in the Mesopotamian sandstorm. Everyone and no one was responsible for the prisoner-abuse scandal; the deadline for turning over the country to a new government is five weeks away, and the outcome is highly uncertain. Chalabi, who was supposed to be Our Man in Baghdad, is now whipping up anti-American sentiment. It wasn't long ago that Chalabi was touted as a great democrat, a friend of Israel, an Arab who "thought like us." He was going to help Americans reshape the troubled Middle East in our own image. But just as Chalabi once seemed to personify the utopian dreams of the true believers—remember those bouquets that would greet the troops?—his fall from grace suggests a more depressing turn in the Iraq reality show.
Chalabi should not be a scapegoat for all that ails the American occupation of Iraq. When it served their own ideological agenda, his neocon sponsors engaged in a willing suspension of disbelief. The ideologues at the Defense Department were warned by doubters at the State Department and CIA that Chalabi was peddling suspect goods. Even so, the Bushies were bamboozled by a Machiavellian con man for the ages. Chalabi (who vigorously denies wrongdoing and has donned a martyr's robes) has survived a fraud conviction, betrayals and scandals before. He may yet emerge on top. His story would be darkly entertaining, even funny after the fashion of a late John le Carre novel, if the consequences were not so serious.
Chalabi, 59, is a Savile Row Shiite who has spent much more time in London than in Baghdad. His career as a banker has been a trail of lawsuits and investigations (and one conviction for fraud, in absentia by a military court, in Jordan; Chalabi says he was framed by Saddam Hussein). Along the way, Chalabi has worked as an American spy and enjoyed the life of bon vivant —and friend to the great. Though he plotted for years to overthrow Saddam, he was not taken seriously by the regime. NBC's Tom Brokaw recalled a conversation with a friend of the then Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz on a trip to Baghdad in the summer of 2002. "You guys can have Chalabi!" the Saddam flunky told the American newsman. "You can keep feeding him all the prime rib and expensive Scotch. He doesn't know anyone here. He hasn't been to Iraq in 25 years."
But Saddam's henchmen underestimated Chalabi's wiles and staying power. He may be a dandy, but he is also a nervy risk taker. If he reinvents himself as an Iraqi patriot, his moral shortcomings may even be overlooked by history. Who remembers that in his day, Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America, was regarded as a crook? Engaging scoundrels can be effective, if they don't get killed by the enemies they make (or fool) along the way.
Chalabi has not always charmed his patrons. His first run as a CIA asset in the early- and mid-' 90s was a disaster. Chalabi's attempts to foment an insurrection were aborted in a fiasco still known around the agency as the "Bay of Goats." His case officers didn't trust him. "There was a lot of hanky-panky with the accounting: triple billing, things that weren't mentioned, things inflated... It was a nightmare," says a former U.S. intelligence official who worked with Chalabi. "His primary focus was to drag us into a war that [President] Clinton didn't want to fight."
Chalabi had more luck with a group of Republican hard-liners who formed a kind of government-in-exile in the 1990s. So-called neoconservatives like Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, the veteran bureaucratic infighter known in the Reagan administration as the "Prince of Darkness," were drawn to Chalabi's ideas. Several, like Wolfowitz and Doug Feith, a then obscure Washington lawyer who had once worked for Perle at the Pentagon—and now serves—as under secretary of Defense for policy—began talking about a speech Chalabi gave to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in June 1997. In that speech,Chalabi promised that Saddam could be overthrown on the cheap if the United States dared back a guerrilla force led by Chalabi. (Feith told NEWSWEEK that he found Chalabi's vision of post-Saddam Iraq to be "quite moving.") A side benefit, Chalabi suggested in his conversations with the neocons, would be an Arab country friendly to Israel. Soon Chalabi was dining from time to time with Perle, a fellow epicure.
But Chalabi was broke, or nearly so. In 1998 he and his friends skillfully lobbied Congress to provide funding for his organization, the Iraqi National Congress. The Iraq Liberation Act passed with overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans. It was seen as an easy vote, giving the appearance of taking a stand against Saddam without actually having to do much.
Clinton had no intention of going to war with Iraq. Bush might not have either, but for 9/11. Before the terrorists struck, Bush administration policy toward Iraq consisted mostly of a futile attempt by Secretary of State Colin Powell to fiddle with sanctions against Iraq before the United Nations dropped them altogether. But the neocons in the Bush cabinet, led by Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz, were ready to march on Baghdad before the World Trade Center stopped smoldering. President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld were all itching to show off American strength. The rest of the government and the American people needed some persuading. Ever the opportunist, Chalabi came along to tell the war hawks just what they wanted to hear—and to provide the sort of frightening "evidence" that could galvanize the nation into action.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

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Milton Frihetsson, 14:09


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