"Weapons of Mass Deception"


The Rise and Fall of Chalabi: Bush's Mr. Wrong Part 3

Page 3: Did Chalabi Influence the de-Baathification of Iraq?

By Evan Thomas and Mark Hosenball

It is not clear what role Chalabi played in the Bush administration's decision to suddenly and totally "de-Baathify" Iraq, including the decision (now regretted) to disband the Iraqi Army. A senior Defense Department official deeply involved in the decision to purge Saddam's Baath Party members says that Chalabi was not consulted. Nonetheless, when the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council was formed by Bremer that spring, it was Chalabi who took over the so-called De-Baathification Commission.
Chalabi set about his business with a vengeance. He acquired (he claims with American encouragement) vast stores of Baath Party records, including memberships and records of payments made and services rendered. With those tools, U.S. investigators now believe, Chalabi's outfit was able to extort and blackmail to get his way. By threatening to expose old ties to Saddam, Chalabi could be very persuasive with Iraq's new rulers and get rid of the ones he didn't like. (Chalabi and his lawyers specifically deny the blackmail charge.)
A certain amount of corruption is to be expected when new governments arise out of old dictatorships. But, according to Iraqi investigators who raided Chalabi's house and headquarters last week, Chalabi's empire pushed the boundaries of brazenness. Today his extensive network of cousins and nephews runs almost every major bank. The minister of Finance, Kamel Gailani, is regarded as a weak Chalabi crony. "He was put in that position as a button for Chalabi," says a Coalition Provisional Authority official who works in the financial sector.
Judging from the allegations made last week in Baghdad, Chalabi has run the INC the way Tony Soprano runs the Bada Bing. Chalabi's INC associates have been accused of using their connections at the Ministry of Finance and the major banks to commit fraud and embezzlement, according to charges that led to the raid on Chalabi's headquarters. Chalabi's men have also been accused of extortion and kidnapping by the Iraqi Central Criminal Court, which was set up by the U.S.-run CPA. Aides to Chalabi, who has not been personally charged with any crimes but is said to be a target of the investigation, claim that the criminal probe is an American plot to smear him.
The head of the CPA—Ambassador Bremer—is known to have tired of Chalabi's shenanigans and his increasingly anti-American statements. The U.N. envoy to Baghdad, Lakhdar Brahimi, is reportedly fed up with Chalabi as well. Chalabi has been running his own investigation into the United Nations' old Oil-for-Food program. By identifying Iraqi businessmen and political figures who were siphoning off money from the humanitarian program—not to mention certain European and U.N. officials who may have had their hands in the till—Chalabi could resort to playing a blackmail game.
According to U.S. officials, Chalabi tried to quash the corruption investigation against him by some crude enticements. His nephew, Salem Chalabi, has been accused of offering, through an intermediary, one of the main Iraqi investigative magistrates a seat on the tribunal that will try Saddam Hussein. Last week the magistrate told NEWSWEEK that he had received such an offer, but declined to say from whom. Salem has denied making any such offer, and Chalabi and his associates all insist they will be cleared of any wrongdoing.
But Chalabi has clearly lost his get-out-of-jail-free card. American intelligence is particularly concerned with Chalabi's former top intelligence chief, Aras Habib, who seems to have disappeared from Iraq. Habib has murky ties to Iranian intelligence; the FBI, NEWSWEEK has learned, is investigating whether Chalabi and his aide passed classified information to the Iranian government, as well as who in the U.S. government might have leaked it. A few American spooks even speculate that Habib has been working for Tehran all along—to the point of spreading disinformation about Saddam's WMD stockpiles to help lure the Americans into toppling Saddam, Iran's bitter enemy in a long and losing war during the 1980s. The theory seems very far-fetched—why would Tehran want America to occupy its neighbor Iraq? But in the back-stabbing, "Spy vs. Spy" world of Baghdad, all conspiracy theories have their day.
Chalabi's defenders among the neocons are clearly weakened. Perle, his strongest advocate, had to drop off the Pentagon's Defense Advisory Board because of various business interests. Feith had been under attack; his resignation or firing is routinely (though inaccurately) rumored in the press. Even Wolfowitz, the cockiest of the neocons, did something very unusual last week: he admitted, in congressional testimony, an error (overestimating Iraqi patience with foreign occupation).
Though Bremer was picked for his Baghdad job by Rumsfeld, he has fallen out with the Pentagon and now speaks more regularly to Rice and her staff at the White House. The uniformed military is in almost open revolt against its civilian masters in the offices of Wolfowitz and Feith. The troops resent the Bush administration hard-liners as dangerously ideological.
Their animus has been inflamed in recent weeks by the prisoner-abuse scandal. From the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down through the ranks, soldiers blame the politicians for making a hash of the war on terror. By throwing aside the protections of the Geneva Conventions, the true believers at Defense, the White House Counsel's Office and the Justice Department may have put American soldiers at risk in future wars. The evidence mounts that the ideologues were at least cavalier about the laws that protect captured soldiers. NEWSWEEK has uncovered a Jan. 9, 2002, memo written by two Justice Department lawyers, John Yoo and Robert Delahunty, which argued that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to any Taliban or Qaeda fighters flown to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because Afghanistan was a "failed state" whose militia had no standing under international treaties.
The prisoner-abuse scandal, not the fall of Ahmad Chalabi, seemed to be animating the crowds in Baghdad. The list of top-this outrages grows: prisoners anally penetrated by phosphorus-tipped nightsticks, prisoners fondled by female guards, prisoners fed from toilets, prisoners ridden like dogs and prisoners forced to eat pork and drink liquor. Only a small crowd gathered outside U.S. headquarters in the Green Zone to protest the treatment of Chalabi. That didn't stop Chalabi from sounding like a cross between Moses and Mahatma Gandhi. "Let my people go," he declared. "Let my people be free! It is time for the Iraqi people to run their own affairs." The Iraqis may run Chalabi to prison or out of the country. Right now, his poll rating in Iraq stands somewhere below Saddam Hussein's. On the other hand, Chalabi has a way of resurfacing and reinventing himself. Why not as the man who took America for a ride and freed his country?
With Michael Hirsh, Michael Isikoff and John Barry in Washington, Rod Nordland, Melinda Liu and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Baghdad, and Christopher Dickey in Paris


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Milton Frihetsson, 14:14


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