Chalabi And AEI: The Sequel
November 10, 2005
The convicted embezzler, the suave fabricator of intelligence, and the secularist-turned-Shiite fundamentalist-turned-Iranian agent, the elusive subject of a slow-moving FBI spy investigation, and the self-described “hero in error” approached the podium at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday after a glowing introduction from Chris DeMuth, AEI’s president. After grumbling that the cherubic man he was about to introduce has been “defamed, undermined and attacked by agencies of the U.S. government,” DeMuth concluded: “Please give a warm welcome to this very great and very brave Iraqi patriot, liberal and liberator, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi.”
He’s back. And one thing is clear—you can never, ever count Ahmed Chalabi out. As the cat has nine lives, Chalabi has an amazing ability to reinvent himself over and over, and he did so once again at AEI on Wednesday.
Chalabi, who affected an aw-shucks manner, noted that it was the eighth time he’d spoken before the think tank that effectively launched his political career. To a packed house—so packed, in fact, that AEI pointedly disinvited your humble correspondent, who had to watch Chalabi in digital replay—Chalabi unloaded a campaign speech for his Iraqi National Congress election list. On December 15, Iraqis once more will go to the polls to vote for what will purport to be a permanent government. According to an Iraqi source, who spoke to me by telephone from Baghdad, the key to Chalabi’s five-week campaign plan is money. Another Iraqi, Aiham Al Sammarae, a key player in trying to bridge the divides among
It isn’t clear, yet, what kind of reception Chalabi will get from official Washington, or even precisely why the United States is meeting with him at high levels. Even Danielle Pletka, the AEI vice president who is usually a reliable Chalabi partisan, seemed to be wondering aloud the same thing this week. “I understand why Ahmed Chalabi wants to see Condoleezza Rice; it is not entirely clear to me why Condoleezza Rice wants to see Ahmed Chalabi," she told AFP. Other observers flatly dispute that Chalabi has any chance of becoming Iraq’s prime minister. “I was asked what I thought of his chances,” says Wayne White, the former chief Iraq-watcher at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). “And I said: zero.”
Still, Chalabi let slip his central election strategy: to separate himself from the pro-Iranian Shiite religious parties, who are now running separately from Chalabi’s INC, and to court the support—covert if need be—of Grand Ayatollah Sistani. In his AEI speech, Chalabi gently warned Iran not to interfere in favor of the Shiite parties. He also took note of the apparent fact that Sistani will not endorse any of the parties running in the election. And he added that many Iraqi Shiites revere Sistani but don’t support parties like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Clearly, Chalabi is making a bid for the Sistani’s support, and portraying himself as a politician who can bridge the gap among Sistani, SCIRI and Iran. A pro-Chalabi Iraqi source says that Sistani believes that Chalabi is Iraq’s most capable politician. It’s unlikely that Sistani really believes that. But Sistani is a bearded old hermit who is just as vulnerable as anyone to Chalabi’s brand of snake oil, and Chalabi is an excellent salesman. The wizard-like Chalabi is also selling the same snake oil to official Washington this week, and given the predisposition of the neocons to buy what he’s selling, he might succeed there, too.
The Wall Street Journal has already bought a crate of the stuff from Chalabi. “Though a secular Shiite who believes in the separation of mosque and state, Mr. Chalabi may be the Iraqi politician most trusted by Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani,” gushed the Journal , in a Nov. 9 editorial called “Chalabi Returns.”
Showing that he has not lost his talent for flagrant provocations, Chalabi used his speech to launch a bitter and angry attack against “Iraq’s neighbors” and the Arab League for daring to try to organize a conference of national reconciliation for the war-torn nation. In fact, the League’s initiative—which aims for a meeting that might bring together Iraq’s various factions—could be the forerunner of a broader international peace conference that could lead to a ceasefire in the war and an American withdrawal.
For precisely that reason, Chalabi denounced the effort in high dudgeon. Chalabi has insisted on de-Baathification measures that have blacklisted hundreds of thousands of former senior civil servants and army officers. Chalabi endorsed these measures once more at AEI, going so far as to introduce an aide traveling with him who serves as Chalabi’s commissar on the committee to de-Baathify Iraq. For pushing de-Baathification, Chalabi has shut the vast majority of Iraq’s Sunni Arab leadership.
It is that stand, he hopes, that will gain him the support of Shiites in Iraq’s south and in Baghdad who want to consolidate their hegemony in December. And it shows that Chalabi, and his friends at AEI, are once again pursuing a high-risk strategy of confrontation rather than consensus building.
Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone.He can be reached at his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com.TomPaine
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