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Topic: Ahmed Chalabi

On Demonizing Chalabi

Mainstream journalists have now picked up on increasingly noticeable chatter inside Iraq suggesting that Ahmed Chalabi could become a compromise candidate for Iraq’s premiership should incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki step down or fail to achieve a coalition to support a third term.

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Mainstream journalists have now picked up on increasingly noticeable chatter inside Iraq suggesting that Ahmed Chalabi could become a compromise candidate for Iraq’s premiership should incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki step down or fail to achieve a coalition to support a third term.

I had written here several years ago about Chalabi’s strengths (although predicting he would win five percent in those parliamentary elections was in hindsight much too optimistic). That said, he is one of the few Iraqi politicians—ailing incumbent president Jalal Talabani was another—who managed to talk to all sides through thick and thin and to whom Iraqis of all beliefs and ethnicities turned for mediation. Even his opponents also acknowledge he is also smart and organized.

He has drawbacks as well. Even his friends acknowledge that he is arrogant. Like many other Iraqi politicians, and frequent American partners as well, he surrounded himself with people who abused positions, power, or engaged in corruption. As one Iraqi put it, “it’s hard to dress in a white suit and clean a cesspool without getting splatted with sh-t.” I haven’t seen evidence of direct Chalabi complicity in corruption, though he can be faulted for turning a blind eye toward those in his organization. The Jordan Petra Bank issue is more political than real. King Hussein of Jordan was between a rock and a hard place and made many compromises to Saddam Hussein, including targeting Iraqi oppositionists in Jordan.

Chalabi has not been consistent when it has come to secularism versus religion in politics, or allegiance to the West versus toward Iran. That said, no politician should be expected to fall on his sword when abandoned by one side or the other, but they adjust to the new reality. Chalabi less abandoned the United States than the United States abandoned Chalabi. Does Chalabi have relations with Iran—and, indeed, people whom the U.S. government considers very bad in Iran? Yes. But, here American officials and journalists should not be selective: Those embraced by Washington—Jalal Talabani, Barham Salih, Qubad Talabani, Nechirvan Barzani, among others—have relations with the same Iranian officials. Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, for that matter, sat down across the table from a Qods Force operative (and former Iranian ambassador to Iraq) to discuss security in Iraq.

Aspersions with regard to false intelligence are exaggerated, because many journalists confused Chalabi and his inner circle with the broader opposition coalition under the Iraqi National Congress (INC) umbrella. Much of the controversial intelligence came through the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Here, for example, is then-New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg talking about al-Qaeda-affiliated prisoners to whom he was introduced by the PUK testifying to the Iraq-al-Qaeda links. And here is the New York Times correcting almost a decade ago the calumny that Chalabi was responsible for the false “Curveball” intelligence. And here is Jonathan Landay, an unabashedly partisan journalist now at McClatchy, burying a correction for his past mistakes in a Knight-Ridder story. Landay and his colleague do note “the INC did provide U.S. intelligence services with defectors whose claims about Iraq’s banned arms programs and links to terrorism were exaggerated or fabricated.” That’s true. But the INC was well known by Iraqis and exiles alike as an umbrella. When Iraqis claimed to have information—and, admittedly, they often exaggerated what they knew to inflate their own importance and their attractiveness to the West—then by law the only organizations that can debrief and process them are the CIA and DIA. The INC without apology referred them to the CIA and DIA in order to determine if these individuals were sincere or showed deception. In few cases is the answer 100 percent of either, but rather that defectors fall on a spectrum. To complain that any group should not direct defectors to the proper persons to screen them is a bit ridiculous.

Could Chalabi do the job? Only Iraqis know and could tell, and ultimately it is their choice. I still doubt that Chalabi will make the cut because I believe the Iranians find him too secular and too unwilling to accept Iranian dictates.

That said, it was always counterproductive for the United States to demonize mainstream politicians it does not like who operate in allied countries. It did something very similar with newly elected Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, to whom the United States refused visas and sought to marginalize for very different reasons and, for that matter, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who became the subject of harsh critiques and outright slanders in self-serving books penned by former Clinton administration officials who, 15 years later, discovered awkwardly that they would have to interact with the target of their open animosity once they were brought into the Obama administration. Have Chalabi, Modi, and Netanyahu made mistakes? Yes. Is there much to their personalities and policies to resent or oppose? Certainly. Too often, however, American journalists and officials exaggerate faults and flaws which then become false conventional wisdom. Few officials serve in the same position long enough to have depth of knowledge in any particular subject, and few have time or the desire to challenge the conventional wisdom which they inherit.

Chalabi may become prime minister, or he may not. Should he rise to the premiership, it will not be because anyone in the United States helped him get there, which perhaps is testament to his political skill. But whatever happens, perhaps it’s time for the United States to sit back and look forward, rather than leap forward and think only of the past.

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Forming a Government in Iraq

Good to see that the de-Baathification campaign has been dropped in Iraq, at least for now. The effort to disqualify parliamentary candidates for supposed Baathist backgrounds was a truly poisonous effort engineered by Iran and executed by the opportunistic Ahmed Chalabi to rig the outcome of the Iraqi election. If it had succeeded in taking away votes from Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya slate, the result could have been a major backlash among Sunnis.

Since I have recently been critical of the Obama administration and U.S. diplomatic representatives in Baghdad for not doing more to resolve the post-election crisis, it is only fair to give credit where it is due and note that a behind-the-scenes American effort contributed to this important step forward. But there is much more that needs to be done.

The election results still aren’t certified. Only when that happens will the true jockeying to form a government begin. One of the key questions will be whether Nouri al-Maliki or his chief rival, Ayad Allawi, will get first chance to form a government. Going strictly by the election results, Allawi should get first shot. But Maliki has formed a post-election alliance between his State of Law slate and the Iraqi National Alliance, a group of sectarian Shiites close to Iran that finished a distant third in the balloting. An Iraqi judicial ruling would thus seem to suggest that the newly formed all-Shiite coalition should get first shot at government-formation, even though this would seem to run counter to the intentions of Iraqi voters who gave Allawi’s secular, nationalist slate the most seats.

Odds are that Allawi, a secular Shiite whose primary base of support is among Sunnis, can’t form a government in any case because of Shiite opposition, but it would be good to at least let him try so as to lessen charge of post-election manipulation. There is also serious cause to doubt whether Maliki can engineer a coalition that will keep him in the prime minister’s office. He has made many enemies and few friends among fellow Iraqi politicos, and his new coalition partners, the Sadrists, are adamantly oppose to his continued rule. Odds are that a lesser-known, compromise candidate will ultimately emerge as prime minister — just as Maliki himself came from nowhere to be chosen as prime minister in 2006.

While all this is going on, U.S. troop reductions are slated to continue at a rapid pace, down to just 50,000 soldiers by the end of August, thus lessening American ability to influence the outcome. That, in turn, will place a premium on smart, skillful diplomacy during what promises to be a very trying summer. Iraq has cleared one important hurdle, but many more remain.

Good to see that the de-Baathification campaign has been dropped in Iraq, at least for now. The effort to disqualify parliamentary candidates for supposed Baathist backgrounds was a truly poisonous effort engineered by Iran and executed by the opportunistic Ahmed Chalabi to rig the outcome of the Iraqi election. If it had succeeded in taking away votes from Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya slate, the result could have been a major backlash among Sunnis.

Since I have recently been critical of the Obama administration and U.S. diplomatic representatives in Baghdad for not doing more to resolve the post-election crisis, it is only fair to give credit where it is due and note that a behind-the-scenes American effort contributed to this important step forward. But there is much more that needs to be done.

The election results still aren’t certified. Only when that happens will the true jockeying to form a government begin. One of the key questions will be whether Nouri al-Maliki or his chief rival, Ayad Allawi, will get first chance to form a government. Going strictly by the election results, Allawi should get first shot. But Maliki has formed a post-election alliance between his State of Law slate and the Iraqi National Alliance, a group of sectarian Shiites close to Iran that finished a distant third in the balloting. An Iraqi judicial ruling would thus seem to suggest that the newly formed all-Shiite coalition should get first shot at government-formation, even though this would seem to run counter to the intentions of Iraqi voters who gave Allawi’s secular, nationalist slate the most seats.

Odds are that Allawi, a secular Shiite whose primary base of support is among Sunnis, can’t form a government in any case because of Shiite opposition, but it would be good to at least let him try so as to lessen charge of post-election manipulation. There is also serious cause to doubt whether Maliki can engineer a coalition that will keep him in the prime minister’s office. He has made many enemies and few friends among fellow Iraqi politicos, and his new coalition partners, the Sadrists, are adamantly oppose to his continued rule. Odds are that a lesser-known, compromise candidate will ultimately emerge as prime minister — just as Maliki himself came from nowhere to be chosen as prime minister in 2006.

While all this is going on, U.S. troop reductions are slated to continue at a rapid pace, down to just 50,000 soldiers by the end of August, thus lessening American ability to influence the outcome. That, in turn, will place a premium on smart, skillful diplomacy during what promises to be a very trying summer. Iraq has cleared one important hurdle, but many more remain.

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Ahmed Chalabi, Redux

Ahmed Chalabi (remember him?) is back in the news. He is the power behind the de-Baathification Commission, which is wreaking havoc with Iraqi politics by disqualifying secular candidates for supposed Baathist ties. As General Ray Odierno has said, Chalabi and his protégé, Ali Faisal al-Lami, appear to be acting at the behest of the Iranians:

The two Iraqi politicians “clearly are influenced by Iran,” General Odierno said. “We have direct intelligence that tells us that.” He said the two men had several meetings in Iran, including sessions with an Iranian who is on the United States terrorist watch list.

Real Clear World’s Compass blogger Greg Scoblete has responded with a non sequitur headlined “Paging Douglas Feith”:

Many neoconservatives are demanding that the U.S. throw its full weight behind the Iranians in their pursuit of freedom. On the surface, this is obviously a noble idea, but it’s worth remembering that the very people making confident predictions about the predilections of the Iranian people were duped by an Iranian stooge.

In turn Feith, the former Undersecretary of Defense, has weighed in to deny “that Pentagon officials aimed to favor or ‘anoint’ Chalabi as the leader of Iraq after Saddam” or that they were duped by Chalabi before the war.

I think Feith is right on the narrow technical points (the U.S. did not try to install Chalabi as Iraq’s leader and the U.S. intelligence community did not buy all the intel he was peddling) but wrong on the larger issue. There is no doubt that Chalabi had a significant impact on the Washington debate prior to the invasion of Iraq: he was a leading lobbyist for the view that Saddam could be replaced by a democratic regime with minimal American investment of blood and treasure. Like other exiles (and some American experts), he vastly exaggerated the influence of secular technocrats and vastly underplayed the power of tribal and religious forces. This view was adopted by the Bush administration and helps to account for the major American blunders of 2003-2004, which were essentially based on the premise that Iraqi society could regenerate itself after Saddam’s downfall.

But I also believe Greg Scoblete is wrong: First place, the Green movement in Iran is not a figment of some exile’s imagination. Second, simply because Chalabi is now an Iranian stooge does not mean he was one in 2003. My read is that he is an opportunist, out to grab power for himself, who will make use of whatever allies he finds helpful. Prior to the invasion of Iraq and immediately afterward, Chalabi, no doubt, hoped that his American backers would enthrone him. When this didn’t happen, when in fact the U.S. authorities turned against him, he sought backing in another quarter and struck an unsavory alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr and his sponsors in the Quds Force.

The bottom line is that Chalabi now exercises a pernicious influence in Iraq and the U.S. should work with other Iraqi political factions to minimize his impact and try to roll back his electoral disqualifications. And those of us who ever had a kind word for him (myself included) should eat their words.

Ahmed Chalabi (remember him?) is back in the news. He is the power behind the de-Baathification Commission, which is wreaking havoc with Iraqi politics by disqualifying secular candidates for supposed Baathist ties. As General Ray Odierno has said, Chalabi and his protégé, Ali Faisal al-Lami, appear to be acting at the behest of the Iranians:

The two Iraqi politicians “clearly are influenced by Iran,” General Odierno said. “We have direct intelligence that tells us that.” He said the two men had several meetings in Iran, including sessions with an Iranian who is on the United States terrorist watch list.

Real Clear World’s Compass blogger Greg Scoblete has responded with a non sequitur headlined “Paging Douglas Feith”:

Many neoconservatives are demanding that the U.S. throw its full weight behind the Iranians in their pursuit of freedom. On the surface, this is obviously a noble idea, but it’s worth remembering that the very people making confident predictions about the predilections of the Iranian people were duped by an Iranian stooge.

In turn Feith, the former Undersecretary of Defense, has weighed in to deny “that Pentagon officials aimed to favor or ‘anoint’ Chalabi as the leader of Iraq after Saddam” or that they were duped by Chalabi before the war.

I think Feith is right on the narrow technical points (the U.S. did not try to install Chalabi as Iraq’s leader and the U.S. intelligence community did not buy all the intel he was peddling) but wrong on the larger issue. There is no doubt that Chalabi had a significant impact on the Washington debate prior to the invasion of Iraq: he was a leading lobbyist for the view that Saddam could be replaced by a democratic regime with minimal American investment of blood and treasure. Like other exiles (and some American experts), he vastly exaggerated the influence of secular technocrats and vastly underplayed the power of tribal and religious forces. This view was adopted by the Bush administration and helps to account for the major American blunders of 2003-2004, which were essentially based on the premise that Iraqi society could regenerate itself after Saddam’s downfall.

But I also believe Greg Scoblete is wrong: First place, the Green movement in Iran is not a figment of some exile’s imagination. Second, simply because Chalabi is now an Iranian stooge does not mean he was one in 2003. My read is that he is an opportunist, out to grab power for himself, who will make use of whatever allies he finds helpful. Prior to the invasion of Iraq and immediately afterward, Chalabi, no doubt, hoped that his American backers would enthrone him. When this didn’t happen, when in fact the U.S. authorities turned against him, he sought backing in another quarter and struck an unsavory alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr and his sponsors in the Quds Force.

The bottom line is that Chalabi now exercises a pernicious influence in Iraq and the U.S. should work with other Iraqi political factions to minimize his impact and try to roll back his electoral disqualifications. And those of us who ever had a kind word for him (myself included) should eat their words.

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Are the “Baathists” the New “Fascists”?

Joe Biden is hardly the world’s most diplomatic guy. Recall his infamous walk-out, while still a senator, from a dinner with Hamid Karzai: a gesture of pique that needlessly worsened relations with an important American ally. Nevertheless, I am glad he has gone to Iraq to try to resolve a dispute that threatens to cast into doubt the legitimacy of that country’s upcoming elections.

Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission has disqualified some 500 candidates from seeking election on the grounds of being “Baathists,” which, in today’s Iraq, has become an amorphous term of abuse comparable in the West to calling someone a “fascist.” Most of those affected are secular candidates who would be expected to oppose the Shiite religious alliance, the National Iraqi Alliance, made up primarily of ISCI and the Sadrists. The ban includes, among others, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician who left the Baathist Party in 1977, and the well-respected Defense Minister Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi.

What makes this whole process truly farcical is that the chairman of the Accountability and Justice Commission is none other than Ali Faisal al-Lami, a close associate of the increasingly discredited Ahmed Chalabi, who is now in alliance with the most extreme and violent Sadrists. Until last summer, Lami was in an American detention facility, charged (based on convincing intelligence) with orchestrating a bombing “that killed two American Embassy employees, two American soldiers and six Iraqis at a district council meeting in Baghdad” in 2008. Lami is hardly the kind of moral exemplar who should be ruling on anyone else’s fitness to seek office, and if his disqualifications stand, they will only reinforce a sense of grievance among the Sunni minority and among the large number of secularists of whatever sectarian persuasion — and justifiably so. I can only hope that Biden can bring enough political clout to force a resolution that would allow candidates to run for office freely regardless of their past political affiliations.

Joe Biden is hardly the world’s most diplomatic guy. Recall his infamous walk-out, while still a senator, from a dinner with Hamid Karzai: a gesture of pique that needlessly worsened relations with an important American ally. Nevertheless, I am glad he has gone to Iraq to try to resolve a dispute that threatens to cast into doubt the legitimacy of that country’s upcoming elections.

Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission has disqualified some 500 candidates from seeking election on the grounds of being “Baathists,” which, in today’s Iraq, has become an amorphous term of abuse comparable in the West to calling someone a “fascist.” Most of those affected are secular candidates who would be expected to oppose the Shiite religious alliance, the National Iraqi Alliance, made up primarily of ISCI and the Sadrists. The ban includes, among others, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician who left the Baathist Party in 1977, and the well-respected Defense Minister Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi.

What makes this whole process truly farcical is that the chairman of the Accountability and Justice Commission is none other than Ali Faisal al-Lami, a close associate of the increasingly discredited Ahmed Chalabi, who is now in alliance with the most extreme and violent Sadrists. Until last summer, Lami was in an American detention facility, charged (based on convincing intelligence) with orchestrating a bombing “that killed two American Embassy employees, two American soldiers and six Iraqis at a district council meeting in Baghdad” in 2008. Lami is hardly the kind of moral exemplar who should be ruling on anyone else’s fitness to seek office, and if his disqualifications stand, they will only reinforce a sense of grievance among the Sunni minority and among the large number of secularists of whatever sectarian persuasion — and justifiably so. I can only hope that Biden can bring enough political clout to force a resolution that would allow candidates to run for office freely regardless of their past political affiliations.

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