Washington, 19 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For the past four years, the U.S. government has given tens of millions of dollars to the Iraqi National Congress (INC) to help gather intelligence in Iraq, with monthly payments of $335,000.
Before the war, the INC provided America with intelligence on former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his suspected weapons programs and how to plan for a post-Saddam occupation. Since Hussein's fall, they have helped occupation forces find suspected insurgents.
Some of the intelligence the INC has provided to the United States has turned out to be questionable, however. So far, no significant caches of unconventional weapons have been found. And many Iraqis are resisting the U.S.-led occupation, despite assurances -- again reportedly from the INC -- that coalition forces would be welcomed by Iraqis after Saddam's fall.
"We are going to leave Iraq to the Iraqis, because if the Iraqis are sovereign and have their own government, the U.S. should not support one political group or another, financially or in any other way."
Criticism of the INC is focused on its leader, Ahmad Chalabi, a wealthy Iraqi exile who had not lived in his native land for nearly 50 years. Now he is a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.
Chalabi is widely reported to have had the support of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but is said to be mistrusted by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
It was Powell who is said to have favored a much larger coalition force to maintain order in Iraq after Hussein's fall. Instead, Bush chose to go with a smaller force, as recommended by Rumsfeld, because of Chalabi's reported assurances that few Iraqis were expected to resist the occupation.
Yesterday, there were several news reports that the Bush administration was not prepared to extend the program under which it gave financial support to the INC. The program was set to expire on 30 June, the day the occupation authority hands over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz confirmed those reports during an appearance before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said Washington believes it would be inappropriate to continue funding a private political organization in Iraq after Iraqis take over sovereignty of their country.
Wolfowitz also praised the quantity and quality of intelligence that the INC provided, both before and after Hussein's fall.
But it is the quality of that intelligence that is at issue as the United States severs its formal relationship with Chalabi and his group, according to Mark Burgess, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a policy research center in Washington.
Burgess tells RFE/RL that members of the Bush administration must be embarrassed that they put so much trust in the INC. But he says the Bush administration ultimately has no one to blame but itself.
"[Chalabi] was telling [Bush administration officials] something they wanted to hear. They just wanted to believe it. It would have been nice had it worked out that way. Maybe they let their wishful thinking cloud their better judgment. Maybe they thought it was worth the risk. Maybe they thought, 'Well, you know, if it looks, six months down the line, like it's not going to work -- a year down the line -- we'll stop funding him, and we'll wipe our hands of him,' " Burgess said.
Burgess says it is just as easy to believe that the U.S. administration is unceremoniously dumping Chalabi to prevent further embarrassment as it is to accept Wolfowitz's explanation that it would be improper to support a private political group after handing over sovereignty.
Either way, Burgess says, Chalabi is politically sophisticated enough to recognize that now is the time for Bush himself to seize an opportunity and rid himself of a political liability.
"Mr. Chalabi is a grown-up in a tough world. He must realize that political expediency is what is [most important]. Getting rid of Chalabi -- whether or not it's for good reasons or for bad, on your part -- it's got to improve matters at this point," Chalabi said.
Judith Kipper is less cynical about the Bush administration's motives in deciding not to extend its relationship with the INC. Kipper is the director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.
Kipper tells RFE/RL that she accepts Wolfowitz's explanation because, she says, there is really no other sensible explanation. The United States, she says, cannot possibly continue to support the INC after an Iraqi government is sworn in.
"This is a long-term support [for the INC] -- pre-war and during the war -- for years and years and years. So, as we turn over sovereignty, [ending the financial support is] an essential step. We are going to leave Iraq to the Iraqis, because if the Iraqis are sovereign and have their own government, the U.S. should not support one political group or another, financially or in any other way," Kipper said.
Kipper also says she is uncomfortable with the common assessment of Chalabi as being self-serving. She said that whatever disagreements one may have with him, he made a significant contribution to bringing down a man she calls a tyrant.
"Many parts of our government and analysts have had their differences with [Chalabi], but nobody can take away from him that he put the tyrannical, Stalinist regime of Saddam Hussein on the map and got the attention of Americans. And he was very, very important in promoting a different kind of future for Iraq," Kipper said.