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Iraq: Divisive Opposition Leader Poised To Step Into The Limelight

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

With Saddam Hussein out and coalition forces controlling most of Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi -- one of the fiercest opponents of the deposed leader -- appears poised to step into the limelight. On 6 April, the co-founder of the Iraqi National Congress was flown into southern Iraq at the head of some 700 fighters of his fledgling, U.S.-trained Free Iraqi Forces. Chalabi, who has long-standing ties with many officials in the current U.S. administration, could play a key role in the future running of Iraq. Yet he faces strong opposition from the U.S. State Department and the CIA.

Prague, 11 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ahmad Chalabi's arrival in the predominantly Shia southern city of Nasiriyah marked the end of 45 years of exile from Baghdad-controlled Iraq and a climax in an eventful personal career. But it could also herald new troubles for this 58-year-old mathematician and banker with a checkered past.

Chalabi wants to be a major player in the future Iraqi administration that the United States says it wants to succeed Saddam Hussein's regime. But just what position the co-founder of the London-based Iraqi National Congress (INC) will eventually hold remains unclear. The U.S. administration has apparently not decided what role to hand Saddam Hussein's former exiled opponents in the immediate future.

On 1 April, Britain's "The Guardian" daily said Washington was envisaging a U.S. Army-supervised government made of 23 ministries, each headed by an American and four Iraqi advisers. Under this plan, the newspaper said, Chalabi would be offered an advisory job at the finance ministry. It seems unlikely, however, that Chalabi will tolerate a junior position.

Earlier this week, the INC leadership said it had invited all Iraqi opposition parties to send representatives to Nasiriyah on 12 April to discuss Iraq's future. But some in the U.S. State Department reportedly fear the meeting -- which is not yet formally scheduled -- might turn into a "coronation" for Chalabi and his close associates.

Earlier this week, State Department officials told Agence France Presse the U.S. was considering calling another opposition meeting some time next week at a different venue. The AFP report, which could not be independently confirmed, said this initiative was aimed at preventing Chalabi from seizing complete control of the future Iraqi administration.

Asked on 9 April about the Nasiriyah meeting, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher denied it would serve as a springboard for any particular opposition group.

"It's not a coronation," Boucher said. "It's not a choice of some kind of government. It's an opportunity for American, for coalition officials to meet with free Iraqis from inside and outside Iraq to discuss their vision of the future, to start working with local administrations and talk about the vision of the future. It's not a meeting of organizational leaders or of political figures. It's a meeting with a significant number of Iraqis representing a wide range of Iraqi groups, and that is the intention of the [U.S.] administration in helping to organize this meeting."

Chalabi has had uneasy relations with the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Both reportedly fear Chalabi's background as a Shia Muslim -- Iraq's majority religion -- and his vision of the Arab world may antagonize Washington's traditional Sunni allies in the region.

But the INC leader, who has relentlessly called for military action against Saddam, has many friends in the U.S. administration, especially among those commonly referred to as the "neo-conservatives." Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Pentagon adviser Richard Perle are said to be his strongest supporters.

Marius Deeb is a professor of Middle East studies at the Washington-based Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. He told RFE/RL that, no matter how bad his relations with the State Department and the CIA, Chalabi can depend on President George W. Bush and his closest aides.

"This is a decision made by the president, the vice president, and the secretary of defense. And therefore, I think, ultimately, if the White House wants a particular individual and if the Pentagon -- because the troops are on the ground -- is in agreement, [then] that individual, in the present case Chalabi, is really the candidate," Deeb said.

Chalabi also has supporters in the U.S. academic world. One of them is Bernard Lewis, a renowned expert on Middle East affairs and professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. In an interview with our correspondent, Lewis brushed aside critics who describe Chalabi as a mere adventurer and fortune hunter.

"I think [Chalabi] is a man of honor, integrity, and courage. I have known him for 12 years, and the longer I know him the more I respect him. He could easily have chosen an easy and prosperous life. Instead of which, he felt [it was] his patriotic duty to oppose [Hussein's] regime, and he has done so at considerable risk and hardship," Lewis said.

The scion of a wealthy and influential Baghdad family, Chalabi left Iraq for the U.S. in 1958 soon after the fall of the British-sponsored Hashemite monarchy.

After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, he taught mathematics at Beirut's American University until the Lebanese civil war forced him to emigrate once again.

Chalabi then settled in Amman, the capital of Jordan. There he founded the Petra Bank, which quickly grew to become the country's third-largest bank.

In 1989 Petra Bank collapsed, reportedly driving thousands of depositors into bankruptcy, after which Chalabi settled in London where he obtained British citizenship.

Three years later, a Jordan court sentenced him in absentia to 22 years in prison for embezzlement and bank fraud. Chalabi has persistently denied the charge, claiming Amman had moved against him under pressure from Saddam Hussein.

Despite these financial setbacks, Chalabi apparently continued to live in grand style. A correspondent from "The New York Times" who visited Chalabi in Tehran last January reported he had settled in a luxuriously decorated villa, which he candidly admitted was being paid for by U.S. state funds.

Chalabi's political career began in earnest immediately following the 1991 Gulf War, when the INC emerged as a disparate coalition of anti-Saddam factions and soon secured U.S. government funding.

However, relations with former U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration proved to be less friendly than those with the aides of former President George Bush -- most of whom now hold government posts in the current U.S. administration.

In 1998, Chalabi lobbied the U.S. Congress to pass the Iraqi Liberation Act, which officially made the overthrow of Saddam Hussein Washington's aim. Although the bill committed tens of millions of dollars to assist the INC, the gesture proved largely symbolic and had no real impact on the course of events.

Considering the INC hopelessly inefficient and divided, the State Department instead put its support behind another grouping known as the Iraqi National Accord (INA).

With a large number of defectors from Iraq's ruling Ba'ath Party and a predominantly Sunni membership, the INA seemed to many U.S. officials to be in a better position to build up a successful anti-Saddam conspiracy in the Iraqi armed forces. But it was eventually crushed by the Iraqi regime in 1996.

Lewis of Princeton University said the mutual mistrust between Chalabi and the State Department dates back to this unfortunate episode. "[Chalabi] committed the absolutely unforgivable crime of being right when [the State Department and the CIA] were wrong," he said. "I refer [here] to the unsuccessful attempt to set up an Iraqi opposition some years ago excluding him. [Chalabi] warned them that this opposition was penetrated by Saddam and would collapse disastrously. They brushed him aside and he proved to be quite right."

Analysts believe internecine disputes and the efficiency of the Iraqi security apparatus explain why opposition groups failed to build up a conspiracy against Hussein throughout the 1990s. But they argue Saddam's exiled opponents have also failed to drum up sufficient domestic support because they had been out of the country for too long.

Many State Department and CIA officials cite similar logic now, saying Chalabi's emigre background will prevent him from winning widespread support at home.

A CIA report distributed to U.S. policymakers last month and leaked to the press a few days ago claims most Iraqis are suspicious of the INC -- a feeling that may only intensify if Chalabi appears to the population to be little more than a puppet of Washington. The U.S. media has recently quoted State Department officials as saying the only support Chalabi has in Iraq is the U.S. military.

But Lewis dismissed claims that the INC leader will fail to win support because he is an emigre. "That is what is being repeated, but how do we know that? I mean, this is simply a sort of mantra which people who oppose him repeat again and again. As for people inside Iraq [who could emerge as national political figures], there will be nobody for a while because Saddam did a very thorough job in destroying them. He extirpated any kind of political dissent, even the most modest. So the chances of someone arriving from within Iraq are minimal," Lewis said.

Chalabi's supporters believe his Shia background and his ties with Tehran could make him an acceptable figure for religious leaders in Iraq's south. In addition, the promotion of this layman is likely to keep Shia clerics out of politics and, therefore, prevent any religiously flavored trouble in southern Iraq.

Deeb of Johns Hopkins University believes Chalabi's reportedly good ties with the Kurds of northern Iraq -- with whom he has worked many years within the INC -- contribute to making him the most suitable candidate to help administer Iraq.

"He is of a Shia background and I am sure he could be acceptable to all groups, [to] the Kurds [and] Sunni Arabs as well as to the Shia Arabs. Therefore, I don't see why he could not continue to play a role even after a transitional period. Now, of course, it depends on the elections. It depends on what system you want to devise, whether you want to have free elections or just some sort of representation of the various tribes, clans and regions. [All this] is very much in the air and we don't know exactly what system is in store for Iraq," Deeb said.

Whatever his future role in Iraq, Chalabi -- for the moment -- has more immediate concerns. On 9 April, he urged the U.S. to bolster security and improve living conditions in areas controlled by the coalition forces. Analysts believe that such scolding -- rather than representing a true rift with Washington -- is meant to soften Chalabi's image as a U.S. protege and boost his credentials as an independent-minded leader committed to Iraq's future.

With the assassination yesterday in Najaf of Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Khoi, a prominent Shia Muslim cleric who had just returned from exile under U.S. military escort, these tactics may well be the best possible option for the INC leader.