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Iraq: Chalabi's Fall From Grace

In the past several days, Iraqi political figure Ahmad Chalabi has suffered two crucial blows -- one directly, the other indirectly -- from the U.S. government. On 18 May, the administration of President George W. Bush announced that it will not renew a program under which it was providing $335,000 a month to Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (INC) to provide intelligence. Yesterday, U.S.-backed Iraqi authorities raided Chalabi's residence in Baghdad and seized documents and computers.

Washington, 21 May 2004 (RFE/RL) --"I am America's best friend in Iraq." Certainly what Chalabi said after yesterday's raid was true at one time. But if the words of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell mean anything, Chalabi may very well be a pariah in Washington.

On 16 May, Powell, speaking to an American news program about his presentation at the United Nations in February 2003 that failed to convince the Security Council that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, said: "At the time that I made the presentation, it reflected the collective judgment, the sound judgment of the intelligence community. But it turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and, in some cases, deliberately misleading. And for that I am disappointed and I regret it."
"In some ways it may actually strengthen him politically, because he was perceived to be a puppet of the U.S. before, and this may actually help him."

The "sourcing" that Powell refers to was provided, at least in part, by Chalabi's INC. The group is made up of Iraqi exiles who had for years pressed the United States to depose Saddam Hussein as president of Iraq. And it argued that once Hussein fell, the Iraqi people would warmly welcome American soldiers.

Some in the Bush administration -- reportedly including Powell -- were skeptical of Chalabi. But others -- including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz -- embraced him. Through them, Chalabi remained influential in Washington's Iraq policy, and now is a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.

Chalabi says the recent U.S. hostility was prompted by power politics in Iraq and by what he called three competing investigations into the UN oil-for-food program.

Under the oil-for-food program, revenues from oil exported by Hussein's Iraq were to have gone exclusively to pay for food and medicine for the Iraqi people. But Washington says Hussein's regime benefited by more than $10 billion through smuggling and kickbacks under oil-for-food.

Chalabi has opened an investigation into suspected abuses of the program, and the United States has opened a second probe. Now the UN has opened a third inquiry. Chalabi says yesterday's raid was an attempt by the United States and the United Nations to hamper his investigation:

"I have opened up the investigation of the oil-for-food program which has cast doubt about the integrity of the UN here. They don't like this," Chalabi said.

In Baghdad yesterday, Dan Senor, the spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq, said the raid on Chalabi's residence was ordered by Iraqi officials, not the Americans, and that it had nothing to do with the oil-for-food program. And in Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said only that the raid was not politically motivated, but was related to unspecified criminal matters.

Analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say they believe Chalabi's questionable performance in providing intelligence, and his equally questionable political behavior, may be the real reasons that he is being so unceremoniously dumped by the Bush administration.

James Phillips is a foreign policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy research center in Washington. He dismisses U.S. claims that the raid on Chalabi's home was conducted without at least the acquiescence of the American government, if not under orders from the Americans.

As a result, Phillips tells RFE/RL, the United States is clearly sending Chalabi the message that it no longer wants anything to do with him. The reason, he says, is the embarrassment -- mentioned by Powell -- over poor intelligence provided by Chalabi's INC.

"Members of his [Chalabi's] organization brought Iraqi defectors to the attention of American intelligence organizations, and some are believed to have passed on information about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which later turned out to be false or distorted. And that is also one reason he fell out of favor with many groups in Washington," Phillips said.

But Phillips says being dumped by the Americans may not be the worst thing that has happened to Chalabi. To the contrary, it may prove to be the best news of his political career in Iraq.

"In some ways it may actually strengthen him politically, because he was perceived to be a puppet of the U.S. before, and this may actually help him," Phillips said.

Marina Ottaway is a senior associate of the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another Washington think tank. Ottaway tells RFE/RL that she believes Chalabi became aware several weeks ago that he was losing favor in Washington and began courting alternate sources of political power in Iraq -- including the country's leading Shi'a cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

And, Ottaway says, there are reports that Chalabi did not restrict his political maneuvers to Iraq.

"Chalabi was determined to come out on top. And he started having doubts a few months ago that the U.S. was going to put him in control. And at that point he started trying to find other cards he could play. He tried to move very close to Sistani at one point, and there were indications that he made several trips to Iran," Ottaway said.

Ottaway says she is not certain Chalabi will benefit politically from the new U.S. hostility. She notes that so far, he has been able to generate little support among the Iraqi people.

As for the United States itself, Ottaway says severing ties with Chalabi is probably a wise move at a time when it is struggling politically and militarily to establish the legitimacy of its presence in Iraq. But she adds that the split also represents a lonely truth for Washington.

"Above all, it seems to me that it makes the United States look more and more [as if it is] without allies inside the country [Iraq]."

(RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon contributed to this report.)