Prague, 24 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ahmad Chalabi, the president of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a former exile group, yesterday denied charges he had passed to Iran classified U.S. information about the occupation of Iraq.
"The charges about giving classified information to Iran by me or by any INC officer are false, nonexistent,” Chalabi said. “These are charges put out by George Tenet and his CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] to discredit us, and I want to go to [the U.S.] Congress, I'm prepared to go to Congress and testify under oath and expose all the information and documents in our position."
Chalabi also said the INC had never received any classified information from the United States.
Chalabi's comments came following accusations made by unnamed U.S. intelligence officials that he and other INC members passed secret information to Iran, including sensitive data about U.S. troop movements in Iraq.
"[Chalabi's] brother is a very well-known businessman in Iran; they have a lot of interests, part of his family is living in Iran."
Chalabi's Baghdad home and offices were raided on 21 May by Iraqi police backed by U.S. soldiers. Earlier in the week, the United States announced it was suspending a program under which it was providing $335,000 a month to the INC.
Following the 21 May raid, Chalabi -- a longtime U.S. ally and once favored by many in Washington to become the first leader of post-Hussein Iraq -- said he had broken ties with the U.S.-led coalition.
In its 10 May issue, "Newsweek" magazine quoted U.S. officials as saying that electronic intercepts of discussions between Iranian authorities indicated Chalabi and his entourage were providing Iran with information about U.S. plans in Iraq.
"Newsweek" cited one U.S. source as saying some of the information allegedly passed from Chalabi to Iran could "get people killed."
Iran has called the U.S. accusations "baseless and unfounded."
A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Hamid Reza Assefi, said yesterday that the United States is fabricating the espionage claims in order to "cover up their massive problems in Iraq."
At the same time, Assefi says the Islamic Republic has had what he called a "continuous and permanent dialogue" with Chalabi and other members of the Iraqi Governing Council.
Iran was one of the first countries to approve the creation of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, and has welcomed frequent visits from IGC members.
Chalabi yesterday told the U.S. broadcaster Fox that he met with Iranian officials a month and a half ago. He said all members of the IGC meet on a regular basis with officials from Iran's embassy in Baghdad.
Iran's official IRNA news agency reported that in March, the IGC's then-president, Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, visited Tehran for talks with Iranian officials. Chalabi, who was present at the meeting, reportedly called for the expansion of ties between the two countries.
Chalabi has visited Iran several times since the fall of Hussein, and has met with a number of top officials, including President Mohammad Khatami and the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Even before the U.S.-led war, Chalabi was no stranger to Iran. Alireza Nourizadeh is a journalist based in London and the director of the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies.
"His brother is a very well-known businessman in Iran; they have a lot of interests, part of his family is living in Iran. During the 20 years prior to Saddam's fall they were living in Iran, and therefore his traveling to Iran seemed natural prior to his arrival in Baghdad [after the fall of the Ba'ath regime] because he had business, he had relatives and also he was a prominent Iraqi opposition leader and he was going to Iran whenever there was a meeting or conference," Nourizadeh said.
Nourizadeh adds that following the fall of Hussein's regime, Chalabi intensified his contacts with the Iranians in order to gain their support and solidify his own position in Baghdad.
"He thought in order to have some chance of being the leader of Iraq, he has to have a force like Iran behind him since he's a Shi'a, he has sort of good relations with the [religious authorities in Iraq.] [And then he also wanted to convince] Iranians that he's approved by the Americans but he's not an American puppet, so that if he becomes president of Iraq or head of state then he would pursue a friendly policy towards Iran. He, I think, thought by having Iranians he would not need anybody else and then he will play with the Iranian card in front of the Americans and with the American card in front of the Iranians," Nourizadeh said.
News agencies are reporting that U.S. officials have launched an investigation into claims Chalabi passed sensitive information to Iran. "The Washington Post" newspaper today reported that a warrant has been issued for the arrest of Chalabi's top intelligence adviser, Aras Habib.
Habib is suspected of having ties to the Iranian Intelligence Services. His whereabouts are currently unknown.