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The Man Who Would Succeed Saddam

Ahmed Chalabi's First Big Political Test? Surviving Washington.

by Sally QuinnWashington Post
November 24th, 2003

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2003; Page C01

Ahmed Chalabi, a leading candidate to head Iraq's new government, is making the rounds on Capitol Hill. He can barely contain his glee. He is doing what he loves most and what he does best -- lobbying the U.S. government for his cause, Iraq. As rotating president of the Iraqi Governing Council this September morning, he is going for grants, not loans. He smiles a knowing smile. He's got this baby in the bag. But then, he always does. That's what makes his detractors crazy -- and his supporters so loyal. Never, they say, underestimate Ahmed Chalabi. It is always a mistake.

At first glance, Chalabi is an unassuming man, 59 years old, slightly overweight, balding, conservatively dressed in a dark suit. But it's his eyes and his eyebrows that draw attention. One eyebrow seems permanently raised, as though he is sharing his secret only with you. A fellow Arab acquaintance describes him as "from the bazaar," and you can envision him, his eyes gleaming, negotiating with you. Partly it is for fun, for love of the game. But the part about the money is deadly serious.

This morning he's already met with 50 Senate Republicans. "They applauded when I came in," he reports proudly. "Senator Santorum said that he had been defending me to the president so much that the president started calling him 'Ahmed.' "

Chalabi knows he needs a defender. He has just announced at the United Nations that he's more in agreement with France than with the United States about the timing of Iraqi sovereignty: He wants it sooner rather than later. His U.S. sponsors are not pleased -- it looks like he's turned on them.

But maybe not. In the high-risk game Chalabi's playing, he can't appear to be a puppet of the United States if he is to have any credibility in Iraq. The administration knows that, too.

This afternoon he has a meeting with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. He's a little nervous about it. "We still don't know whether it's going to be a scolding or 'you've been a good boy,' " says Chalabi's aide Zaab Sethna. "If they don't let us have a photo of him with Condi, we'll know they're not happy."

And they don't know whether they will be seeing the president. They didn't exactly request a meeting, Chalabi says, but, according to Sethna, they did relay the message that they would "like to thank the president and tell him how grateful we are for all he's done for us."

They know it probably won't happen. "The president's not too happy with us now," says Sethna.

The Constant Goal


Fast-forward to November: The Bush administration, concerned by military setbacks, has done an about-face on sovereignty. Under an agreement struck a week ago, U.S. administrator Paul Bremer will turn over control of the country to the Iraqis within eight months.

As he sees it, it's one more goal achieved for the passionate and relentless Ahmed Chalabi. He is the founder and leader of the Iraqi National Congress, a powerful and influential exile group. He was an enabler who helped the United States justify its invasion of Iraq. He is a secular Shiite Muslim, an exile who fled Iraq as a 14-year-old with his family, which was close to the monarchy. He is a mathematician who received degrees from the University of Chicago and MIT. He is an intellectual, a banker, a diplomat, a raconteur, a gourmand. He also happens to be a convicted embezzler in Jordan with a 22-year sentence waiting for him.

In his long history in dealing with the U.S. government, Chalabi has had a string of successes. He was ruthlessly single-minded about urging the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

So far he's gotten everything he's wanted. He got money from the CIA. When it dumped him, he got money from the State Department. He urged Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act, a policy initiative to overthrow Hussein, and it did. After the invasion, he encouraged the formation of a governing council with sovereign power. He got a seat on the council, albeit with less power than he sought, and became one of the nine rotating presidents. He requested sovereignty sooner rather than later, and that's exactly what Bremer has just offered. Many think that he is the person most likely to be elected president under the new plan.

Yet there is a great well of animosity and suspicion toward Chalabi emanating from some quarters of the U.S. government -- primarily the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. Many Democratic members of Congress also view him with mistrust. These detractors say he is corrupt and out for himself, and that in any case he would never last as president of Iraq. Various people blame him for everything from betraying a 1996 coup attempt against Hussein to orchestrating the August bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad.

His patrons, who call him a courageous and dedicated fighter against Hussein who has been unfairly maligned, are mainly in the Pentagon, and he is a darling of the neoconservatives in the Republican Party. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says of Chalabi: "Some think he is a menace. Some think he is a savior. He's a Rorschach test around this town."

"Our biggest allies and friends in Washington," says Chalabi, "are [Vice President] Cheney, [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz and [Defense Policy Board member Richard] Perle." He adds that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage "was ambivalent, but now he's negative."

Perle is Chalabi's most vociferous supporter in Washington. His view is that "people who love Chalabi know him and people who hate him don't know him." He contends that the CIA and the State Department continue to vilify the man but have no evidence. "It's all whispers and innuendoes," he says.

Nobody knows how the president will finally come down on Chalabi. Right now Bush reportedly remains unconvinced that Chalabi is the one to lead Iraq into a democratic future. Jordan's King Abdullah didn't help matters: When he met with Bush recently, he is said to have delivered a broadside against his old nemesis, who was convicted of embezzling millions from a Jordanian bank. According to a friend of Abdullah's, the president reacted to the information with outrage at Chalabi.

The whole notion of a democratic Iraq leaves many rolling their eyes. "It will happen eventually," says Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, "but nobody's talking democracy in the next 90 days or nine months or even nine years."

The debate over Chalabi has divided the administration dramatically. Some people maintain that the solution for Iraq is "as simple as ABC -- Anyone But Chalabi."

"I have never seen such personalization of policy," says Richard Holbrooke, former U.N. ambassador and former assistant secretary of state. "It has created the impression of a dysfunctional family," one senior administration official admitted.

And the politics become more Byzantine every day. So intense is the division that a very senior administration official suggested that some of his colleagues had allowed their feelings to hurt the war effort: "Some people seem to be more eager to block support for Chalabi than to mobilize every possible source of opposition to Saddam," he said. "That is one of the reasons there were not more Iraqis mobilized in the free Iraqi forces when the war began."

At one point, another senior White House official told Defense Policy Board member Ken Adelman that the contretemps over Chalabi was the most distressing situation he had ever encountered in his time in government. Adelman is a close friend of both Cheney and Wolfowitz.

Chalabi responds to this story with a laugh. "If there's harmony in Washington, you must be doing something wrong," he says.

'Kiss of Death'


Chalabi's ultimate goal, almost everyone agrees, is to be president of Iraq. But as a politician, he has some grave liabilities. He is an extremely polarizing personality: people tend to love him or hate him. A recent poll of Iraqis showed a 35 percent unfavorable rating and a 26 percent favorable rating. Many Iraqis regard him as an outsider, someone who stayed away too long. When he returned with U.S. troops at the start of the war, he had not been to Baghdad since 1958. That's when his family fled Iraq. He received his BS at MIT and his PhD at the University of Chicago, then moved to Lebanon, where he taught math at American University in Beirut. After a disastrous banking experience in Jordan, he moved to London and became a British subject. Even though he lived in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq for four years trying to overthrow the government, and lobbied for two years in the United States, his critics accuse him of living the good life while they were suffering under a brutal government. He knows that he is viewed as either a god or a devil, depending on whom you ask. Which is he? "Neither," he will say with a wry smile. But there is a more nuanced version of the question: Can he lead Iraq to democracy or will he be a destructive force that will send the country into further chaos? That is the question that's dividing the administration.

Which is why he demurs when he is asked whether he wants to be president.

"No," he replies quickly, but his eyelids flutter when he says it. You can almost hear the whir inside his head as he formulates the right answer.

"I'd look ridiculous if I said yes," he says finally. "I'm not going to comment. It would be so pompous." He warms up. "People say I want to be anointed. That is the kiss of death. The U.S. ends up killing people they install."

Why so much animosity toward him? Why do so many people call him arrogant? "I stick to what I believe," he says. "Some say I'm not a team player. . . . I don't compromise very much. . . . I have ideas about how to go about things. That makes people angry."

Many of his detractors say he's just a stooge of the United States. "I have, through my family name, sufficient credibility not to be a stooge of the United States," he says. "Why would I need to?" He shrugs. "I stand up for Iraqi interests even if it doesn't coincide with what Americans think. The fact is that I'm constantly attacked by the press. That's not bad for me in Iraq. It shows I'm taking the position of an Iraqi patriot."

Chalabi, though, doesn't want to be impolitic. It's one thing not to look like a tool of the United States; it's another to turn on his benefactors. Asked about his recent meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is reputed to oppose him, he chooses his words carefully. "I feel good about the meeting. He's a smart man, very personable. He thought initially that we were taking an opportunistic stand, that we were taking the French position. But it's our position. We're not going to let the French get in the way of us and the U.S.

"We have allies and friends, and their agendas and constituencies are different from ours. Naturally there are differences.

"We don't want a hasty pullout. Iraq and the U.S. are the best possible allies." Then he adds, more in sorrow than in anger: "People against us tried to make a rift. They tried to take advantage of us on the U.N. statement."

Having skirted the minefield, he grins.

A Day on the Hill


Chalabi, accompanied by two members of the Iraqi Governing Council, is meeting with the Senate leadership. His colleagues -- Adnan Pachachi and the council's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari -- are his rivals, known to dislike him. But for the Senate today, it's all smiles.

During coffee, Chalabi sits on the right of Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Afterward they meet a phalanx of reporters to make statements about how valuable the relationship is and how much they admire and respect each other. Chalabi thanks the American people for helping the Iraqi people.

Afterward, he raises his eyebrow knowingly. "This is Washington games," he says. "The real issue is appropriation. We persuaded them to give us grants, not loans." (In fact the Senate voted for $10 billion in loans, agreeing to grants only after the president threatened a veto.)

Chalabi is told that former representative Lee Hamilton, now head of the Woodrow Wilson Center, says only half-jokingly that Chalabi is the best lobbyist he's ever seen in Washington except for Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti. Chalabi loves that. He nods. "Washington is the power center of the world," he says happily.

Chalabi announces that Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) will see the Iraqis privately after their leadership meeting. He is certain he will convince Biden that they should have a grant. Biden does vote for a grant but says later that it's not because Chalabi persuaded him. "He may convince this administration to turn over the reins to him to allow them to get out of a failed policy, but I can't imagine him being able to unite the country." Biden says that Chalabi is "a guy nobody trusts over there." He thinks Chalabi is bright, opportunistic and was committed to breaking Hussein's grip on Iraq. "He had two loyalties. Deposing Saddam and promoting himself."

When Chalabi and Biden met in the Senate, Biden told him he was playing a dangerous game. "You guys are going to push for autonomy and [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld is going to use you to get out of something we can't win," Biden says he told him. "And you won't get 135,000 American troops, either."

After the Biden visit there is no time for a long lunch that Chalabi had planned, so it is decided that the Senate dining room will have to do. Both Chalabi and Zebari tuck their napkins into their collars. Zebari is fat and nervous, with eyes that dart around as if he can't believe he's here meeting with all these important people. Pachachi, on the other hand is tall, white-haired and elegant, with Old World manners, well traveled and totally comfortable in the corridors of power. According to Sethna, they've been worried about whether Zebari will know how to handle himself. "We're keeping our fingers crossed," says Sethna. "The foreign minister is new to this. He's not good in meetings with the senators."

It is clear that Zebari is not ready for prime time. After devouring his lunch, he has so many grease spots on his suit that he looks like he's had a head-on collision with a jar of olive oil. And this is before the White House meeting with Rice.

The conversation at the table comes around to what kind of constitution and government Iraq should have. "Should we have a government like the United States or should we have a parliamentary government?" muses Chalabi to Pachachi. "Should we have one house or two?" Pachachi questions. "I think we need two," answers Chalabi.

The waitress brings the dessert menu. Chalabi reluctantly starts to wave her away when he is told that ice cream relieves stress. "I'll have a chocolate sundae," he says, grateful.

After the meeting with Rice, Chalabi reports that it went well but that Rice told him his "message has to be better." A senior administration official says that Wolfowitz also "read him the riot act." Clearly the White House was still irritated by his statement at the U.N. siding with the French.

And what was the message Rice wanted him to put out? He has it memorized by now. "Iraqis are happy that Saddam is gone and want to work hard for democracy and are grateful to the United States," he dutifully recites.

He does not meet with the president. And there's no picture with Condi Rice.

The Long Road


Chalabi has been so obsessed with getting the United States to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein that he has more or less devoted the last 10 years of his life to it, leaving his wife, Leila, in London to raise his four children. He spent nearly four years living in northern Iraq, from 1992 to 1996, trying to foment an insurgency. When that failed he came to Washington and for the next two years lived with his aide Francis Brooke in a townhouse he owned in Georgetown, lobbying the U.S. government. Both of his top aides, Brooke and Sethna, are Americans whom he met when they were working for a CIA contractor in London.

He has nothing but praise for his wife, who is Lebanese and whose father was the speaker of the parliament in Lebanon. They were married there in 1972. It was a difficult time politically, and 48 hours before the wedding his wife's brother was assassinated outside their house by political opponents of her father. Soon they moved to Jordan, then to London.

"My wife," he says, "has been a great support to me. She took care of my family." Even during the difficult times in Jordan, he says, "she was like a rock. She held it together." Of his four children, one daughter has a law degree from Georgetown, another a PhD from Harvard, one son is an artist in London and another is in boarding school in Britain.

His daughter Tamara, the Harvard graduate, is one of his closest advisers. She helped him write his U.N. speech. Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a close Chalabi friend, says: "Very few Arab fathers have that kind of relationship with their daughters. She is his intellectual heir. Twenty years ago, when she was a kid, he brought her to meetings to listen about politics. As far as I'm concerned, Tamara acquits him."

Chalabi admits he gets lonely and says he reads voraciously. His favorite book is "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf. He doesn't go out much, for security reasons, and sleeps on the floor in his late sister's house, on his father's Oriental rug, in an upscale neighborhood in Baghdad. The house had been occupied by a division of the Baath Party, and Chalabi says he threw them out.

The morning of the interview with Chalabi in late September, he learned that his office in Baghdad had been broken into and trashed, despite what he thought was tight security. He sees this as a warning and is aware that his life is constantly in danger. He gets death threats every day. The terrorists have vowed to kill everyone on the governing council; they've already assassinated one. "We are the number one target," says Sethna.

These days Chalabi travels in a caravan of security cars and armed vehicles. (This is true of the others on the governing council as well.) He has reclaimed his family's estate and plans to move in after the renovation is finished. But it is in a dangerous part of town where there are many Baathist cells. "People say I'm in danger. I don't think of it much," he says. "It's up to others to keep me safe. What can I do about it? I believe in fate."

The Debate


"He's a patriot who has the best interests of his country at heart," says Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

"He's a fake, one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated on the American people," says Pat Lang, the man who headed counterterrorism in the Middle East and South Asia for eight years at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

"He's a class act," says former CIA director Jim Woolsey.

"He is exasperating, frustrating and not a team player," says Whitley Bruner, a former CIA agent who worked with Chalabi in London.

"Unlike so many Iraqi oppositionists, he actually does what he says he's going to do," says Ken Pollack, research director at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

"If we pulled out he wouldn't last two hours," says former CIA agent Bob Baer. "He's like Rockefeller. He couldn't be president. He's a rich boy."

Contradictory views follow Chalabi into every area of his life. For every detractor, there's a supporter, and often they're working from the same set of facts. He has become a symbol in Washington -- depending on where you stand on the war, he's either the good guy or the bad guy. Still, people in the administration won't go on the record with criticism of him. And many of his supporters point out that people who blame him for the war overlook the fact that it was President Bush who made the decision.

"The question is: Who is manipulating whom?" says Tony Lake, national security adviser during the Clinton administration. "It has been a marriage of convenience."

Lang raises the question of the millions that were appropriated by Congress for the Iraqi National Congress primarily because Chalabi lobbied for it. "Where did it go?" he asks.

State Department officials have suggested that Chalabi ran off with the money, according to several sources. The State Department conducted an audit that found nothing to indicate the money had been misused, but found few receipts to show how it had been spent. But then, according to a State Department staffer, word filtered down from the White House: no more audits of Chalabi. That infuriated the people at State.

Says Perle: "I can't get a shred of evidence from them of any wrongdoing. State has its own favorites. They are vicious about going after Ahmed."

When asked about Chalabi's reputation as corrupt, a senior administration official says: "No one we're going to deal with has a clean record. He gets criticized for things when others get a free pass."

Says McCain: "Is he a boy scout? I doubt it. He comes from a rough neighborhood. Is he interested in power? Of course." McCain has heard that Armitage can't stand Chalabi. "I love that guy [Armitage], so it gives me pause."

Perle is concerned that the White House is buying the negative talk about Chalabi. "If you're Condi Rice you depend on stuff from the Agency," he says, pointing out that the National Security Council is staffed by the CIA and State. And although Vice President Cheney has met Chalabi and formed a good impression, according to Perle, "I worry about what some people are telling Bush, things that aren't true."

Ultimately the debate turns on whether Chalabi would make a good leader for Iraq. Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the first head of the reconstruction effort, who worked closely with Chalabi during his months overseeing Iraq, says yes. "I had great admiration for his intellect and passion," he says. "He's a patriot. . . . If he rose to the top he'd do a credible job."

Lang says no: "A surefire way to make it certain that the government wouldn't last is to put him in charge."

Recently, Chalabi's supporters have appeared to be backing off. Those with a conspiratorial frame of mind have suggested that there is a concerted effort being made to pretend that he is losing ground in Washington so that he will not be seen as a U.S. puppet.

A former senior White House official now close to the State Department says that Chalabi's support is diminishing every day in the White House. "He belongs to the Pentagon," this man says.

Haass, former director of police planning at the State Department and a confidant of Colin Powell, says: "We shouldn't be for him or against him. If he has enough support inside, he will emerge, and if he doesn't he won't. And State shouldn't oppose him or anoint him."

And the Pentagon, Wolfowitz echoes that view: "It is up to the Iraqi people to decide who their leaders will be, and I have never had a favorite. Our interest is in having Iraqi leaders who enjoy the broadest possible base of support in Iraq."

The CIA Contretemps


The worst allegations against Chalabi have to do with the CIA. But a decade ago, he was one of the agency's favorites. At that time, according to Chalabi, his Iraqi National Congress was a CIA client raking in $326,000 a month from the agency, which wielded virtually no control over the Iraqis' operations. Their tactical approaches differed: the INC wanted to stage a popular insurrection; the CIA wanted to plan a military coup. Each thought the other was misguided. Eventually the CIA lost faith in Chalabi and severed its connection to him. Meanwhile, working with another exile group, the Iraqi National Accord, the CIA enlisted a group of generals in Hussein's army to stage its coup. Chalabi says he learned that the attempt had been compromised and came to Washington in 1995 to warn the agency.

Perle was his messenger. "The agency did not take it seriously," Perle says today. Shortly thereafter, about 200 Iraqi officers were imprisoned, tortured and executed by Hussein's regime.

After that, Chalabi called the CIA and "told them to go to hell." He was so outraged that he told the story to The Washington Post and ABC News. He claims the CIA never forgave him. "They looked bad. They went nuts."

"It was a disaster, and they were angry with the man who warned them," says Perle. It was then, he says, "that the CIA started circulating the rumor that Ahmed betrayed the coup." Perle says he's talked with CIA Director George Tenet about this, and that Tenet has not provided any evidence to support the allegation.

Bob Baer, the former CIA agent who worked with Chalabi at the time, also says there is no truth to the allegation leveled by other agents that Chalabi betrayed the coup attempt. Furthermore, he says, the CIA made a mistake when it dumped Chalabi, for strategic reasons alone. The way things work in Washington, he points out, if Chalabi didn't have the CIA to go to, he would turn to Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. "You don't want that to happen if you're the CIA," he says. "You don't want separate channels to the White House. The CIA alienated him and that was a huge mistake."

A senior intelligence officer denied that the coup had anything to do with the CIA's falling-out with Chalabi. He said the concern was about "effectiveness. It was a question of whether he was getting anywhere in terms of intelligence gathering. Money was being supplied, and it was not clear what the money was being used for." And, he said, the intelligence was "not significant and couldn't be corroborated."

"We don't have bad feelings or animosity for Mr. Chalabi. We wish him the best."

There are those who say Chalabi was the main source the United States relied on in the walk-up to the war in Iraq, but he says he played a very limited role, providing only three defectors. One, he says, was useful and is now in the witness protection program; another is the person who led the inspectors to what he said were mobile biological labs, though that has been disputed; and the third they dismissed. "We were not involved in the Niger story," he says. "We were not involved in the information Powell used in his U.N. speech."

One of the things that angered the CIA, Chalabi says, was the way it felt he manipulated the news media. He was a valued source for a number of reporters, including Judith Miller of the New York Times. In an in-house memo last year she wrote that Chalabi "has provided most of the front-page exclusives on WMD to our paper." But Miller says now that that was just shorthand. "In my reporting experience," she says, "it is not accurate that he provided most of the WMD material to the Times or to the U.S. government."

Some people have criticized Chalabi, saying that only 30 percent of his intelligence turned out to be accurate. His response: "If 30 percent of your information is useful, that's like hitting the jackpot in intelligence."

Former CIA man Baer says: "When pressed to the wall, I find Chalabi to be extremely honest. . . . He never pulled a fast one on Washington. He really believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction." Chalabi doesn't understand the intelligence world, according to Baer. "He's an Arab businessman," he says. "No one ever told him." Besides, says Baer, "Chalabi had a dog in this fight, and he's an amateur. That's a bad combination."

One senior intelligence officer declined to talk about Chalabi, saying rather bitterly, "We're accused by other parts of the government of being mean to Mr. Chalabi."

The Jordanian Connection


In the Middle East, where family often means destiny, Chalabi started out ahead, part of the wealthiest family in the country. "We were the most prominent Shiite family in the monarchy," he says. "My grandfather was the only Shia in the cabinet."

In his office he keeps a picture of King Hussein on a visit to his grandfather in Baghdad. There was a long family history between the king and the Chalabis. "That's why I went to Jordan," he says.

But today that good will is gone, replaced by an animosity that runs deep. The Jordanians have gone so far as to accuse Chalabi of responsibility for the car bomb that destroyed the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad in August, killing 17. Says Karim Kawar, the Jordanian ambassador to Washington: "We have reason to believe he is involved. We are awaiting an investigation to be concluded. Our intelligence tells us he might have had a hand in it."

Chalabi is outraged at this. "He is a stupid, misinformed man," he retorts. "He is perpetrating lies. They are liars. If that is the state of their intelligence, God help them."

How did it come to this? The tension stretches back to 1989, when Jordanian soldiers with armored vehicles raided the Petra Bank, which Chalabi had formed 11 years before in Amman. Chalabi barely escaped over the border.

The Jordanians charged him with embezzling about $300 million. He was tried in absentia, convicted and sentenced to 22 years' hard labor.

Chalabi's daughter Tamara wrote a detailed piece in the Wall Street Journal last summer giving her father's version of the bank story. The Chalabis say that Saddam Hussein, angry that Chalabi was blocking credit to the Iraqi regime, persuaded King Hussein to crack down. The king, who was dependent on Iraqi oil, complied. The plan was supposedly to capture Chalabi and turn him over to the Iraqi dictator.

"I was quite prominent," Chalabi says. "I was in charge of a good deal of the economy. Saddam became concerned about the extent of my influence in Jordan. With Saddam it was a personal vendetta." He says the Chalabi family lost millions of dollars in the incident.

He also says that being a Shiite and having such prominence in the Arab world "without a government to back me up became a big problem. It hadn't happened before. Shiites in Arab politics have been disenfranchised, they're always playing second fiddle. I don't act that way. We're uppity. My family is very socially prominent."

The Jordanian allegations have not stopped the United States from working with Chalabi. A former senior White House official says, "Nobody could ever flesh out the Jordanian thing."

Jamil Mroue, editor of the Daily Star in Lebanon, has known Chalabi for a long time and says he believes that Chalabi is guilty of bank fraud. "Corruption, nepotism and arranged deals are not unique to him," Mroue says. "It was commonplace in the '70s. It was rife."

Chalabi says that he saw King Hussein four times after he left Jordan and that the king offered him a pardon, which he refused because he had done nothing wrong. He claims the king was going to rescind the order for his arrest but died before he could do it.

He also claims he is on "good terms with Queen Noor." Those close to Queen Noor, the king's widow, say this is not true.

He is not, on the other hand, on good terms with King Abdullah, Hussein's son and successor. Smarting over the bombing accusation, he claims that Abdullah was a good friend of Saddam Hussein's vicious son Uday, was in business with him and went to Baghdad many times to see him. He accuses Abdullah of having seized Iraq's money in Jordanian banks.

In the midst of this antipathy, a close friend of Chalabi's just back from Iraq reports that Chalabi is negotiating with the Jordanians to get several hundred million dollars in restitution for the money he lost in the Petra banking incident.

Chalabi sounds upset when he hears that this story is out. He will only say: "We are having discussions. We shouldn't talk about it at this time. It doesn't do anybody any good."

Ambassador Kawar is asked whether Chalabi will still be liable for arrest if he is elected president. "Once he is elected president," Kawar says, "he will be granted immunity."

What do other Arab governments think of Chalabi? "Not much," says another Arab ambassador. "He stayed away from the Arabs. He put his eggs in America's basket."

With Gusto


Chalabi used to be fat. "I was a balloon," he admits. Now he is slimmer and trimmer, having. lost 50 pounds in seven months. In an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel, he gets right down to business. Lunch. He peruses the menu with deep concentration, finally choosing fish and vegetables. This is the low-carb diet. He looks longingly at the bread. You can see at once that this man was a gourmand. When his meal finally comes, he tucks his napkin into his collar and chows down. The interview, which was his first priority, suddenly takes a back seat to the halibut.

He is legendary in his search for good food. When he was living in the northern Iraq for four years, he became seriously tired of the local cuisine, longed for a decent risotto. So he found a pesh merga fighter to scour the countryside for an Iranian merchant who, given enough dinars, produced a large sack of arborio rice. Chalabi retired to his kitchen and happily stirred up a batch of gooey risotto.

Vindication


At midnight on Wednesday, after the U.S. reversal on the timing of sovereignty, Ahmed Chalabi was a happy man. "We made a deal," he exulted in a phone call from Baghdad, "and it was a suggestion we made several months ago, a suggestion we made even before the war. And we have come to it now."

He had just returned from a two-day trip to Mosul, where he met with the notables who will choose their members of Iraq's new governing body. He's been traveling the country, building alliances. "This is a difficult and complicated process," he had explained earlier. "We're trying to get a democracy going."

This past week has been spent in intense negotiations with Bremer. (One Middle East expert says that the Pentagon forced Bremer to let Chalabi pack the governing council and has never had much affection for him.) But they're getting along "much better," Chalabi reported. "There's an old saying that the United States will do the right thing -- after having tried every other option."

His aide Sethna was more direct: "We're avoiding gloating. Bremer's a lame duck and he needs Ahmed more than Ahmed needs him. Ahmed has got about the best chance to put together a coalition and win the election."

In light of his victory, Chalabi has become even more modest about his political future. "The council's job is finished June 30. We can participate if we want to and we will get elected like everybody else." But as Brooke, his other aide, points out, "The people chosen to come to the assemblies [who will ultimately choose the members of the new government] will be chosen by the governing council."

And Chalabi is definitely optimistic about the future of Iraq. "Where we were and where we have gotten now is 80 percent of the road. I've had some influence," he added, lowering his eyelids, "but it would be foolish for one person to take the credit."

The Powell Story


Chalabi loves to repeat a story that has been circulating at State and the Pentagon during the last few months. A Pentagon spokesman, asked to confirm it, says it's "partly accurate." At first a State Department spokesman chuckles and says, "I can't deny it," but then he calls back to report that Colin Powell says "it didn't happen."

Chalabi tells it with relish:

Not long after Chalabi announced in New York that he was more in agreement with France than with the United States about the timing of Iraqi sovereignty, Powell and Wolfowitz were having a conversation about him.

"He's your guy," Powell told the deputy secretary of defense. "Get him back in his cage."

"I can't control him," replied Wolfowitz.

"Don't [expletive] with me, Paul," said the secretary of state.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company


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