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Catfish and Cod
Thursday, May 20, 2004
The decline and fall of Ahmed Chalabi.
(Link path: The Command Post, Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

They finally did it. Ahmed Chalabi is no longer under American protection.

For those just tuning in:Chalabi is the head of the Iraqi National Congress. In the 1990's it was touted as a "government-in-exile" by the United States, and enjoyed broad American support. Chalabi's group passed intelligence from within Iraq to the American government, and worked towards the overthrow of Saddam.

However, in 1997, an incident occurred which caused the CIA and the State Department to lose faith in Chalabi as an ally. A coup attempt collapsed; Chalabi claimed credit for fore-warning the United States about the security compromises. The CIA, however, uncovered evidence indicating that Chalabi was actually the cause of the leak. CIA analysts theorized that Chalabi felt that the coup, if successful, would bring a military junta to power and sideline the INC (and himself). He therefore sabatoged it, so as to force the United States to consider options that included making Chalabi a power in the Iraqi government. Naturally, CIA and State took a dim view of such backstabbing, and relinquish their ties and support for the INC.

The Pentagon, however, took Chalabi's explanations at face value, and continued to support his group rhetorically, logistically and financially. In the years from 1997 to 2003, Chalabi continued to feed information to the Pentagon designed to boost the INC position that Iraq, once invaded, would welcome an American imposition of a government headed, naturally, by the INC and by Chalabi. The information also encouraged the theories that were popular within the Pentagon as rationales for war, namely the continued development of weapons of mass destruction. Warnings by State and CIA that Chalabi's intelligence leads did not pan out were ignored by Pentagon planners, particularly after 2001 when prominent neoconservatives were appointed to high civilian Pentagon posts and took control of American military intelligence.

Nearly everything Chalabi told the Pentagon about post-war Iraq was wrong. The country could not easily accept an INC return-from-exile government; the INC had virtually no support among the Iraqi populace; an occupation was required; law and order would break down; no weapons of mass destruction were easily identifiable, and the intelligence as to their whereabouts was entirely incorrect. Most of the Pentagon's assumptions about post-war operations were based on the intelligence provided by Chalabi; as a result, the plans were completely wrong.

Despite this, the Pentagon continued to plan for a handover of power to Chalabi, until it became clear that such a handover would be deeply unpopular and would probably spark rebellion. Chalabi was downgraded from prime-minister-designate to merely one power among equals in the Iraqi Governing Council. Nonetheless, he continued to receive Pentagon stipends for intelligence, a move supposedly justified by the INC's capture of documents from several Iraqi ministries during the chaotic fall of Baghdad.

Chalabi has, over the past year, tried to parley his ownership of Mukhabarat material, especially his ownership of the oil-for-food smoking gun documents, into greater financial and political gains for the INC (and thus himself). Meanwhile, he continues to hand out bogus intelligence on other fronts, scheme for power in Baghdad, and try to curry favor (without much success) among the Iraqi populace. In addition, his cronies have been scheming to pull control of as much money and as many contracts as possible away from the Iraqi government and the CPA and into the hands of the INC, where INC members and associates can be enriched at public expense. And recently, questions have been raised related to Chalabi's potential connections to Iranian intelligence.

Together with his standing convinction in Jordan for embezzlement, Chalabi's connections to the United States have done much to tarnish our reputation with the Iraqi people. Many people in Iraq thought that Chalabi's original role -- as an American puppet, a "strongman" who would execute American policy without attention to Iraqi desries -- was still operational, and looked at us as the sort of people who would hire criminals to do their dirty work.

That's over now. The slush money from the Pentagon has been shut off, and now Chalabi's home and compound are under US surveillance. There's little question but that the purpose of the raids is to seize the documents held by the INC, and to shut down the INC embezzlement and extortion rackets.

At the Command Post, people wonder whether the Oil-For-Food investigation will be helped or hampered by this move. Because Chalabi has been loudly calling for investigations and Bremer hasn't, people believe that Chalabi will aid the investigation and Bremer will try to cover it up.

But the reason Chalabi has been pushing O-F-F is because he expected to gain from it. He wouldn't release those documents to any of the investigators -- Pentagon, State, UN -- without concessions in return. He was an impediment to the investigation. Now that the documents are in US hands, they are amenable to US procedures. The State Department may want to cover the scandal up, but the Defense Department is in actual possession of the documents. The only ways now to stop the eventual release of the O-F-F documents to investigators is classification (politically infeasible) or destruction (illegal and highly likely to be prosecuted). Otherwise, the O-F-F documents are vulnerable to FOIA requests. One way or another, the investigation will now proceed.

Other people believe that the reason for Chalabi's fall is his investigations into the O-F-F scandal. This is unlikely; Chalabi has had the goods for months and has been publishing them for months. Instead, it's likely that Chalabi's fall has been precipitated by media recognition of his key role, his negative influence, and his dubious reputation (brought into the spotlight several weeks ago by 60 Minutes). Another factor is the reduced influence of his Defense Department patrons by the Abu Gharib scandal. The turmoil brought on by the scandal may have empowered some bureaucrat or committee, previously helpless under neocon influence, to cut off the funds and support.