Chalabi: The survivor

Oct 02, 2005 02:00 AM

To his supporters, Ahmed Chalabi is the George Washington of Iraq, a brilliant leader who is more responsible than anyone for persuading President Bush to invade Iraq. To his detractors, he is a snake-oil salesman whose bogus tales of weapons of mass destruction snookered the United States into a military quagmire.
But there is one thing his friends and enemies agree on: Chalabi may be one of the most resilient and shrewd politicians alive. He is a Houdini-like survivor.

Today, Ahmed Chalabi is on top of the world. He is a deputy prime minister in Iraq. In May, he became the chairman of the Energy Committee with authority over Iraq’s oil industry.
Chalabi took us with him on a trip to Kirkuk to survey a new program he’s implemented to protect the northern oil pipeline. While other officials travel around Iraq by helicopter, Chalabi -- something of a dare-devil -- drove in a 30-car motorcade through insurgent country.

Chalabi showed us where insurgents used to attack the pipeline and how, every time it was repaired, they would just blow it up again.
“This is the debris from the blowing up and the sabotage and the bombs that were put in the pipeline. As you can see, they are twisted,” Chalabi said, pointing to the wreckage below him.

In May, Chalabi persuaded the US military to train a special force of mainly local tribesmen to guard the route.
“The plan is to get the pipeline protected, to get soldiers on the pipeline, to have patrol cars, to have night vision equipment, to have aerial surveillance,” Chalabi said.
When asked if no anyone else had thought of this plan, Chalabi said, “It hadn’t been done. You see, the protection of the infrastructure sadly was not a military priority.”

Well, now it is. And Chalabi gets much of the credit. Iraq is making money again from the flow of oil to Turkey, due in large part to the soldiers on guard every mile or two along the pipeline. By all accounts, with projects like this Chalabi has been so effective that he has made himself indispensable -- the man to go to get things done.
How did Chalabi stage his comeback?
“The people who said otherwise were wrong,” Chalabi said.

Chalabi’s fall from grace started when the weapons of mass destruction he said were in Iraq were never found. Then there were charges of theft and counterfeiting and finally -- and most egregiously -- accusations he was spying for Iran.
“This was a manufactured charge, untrue, false, unfounded. This information was directed for political purposes against us,” Chalabi said. He also believes it was a political vendetta because he was becoming “troublesome.”
“They thought they could write my obituary, but they are wrong,” Chalabi said.

He became such a thorn in the side of the Bush administration that last year the White House decided to go after him, authorizing a raid on his house and office. If the raid was meant to discredit him, Chalabi believes it had the opposite effect.
“This liberated me in front of the Iraqi people,” Chalabi said. "Itclarified my relationship with the United States. I am not beholden to the United States after what they did to me."

Chalabi then went about his comeback methodically, identifying centres of power and then either aligning himself, ingratiating himself or insinuating himself. As he did when -- just days after the raid on his home and office -- he travelled to Najaf to meet with Moqtada al-Sadr, the charismatic young rebel cleric whose militia was battling US forces. He knew this was dangerous.
“We didn’t know whether we were going to be shot at by Moqtada’s people or by the Americans,” he said.

Chalabi, a Shiite like al-Sadr, helped negotiate a ceasefire but then infuriated the Americans by championing al-Sadr’s cause. Some Americans were shocked when Chalabi aligned himself with al-Sadr, who had encouraged his followers to attack US soldiers.
“I wanted to avert a full-scale battle between the Sadarists, who are all over Iraq, and American forces,” Chalabi said.

Chalabi says one of his greatest achievements was persuading al-Sadr and his followers to give up their weapons and turn to politics.
“They are not a threat to American forces now, and you cannot imagine the situation if there is an insurgency in all the south now,” Chalabi said. “It will be a disaster.”

Stahl asked Chalabi about criticisms that he courted al-Sadr because he was just “looking for votes.”
“You know, (critics) use the word ‘opportunist,’” Stahl said.
“Oh yes. Well, the issue is, of course, they are wrong. Opportunism here doesn’t enter into it,” Chalabi replied.

And yet this self-proclaimed “secularist” worked to convince the major Shiite groups, including some of the most hard-line Islamists, to join together in a political alliance. He also helped get the country’s most revered religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to endorse the alliance -- and to embrace him. Had Chalabi, who sold himself to the United States as a democrat, re-invented himself?
“Here’s a view: you came to the officials in Washington and said, ‘I’m a democrat. I support the rule of law. I support western-style institutions.’ And then you come here and ally yourself with Islamists, hard-line Islamists, and a lot of the, your critics say you sold out,” Stahl said.

“I didn’t sell out from any -- from the Iraqi people. My loyalty is primarily to the Iraqi people, not to the Americans,” Chalabi said. “I’m a democrat and I didn't give it away. I fight for things. Look at the constitution. The constitution is good. President Bush went on television saying it's a great document. It will change the Middle East.”
Chalabi says that Iraq is a country “full of hope” with a constitution and freedom, despite the fact that many Americans have a picture of a country falling apart.
“We have brought down a totalitarian regime, and the United States helped us for that. It is a matter of patience.”

And he thinks the chances of Iraq becoming a theocracy like Iran are “very small. Close to zero.”
Before the US invasion of Iraq, Chalabi promised that a post-Saddam Iraq would establish diplomatic relations with Israel. When asked if he still stood by those pronouncements, Chalabi said, “I'm not denying that there should be relations, but to say that this is a priority for Iraq now …”
“I didn't ask priority. I asked if you stand by what you said,” Stahl said.
“The answer is yes,” Chalabi said. “I see no reason why Iraq would not have relations with Israel.”

Besides allying himself with key religious figures, Chalabi also manoeuvred his way into major centres of power within the government. Not only does he run the Energy Committee, he’s also in charge of something called the Contracts Committee, which approves all government contracts worth more than $ 3 mm. Chalabi helped create it and now runs it. And that’s not all.
Fuelled by his personal animosity toward Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath party, Chalabi got himself named chairman of the de-Baathification commission which has been purging Ba’ath party members -- many of them Sunnis -- from government jobs.

The process of "de-Baathification" was initially supported by the Americans, but some now think that this program of purging people from Saddam Hussein’s regime is actually fuelling the insurgency. When Stahl mentioned that some people want the program to “dial back,” Chalabi said “We don’t do what they ask us.”
“And the premise is that it is fuelling the insurgency,” Stahl said.
“It is false,” Chalabi replied.

Many of the people who have been purged under de-Baathification are Sunnis and, yet, as a measure of just how powerful Chalabi has become, Sunnis now come to him for favours.
For example, a group of Sunni tribal leaders paid him a visit to enlist his help in getting their sons -- suspected insurgents -- out of jail. Chalabi called on them to join the political process, and they told him they were not interested in democracy but that they need a strong leader. They offered him their support.

And now the Americans, recognizing his clout, are embracing him again. The White House has even approved his going to Washington for consultations later this month.
Here's how one US official summed it up: Chalabi's been accused of corruption and spying for Iran. And, yet, because he is so effective, he's the guy the United States has to deal with.

Source: MMV, CBS Broadcasting
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