Questions about Chalabi pose dilemma for Bush administration

Knight Ridder NewspapersNovember 6, 2005 

WASHINGTON — When Iraq's controversial deputy prime minister, Ahmad Chalabi, arrives in Washington on Tuesday for an eight-day visit, he'll bring a lot of baggage and a tough question for the Bush administration: Is Chalabi with us or against us?

Chalabi, an MIT-educated, secular Shiite Muslim, was the Pentagon's and Vice President Dick Cheney's candidate to lead Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

His Iraqi National Congress helped pave America's path to war in Iraq in two ways: It supplied intelligence on Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to terrorism, and Chalabi and others assured U.S. officials that a large U.S. force and a lengthy occupation wouldn't be necessary because Iraqis would greet American soldiers as liberators.

Almost none of what Chalabi and his allies said, however, turned out to be true, and relations between him and the United States hit a new low months after his appearance at Bush's 2004 State of the Union address, when U.S. officials accused him or someone close to him of warning Iran that the United States has broken Iran's secret codes.

A knowledgeable U.S. official, speaking Sunday only on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains classified, said that a federal investigation into the Iranian matter is still open but is proceeding "very slowly, if at all."

Chalabi's allies in the Pentagon and the vice president's office never gave up on him, though, and now the pendulum appears to be swinging back in his direction. He's expected to meet with Treasury Secretary John Snow and on Wednesday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who's not as cool to Chalabi as was her predecessor, Colin Powell. Administration officials on Sunday said Chalabi might also meet Cheney and national security adviser Stephen Hadley.

On Wednesday night, he's scheduled to address the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy organization in Washington that's championed the war in Iraq.

It may not be easy for an administration that tends to divide the world into friend and foe, with few shades of gray in between, to decide how warmly to embrace Chalabi.

"It's a dilemma," said Dr. Judith S. Yaphe, a longtime student of Iraq at the National Defense University. "You can't have a revolution with him, and you can't have a revolution without him. He's doing what he's always done, which is constantly maneuvering."

Chalabi has maneuvered himself toward becoming Iraq's next prime minister and into a strategic position among the United States, Iraq and Iran, a charter member of President Bush's "axis of evil" whose nuclear ambitions and hostility to Israel are growing concerns in the West.

As if to underscore his new position as a potential interlocutor between Bush and Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Chalabi visited Tehran before departing for Washington.

What transpired there, as usual, wasn't immediately clear. Chalabi told The New York Times that he'd advised Iranian officials of concerns about some of Iran's activities in Iraq. The official Islamic Republic News Agency and the Kuwait News Agency quoted him as saying that Iran had played "a very positive and constructive role in the formation of the Iraqi government."

Chalabi's position in Iraqi politics is equally hard to pin down. Perhaps in hopes of becoming the next prime minister, he's withdrawn from Iraq's main Shiite coalition but forged close ties with radical, anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and with the religious Shiite Fadhila Party.

About the only thing that is clear is that it's impossible for the administration to ignore Chalabi.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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