WASHINGTON — Controversial Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi refused to apologize Wednesday for providing the U.S. government with false information on Saddam Hussein's weapons and ties to terrorists, calling charges that he did so an "urban myth."
Chalabi, now a deputy Iraqi prime minister with a chance to become the country's next leader, is the former exile whose group lobbied vigorously for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. The group, the Iraqi National Congress, provided intelligence agencies and reporters with defectors whose accounts of bioweapons factories and terror training sites proved to be bogus.
Chalabi is visiting Washington to try to mend ties with the Bush administration, which were publicly strained over allegations last year that he or one of his aides told Iran that the U.S. government had broken its secret codes.
An FBI investigation of the matter has barely progressed, according to a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it's an active law enforcement issue.
Answering questions after a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Chalabi denied the Iran allegation and said that relations with the White House are improving.
"I think confidence is being built now," he said.
Chalabi met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley on Wednesday, although neither would be photographed with him. He's to meet with Vice President Dick Cheney, a longtime patron, next week.
Chalabi's presence poses a dilemma for President Bush and his aides: It comes at a time when questions over the administration's case for a pre-emptive war against Iraq are being raised anew. But Chalabi could play a major role in Iraq's future, making him hard to ignore.
On the prewar intelligence, Chalabi pointed to one passage in a March report by an independent presidential commission—he cited the page number—that he said cleared the INC of charges of feeding false information.
The passage, however, deals with only a single source—code-named "Curveball"—who provided fabricated information on Saddam's supposed mobile biological weapons facilities. The report concluded that "Curveball" wasn't connected to the INC.
But Chalabi's organization provided the Bush administration and some news organizations with other alleged Iraqi defectors who claimed that Saddam had hidden nuclear, chemical and biological warfare programs and was training Islamic extremists in assassinations, hijackings and bombings.
For instance, an INC-produced defector named Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri said in December 2001 that he had visited 20 nuclear, chemical and biological warfare sites. But he showed deception in a CIA-administered lie detector test and intelligence officials dismissed him as unreliable.
Nevertheless, the White House gave his claim prominence in a background paper that was published in conjunction with a speech that Bush delivered to the U.N. General Assembly eight months later. His account first appeared in The New York Times, which the White House cited in the paper.
Saeed was unable to identify a single illicit arms facility to U.S. weapons inspectors when he was brought back to Iraq in 2004.
The defectors' claims appeared in the Bush administration's main public background paper laying out its case against Saddam, in the key prewar U.S. intelligence assessment on Iraq's banned weapons programs and in a February 2003 speech to the U.N. Security Council by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The INC reported in a June 2002 letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee that it fed information to some of the world's most influential English-language newspapers and magazines.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers called for Chalabi to answer questions about his role in the war.
Several Senate Democrats, including Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., demanded that he cooperate with the long-delayed second phase of a Senate Intelligence Committee probe into prewar intelligence.
Chalabi said he'd offered in May 2004 to answer lawmakers' questions and said he remains ready to do so.
"I am prepared to go to the Senate and respond to questions," he said.
Chalabi, along with allies inside and outside the U.S. government, also vigorously championed the idea that Saddam could be ousted quickly if the United States provided only a small number of ground troops and massive air power to support a rebellion by Iraqi opposition forces. He also insisted that most Iraqis would greet American troops as liberators.
The Bush administration's failure to deploy sufficient numbers of troops, contrary to the advice of many senior officers, is blamed for the onset of the conflict, which has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
In February 2004, after no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, Chalabi was quoted by the Telegraph, a London newspaper, as saying, "We are heroes in error."
On Wednesday, he denied making the comment, but expressed sympathy for U.S. casualties.
"We are sorry for every American life that is lost in Iraq," he said.
Chalabi, who gave a generally upbeat assessment of progress in Iraq, has shifted political alliances in Baghdad.
A secular Shiite, he recently broke with a coalition of Shiite Islamist groups and announced plans to run on a secular platform in December parliamentary elections.
Asked whether he has ambitions to be prime minister, he replied with a smile: "That's for me to know, and you to find out."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-CHALABI