NEAR SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq—American military aircraft flew controversial Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi and 700 of his troops from northern Iraq to the embattled southern Iraq city of Nasiriyah early Sunday.
Chalabi's Iraq National Congress organization said the 700 troops would be designated the 1st Battalion of Free Iraqi Forces and "integrated alongside American troops," serving under the command of Gen. Tommy Franks, the overall U.S. and coalition commander.
The insertion of Chalabi and his INC troops highlights an ongoing struggle between the civilian leadership in the Pentagon and the State Department and CIA over who will take over political leadership in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
The INC troops would help U.S.-led forces defeat the remaining elements of Saddam's Baath Party and other Saddam supporters in Iraq, the INC statement said. "They will also take part in delivering humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people and maintaining law, order and stability in areas already liberated."
Nasiriyah had been a center of armed resistance against the coalition forces since Day 2 of the 18-day-old war. New reports said the city was almost totally pacified, with estimates that no more than 15 or 20 members of the paramilitary group Saddam Fedayeen were still operating there.
Exile sources in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq said U.S. aircraft flew Chalabi and his troops out of an airstrip near Sulaimaniyah not far from the border with Iran.
Senior administration officials said that Chalabi had had difficulty recruiting enough forces to go into southern Iraq and may have tapped the discredited Badr Brigade, an Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim group, to get his 700 soldiers.
Chalabi has been favored as a postwar leader for Iraq by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, but bitterly opposed by officials within both the State Department and CIA.
It was information provided by Chalabi that led Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz to a prewar belief that Iraqis would rise up and welcome the invading coalition forces with open arms, that the Republican Guard troops would surrender in droves, and the regime of Saddam Hussein would crumble in a matter of days.
Because that information was wrong, officials at the State Department and the CIA have argued that Chalabi has been discredited and should have no leadership role in postwar Iraq.
The deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, declared on ABC's "This Week" that the INC and Chalabi would not have any unfair advantage.
"The fact that they may be from one section of the population or another, at this point in time on the battlefield, is not significant," Pace said. "I'm comfortable that once we free Iraq and give it to the people in Iraq that they will be able to decide for themselves who should be their leaders and who should not."
Pace said the Chalabi force "are Iraqi citizens who want to fight for a free Iraq, who will become basically the core of the new Iraqi Army once Iraq is free. They are patriots."
Wolfowitz, on another Sunday talk show, confirmed Chalabi was back in Iraq and echoed Pace: "The goal is not to have any one particular group or any one particular leader be the favored choice of the Americans. Our goal is a democratic Iraq and that requires the Iraqis being free to speak and forming an agreement on the method by which they'll pick their leaders."
Wolfowitz said it would be up to the Iraqis to decide if Chalabi would be their next leader.
In 1992, a Jordanian court sentenced Chalabi in absentia to 22 years in prison at hard labor for bank fraud in the wake of the 1990 collapse of the Petra Bank, which he founded in 1977.
The London-based Chalabi has maintained that Baghdad framed in him the case.
The State Department and CIA subsequently found that Chalabi could not account for much of the U.S. aid money paid to his Iraqi National Congress.
They say Chalabi commands little respect or legitimacy inside Iraq after nearly four decades in exile. "Chalabi and the others in their Bond Street suits are charlatans," said one administration official.
Nevertheless his backers in Vice President Dick Cheney's office and among Rumsfeld's civilian advisers have mounted a vigorous campaign to install Chalabi as head of an interim Iraqi administration.
Airlifting Chalabi and his troops into the heart of southern Iraq may have been one way of skirting the opposition to him at the State Department and CIA.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.