SALAHADDIN, Iraq—To civilian officials in the Pentagon, Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi is the right man to rebuild Iraq into a pro-Western democratic model for the entire Middle East.
To residents of this resort town where his Iraqi National Congress was based in the early 1990s, he's "Ahmed the Debtor" who owes them a half million dollars in unpaid wages, rents and other fees, according to court records and interviews with former employees.
Chalabi's unpaid bills are only one of several problems dogging what officials had hoped would be a triumphal return to the homeland he left in 1958. Chalabi has yet to muster widespread political support from his countrymen, who view him with suspicion because he's a longtime outsider, and he has a history of alleged financial impropriety.
In 1992, a Jordanian military court convicted Chalabi of bank fraud, sentenced him in absentia to 22 years in prison and ordered him to return $30 million it said he'd embezzled from the Petra Bank. Chalabi calls the charges politically motivated.
Chalabi's unpaid bills in Salahaddin, where his political party spent several years before departing in the wake of a 1996 civil war between rival Kurdish factions, are modest by comparison. But they're significant to people whose average per capita income before the war was $2,700.
After Chalabi left Salahaddin, more than 100 former staffers, vendors and landlords sued his party, claiming that the INC hadn't paid them during the final months of its stay.
The INC, which was based in London at the time, didn't contest the claims. Courts in the Kurdish city of Irbil ordered Chalabi and his party to pay at least 3.5 million in "Swiss-print" dinars, the currency used in Iraq's Kurdish areas, according to court records. That equals roughly $500,000 today.
Govand Baban, an attorney in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil who represented the plaintiffs, said none has been paid. "The INC still owes them the money," he said.
"We call him Ahmed the Debtor," said Rezgar Adel Khorshid, who's owed about $16,000 for salaries and back rent for supplying a car to party officials. "We joke that he even owes money to the shoeshine boy."
Entifadh K. Qanbar, the INC's spokesman in Baghdad, said he was "completely unfamiliar" with the cases. When asked to look into them, he replied: "I'm completely not interested in this and this is not something I want to talk about." Qanbar also declined to refer questions to others within the party.
"There is political motivation" to the suits, said Ayad al Hamdani, who leads the INC chapter in the northern city of Mosul and serves on the party's eight-member leadership committee. "There are some political parties who want to lessen the work of the INC and degrade Ahmed Chalabi," he said.
Nonetheless, said al Hamdani, "if these debts are real, then the administrative staff of the INC will surely pay them."
The lawsuits date to a confused period in the history of the opposition to Saddam Hussein. During a civil war between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Saddam's forces entered the Kurdish enclave on the side of the KDP. More than 100 INC members were executed and the party fled, eventually winding up in London.
Several of the claims appear to be questionable, and several residents in Salahaddin said they were encouraged to sue by officials in the KDP government, which was on poor terms with the INC at the time.
Among the suits that were decided against the party were about $200,000 in claims arising from the October 31, 1995, bombing of an INC building in Salahaddin. Though the bombing was the work of Saddam's government, Chalabi and his party were held liable for compensating neighbors for damages and relatives of the deceased for their losses.
But the court decisions also show a trail of small-time debts to low-wage office workers and vendors selling products that ranged from beef to furniture.
"This is a great loss for me," said Salim Permam Awla, a cooking fuel vendor who's owed $5,800. "If I had this money, I could buy a car. My living standard would change."
Baban, the lawyer, insisted that the cases that went to trial had legitimate documentation that showed their claims were valid. He said several hundred plaintiffs came forward at first, but he rejected those without documentation to back up their claims.
"When they were here, I used to ask about payment," said Mustafa Rahman Hamid, 64, who rented five houses to the INC and is owed more than $30,000 in back rent for the final half-year of their stay. "They'd say, OK, tomorrow."
"It was stupid of me," said Mohsen Yusuf, who worked part time as a guard at an INC building and went 17 months without pay, according to a court decision that ordered the party to pay him more than $2,000. But Yusuf said amassing debts to ordinary people was unbecoming for a would-be political leader.
Hamid, Yusuf and the others who are owed money all said they did not deal with Chalabi himself.
Nonetheless, as the INC's leader, he was named in the legal proceedings, said Baban.
Though some of the plaintiffs said they want to travel to Baghdad to petition for their payments at the INC's new headquarters in the Iraqi Hunting Club, a longtime watering hole for Saddam's Baath Party. Baban said he had no plans to take further action in pressing for the debts to be paid.
"I don't have the time or money," said Baban, who said he has not been paid his legal fees yet.
The plaintiffs, meanwhile, said they were more concerned about being compensated than about shaping the country's political future. "After he pays, he can be king," said Khorshid. "It makes no difference to us."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Natalie Pompilio contributed to this report from Baghdad, Iraq.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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