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Despite falling out with U.S., Chalabi still a player in the new Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Former Bush administration favorite Ahmad Chalabi is lobbying hard for the post of prime minister in the new Iraqi government that will be formed after election officials finish counting the tally from last week's vote.

While it's a long shot, Chalabi has made himself an important player in Iraq since the Bush administration unceremoniously dumped him amid charges, which he denied, that he was spying for Iran.

The mention of Chalabi's name can ignite passionate reactions from citizens, politicians and American officials. Chalabi, a brilliant man and crafty politician, is still the darling of some Washington neo-conservatives. He gained fame as the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group, and lobbied hard for the Bush administration to invade Iraq. The INC supplied defectors to U.S. intelligence who provided what turned out to be phony or exaggerated evidence of Iraqi weapons programs, which President Bush used to justify the war.

Chalabi is certain to win a seat in the National Assembly, since he's number 10 on the United Iraqi Alliance slate, which is way ahead in early election returns.

His candidacy for prime minister has resurrected tea-shop speculation among Iraqis: What is Ahmad Chalabi's next political move?

Chalabi refused repeated requests to talk to Knight Ridder.

According to his spokesmen, Chalabi, a secular Shiite Muslim, has garnered support from 40 percent of the members of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance ticket.

Chalabi's supporters for prime minister are mainly the slate's smaller political and independent groups, such as the Iraqi Hezbollah and the Islamic Fayli Gathering in Iraq, his spokesmen said.

"They know who he is, how active he is and how important he was" in removing Saddam Hussein, said Haider al Musawi, an INC spokesman.

But many think the top job will go to a member of one of the slate's leading parties, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq or the Dawa Party. Those Shiite groups led the crafting of the ticket, and their candidates for prime minister are much less controversial—and more popular with Iraqis.

Chalabi's public image remains a liability.

"He is going to push others away from his party," said Sadoun al Dulame, the executive director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. Chalabi "cannot rely on Iraqis. His power comes from America."

Many said they considered him an outsider who came back to his country on American tanks.

"I know that many people find him intolerable," said Sarmad Subhi, 31, a university lecturer. "I personally see him and his people as corrupt."

In 1992 Chalabi was convicted in absentia in Jordan of embezzlement and fraud as the head of Petra Bank. He claims the prosecution was politically motivated.

Smaller parties reached by Knight Ridder said that while Chalabi helped the slate, they didn't plan to vote for him for prime minister.

"I personally will vote for Dr. Hussein Shahrestani," said Mahmmod Radhi, of the Gathering of the Center Party. Shahrestani is a top aide to the leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, and he spent a decade in jail after refusing to help Saddam build a nuclear bomb. The prime minister "should have a real sense about the real sufferings of the Iraqi people so he can put an end to this tragedy, to improve the life situations in Iraq," Radhi said.

In a survey of 1,500 potential voters in the week before the election, the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies found that only 56.2 percent could name a leader they trusted. Of those, Chalabi received only 1.3 percent of the total. Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and interim President Ghazi al Yawer all received higher numbers.

"We don't really know how true the rumors are. He could be innocent. But these rumors have ruined his political image," said Muhammad al Jumali, 36, a former teacher from Baghdad.

Chalabi's supporters dismissed such statistics and comments. They said it was just as easy to find people who supported Chalabi.

"We don't accept those facts," said Francis Brooke, an American political adviser to Chalabi, adding that he thought that the public views Chalabi as "a great leader that helped liberate their country."

Members of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq said they saw some kind of position for Chalabi in the new government because he was extremely shrewd and had many valuable contacts.

"Chalabi will have a weak role," said one press official in SCIRI who didn't want to be identified because he feared retaliation for speaking about inside discussions. "They want to use him to flirt and reach out to the Americans."

SCIRI's prime-minister candidate, Finance Minister Adil Abdel Mahdi, thinks Chalabi is very qualified. Chalabi is a "very clever man," Mahdi said. "The controversy does not weaken him."

Indeed, since the end of the war, Chalabi has resurrected his political career several times, first supporting al-Sadr's rebel movement last year, then joining the United Iraqi Alliance list.

Just before the elections, Iraq's defense minister threatened to have Chalabi arrested on corruption charges. Last year, an Iraqi judge issued a warrant against him for counterfeiting. Chalabi's still a free man.

If he loses the prime minister seat, he still could be asked to lead one of the government's ministries.

Western officials in Baghdad doubt he'll be prime minister, citing the controversy surrounding him and his lack of grassroots support.

A State Department official in Washington, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Chalabi's lack of a political base could help him within the United Iraqi Alliance.

"Paradoxically, the absence of an internal constituency is turning into one of his strongest assets," the official said. "He is not a personal threat to Sistani and the others. They keep in the back of their minds that he is politically useful, a skillful political manipulator. But because he has no base of support, when he outlives his usefulness, he can be taken out. He is a temporary asset to be used to consolidate a political vantage point."


(Knight Ridder correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)


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

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