WASHINGTON — U.S. military and diplomatic officials in Baghdad have cut off contact with controversial Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, a former Pentagon favorite, because of his increasingly strained relationship with U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington told McClatchy.
Both the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and top American military leaders made the decision earlier this week. "That's it. He's out," one senior military official said.
The U.S. decision, which was first disclosed on MSNBC.com, is the fourth time that the U.S. has ended an alliance with Chalabi, whom officials in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office once touted as a successor to Saddam Hussein. The State Department and U.S. intelligence agencies, however, have long regarded Chalabi as untrustworthy and a "charlatan."
Although the CIA stopped funding Chalabi's exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, in 1995, the INC fed intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs and ties to terrorism, much of it bogus, to officials in the Pentagon and Cheney's office. Those officials used it to help build their case for invading Iraq and fulfilling Chalabi's and their ultimate goal — Saddam's ouster.
A State Department official said that this time the U.S. cut off Chalabi, who was appointed in September to head Maliki's Services Committee, which is meant to help usher services into communities after they're secured by U.S. and Iraqi troops, in deference to Maliki.
"Maliki has effectively de-horsed him and asked us to maintain a similar position," said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive interchanges with the Iraqi government. "My sense is that Maliki wants to marginalize and diminish Chalabi because he sees him as a pretender to the throne."
From now on, "we're going to keep association with him to a minimum," the official said.
Maliki's apparent decision may be part of a growing schism among Shiite Muslim leaders over their conflicting ties to the U.S. and Iranian governments. Maliki needs U.S. military support for his offensives in the southern port city of Basra, the Sadr City Shiite slum in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul, but he also needs Iran's help to rein in Shiite militias.
U.S. military and intelligence officials said Chalabi is close to Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force, who helped arrange the recent cease-fire between Iraqi forces and renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's militia in Basra.
The Iraqi government is saying nothing publicly. Sadiq al Rikabi, a top adviser to Maliki, said he had no information on the matter. National Security Adviser Mowaffak al Rubaie, who attends weekly meetings with Chalabi and the prime minister, refused to comment, and the government spokesman couldn't be reached for comment. A civil spokesman, Tahseen al Sheikhly, also said he knew nothing about Chalabi's ouster.
It's unclear, however, why Chalabi's relationship with Suleimani would cause a rift between him and Maliki. A parliamentary delegation from Maliki's political bloc, which included Ali al Adeeb, his chief of staff in the Dawa party, met with the Iranian general in Tehran in late March to seek his help to calm the violence in Basra.
The delegation traveled to Iran again early this month, apparently to confront officials with evidence of Iranian mischief in Iraq. The Maliki government then immediately distanced itself from U.S. accusations of Iranian meddling by forming a commission to look for evidence that Iran trains, funds and supplies weapons to Shiite militias.
In Iran, the delegation carrying messages from Maliki was barred from meeting with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a senior Iraqi official said.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, also has met with Suleimani, and Iraqi officials have told McClatchy that Suleimani is in regular communication with Iraqi officials due to his role in Iran's foreign policy in Iraq.
On Thursday, Chalabi insisted through a spokesman that he was still in his position. His committee met on Tuesday, and he was told Thursday night that the weekly meeting on Friday would be postponed due to Maliki's trip to the northern province of Mosul to oversee a military operation there.
"Dr. Chalabi has a very good relationship with the prime minister," said Mohammed Hassan al Mousawi, Chalabi's spokesman. "The leaks made by American officials or politicians who refuse to reveal their names publicly ... are meant to cause strife between the two officials.
"I would like to take this occasion to remind of the latest statements made by the delegation of the (Shiite) United Iraqi Alliance bloc, that visited Iran lately, regarding the positive role of Iran in the agreement that took place between the Sadrist trend and the Iraqi Alliance to which the prime minister belongs," Mousawi said.
He also dismissed Chalabi's ties to Iran as no closer "than the prime minister, the president and other Iraqi officials."
(Leila Fadel reported from Baghdad; Youssef and Warren P. Strobel from Washington.)
SOME PREVIOUS KNIGHT RIDDER AND MCCLATCHY STORIES ON THE U.S. AND CHALABI
Chalabi back in action in Iraq, 10/28/2007.