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Conservatives Critical of Plan for Iraqi Government

Times Staff Writers

As President Bush proceeds with his plan to let a United Nations envoy create a caretaker government for Iraq, he is facing backlash from conservatives who mistrust the U.N. and from those who worry that Washington means to dump its longtime Iraqi allies.

The U.N. envoy, former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi, made it clear recently that he wanted to name honest, competent technocrats instead of politicians to the caretaker government -- which means many members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council wouldn’t make the grade.

In an interview Friday with ABC’s “This Week” anchor George Stephanopoulos, Brahimi said leaders of Iraqi political parties should prepare to stand in the elections expected in January 2005, “and stay out of the interim government.”

The remarks validated the suspicions that Bush was prepared to abandon Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, a longtime favorite.

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Chalabi was flown into Iraq by the Pentagon during the war and is a key member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. He heads the Iraqi National Congress, a former exile group that is receiving about $340,000 a month from the U.S. government for intelligence on Iraq, an arrangement several influential senators want further explained and ended.

A senior Bush administration official said Saturday that no decision had been made about Chalabi, as all decisions about the caretaker government would emerge from Brahimi’s consultations with various Iraqis.

Although most of the members of the Governing Council will have a role in the national dialogue envisioned for a large consultative council, most won’t be part of the new caretaker government, the official said.

“Given what we know of public opinion these days, he [Chalabi] doesn’t seem to have the kind of reputation that would commend him to Brahimi’s new government,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The logical next move for Chalabi is to run in the January elections, the official added.

With the approach of June 30, the date when the United States plans to hand over sovereignty to a still-unformed Iraqi government, Chalabi is but one of many politicians, clerics and tribal leaders jockeying for position. The power struggles, which are expected to get worse, are fueled by the uncertainty about how the new leaders will be chosen, how extensive their powers will be and whether they will be allowed to use their posts in the interim government to propel themselves into permanent office in 2005.

Brahimi has proposed a government headed by a president, two vice presidents and a prime minister, as specified in the transitional law approved by the Governing Council. Nine days ago, Bush stood side-by-side with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and endorsed the Brahimi plan.

Asked who would serve in the transitional government, Bush said, “That’s going to be decided by Mr. Brahimi.”

Many in Washington doubt that the administration really intends to let the United Nations name the new government until Brahimi’s choices have been vetted by the United States, other coalition nations, and possibly the Governing Council itself.

Nevertheless, a number of prominent conservatives have begun warning that to abdicate responsibility for the transition to the U.N. is to invite disaster.

The conservatives have avoided criticizing Bush directly, but are scathing about the implications of handing the Iraqi experiment over to a world body they consider inept, possibly corrupt and anti-American and especially of ceding authority to a diplomat whom many distrust.

“It makes no sense for the United States to give the United Nations a blank check to remake Iraq’s government,” argued Ed Feulner, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, in an online column last week. “After all, the world body has no credibility in Iraq.”

But the administration has concluded that though the U.N. has its own image problems in Iraq, any government chosen by the world body would have far more legitimacy than one handpicked by the American occupiers.

But conservatives point to the unfolding scandal about misuse of funds in the U.N.'s oil-for-food program for Iraq as evidence of the body’s incompetence and corruption.

“We should note that appalling record, take it to heart, and hold the U.N. role in Iraq to an absolute minimum,” Richard Perle, a member of the Defense Policy Board, told the Senate Foreign Relations committee last week.

Other conservatives say that the U.N., by leaving Iraq after the August bombing of its headquarters, has displayed a dangerous weakness that makes it ill-suited to supervising what is likely to be a violent transition.

Michael Rubin, who spent eight months advising the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and is now at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “The U.N. has already shown that it responds to violence.”

“People are upset with the U.N.? Blow it up and the U.N. goes fleeing,” Rubin said, arguing that it would be better to extend the term of the Governing Council until elections -- the only real path to a legitimate government -- could be held.

Meanwhile, Chalabi’s allies have mounted a public relations onslaught against Brahimi. A senior Middle East diplomat said Brahimi and Chalabi were widely known to dislike each other, a report confirmed by a number of others. The animosity has burst into public with recent articles by Chalabi sympathizers criticizing Brahimi as an Arab nationalist with a Sunni Muslim bias that undermines his credibility with Iraqi Shiites. Some say Brahimi, a former head of the Arab League, was silent when Saddam Hussein began to slaughter Shiites after the Persian Gulf War.

An article in the New York Sun, which has been sympathetic to Chalabi, was headlined, “Bush’s Iraq Man Betrayed the Lebanese to Syrian Regime.” It accused Brahimi, then an Arab League envoy negotiating an end to the Lebanese civil war, of persuading the Lebanese prime minister in 1989 to accept Syrian occupation.

“It’s character assassination,” one Republican congressional staffer said.

Brahimi, 70, is the U.N.'s top troubleshooter. He worked closely with the United States in Afghanistan and Haiti. He took on the Iraq mission at U.S. urging, but some of his recent remarks have conflicted with U.S. positions.

Brahimi was quoted on French radio as saying that Israeli policies were “poison in the region” and complicated his search for a new Iraqi government, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. A U.N. spokesman Friday said Brahimi was expressing his personal views.

Brahimi’s criticisms of U.S. military actions in besieging the city of Falloujah also prompted the Wall Street Journal editorial page last week to ask, “Whose side is Mr. Brahimi on?”

“There have been parties who have issued attacks on Mr. Brahimi,” said Faisal Istrabadi, an Iraqi American lawyer who is a senior advisor to Sunni leader Adnan Pachachi. He called the attacks “part of an attempt to derail Mr. Brahimi.”

It isn’t clear whether Chalabi is personally spearheading the attacks on Brahimi. Two of his spokesmen did not return telephone calls for comment Friday.

Few think that Bush, having committed publicly to having Brahimi decide on the shape of the transitional government, will reverse himself in an election year. But they hope the United States will take care not to cede too much authority to the U.N.

Though Chalabi has become influential in business and as an political alliance-builder, he has not won the hearts and minds of Iraqis. A survey of 2,652 Iraqis conducted by Oxford Research International in February found only 0.2% of Iraqis named Chalabi as the leader they trusted most, whereas 10.3% named him the leader they most distrust.

Chalabi’s star had seemingly been falling with Washington for some time, but the exile leader clearly alienated the administration Friday by likening the U.S. decision to allow some former Baath Party members to rejoin the Iraqi government to “allowing Nazis into the German government immediately after World War II.”

Those officials who will be removed from the list of banned Baathists were vetted and cleared by Chalabi’s own process.

“Either he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or he’s making gross exaggerations,” the senior official said Saturday.

Whatever the outcome, however, “I don’t have any doubt that he [Chalabi] will have influence,” Javier Solana, the European Union’s senior foreign policy official, said last week.

If Chalabi were left out of the interim government, he might work to undermine it, said Toby Dodge, an Iraq specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London who testified before the Senate last week.

“He’s either outside the tent and creating mischief, or inside and creating more legitimacy problems,” Dodge said.

Chalabi has accumulated a great deal of authority over the banking industry in Iraq and has been spending money and trying to build political support by forging political alliances, Dodge said. “He is underestimated at everyone’s expense.”


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