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Chalabi Reinvents Himself as a Populist

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. has encountered many surprises in its efforts to forge a democratic government in Iraq, but few have been more unexpected than the transformation of Ahmad Chalabi from patrician exile to deft populist.

Chalabi is a survivor. Snubbed by the Bush administration neoconservatives who once embraced him, and excluded from the interim government, he is building a grass-roots coalition of Shiite Muslim groups who lack a voice in the new Iraq.

At the same time, he’s reaching out to Iraq’s most prominent anti-American Shiite cleric, Muqtada Sadr, whose followers come mainly from Baghdad’s urban underclass and the impoverished south of the country. Political analysts here believe that the new approach will eventually win support from a significant segment of Sadr’s followers if Chalabi chooses to run for office -- and, as expected, Sadr chooses to wield his power from the pulpit instead.

That would give Chalabi and his new organization, the Shiite Political Council, mass support that could yield considerable clout in the majority Shiite community.

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More established Shiite parties alternately discount Chalabi and describe him as a strong opponent. He is gathering up the political scraps, “mingling with little groups,” in the words of Ridha Taqi, director of political relations for a major Shiite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

But he acknowledged that if Chalabi can bring Sadr on board, he will be a formidable force. “If the Sadr movement abandons violence and makes an alliance with Ahmad Chalabi, he will gain something from that movement,” Taqi said. “Sadr is one of the big pillars of the Shiite family.” And, he added, “it’s not that Ahmad Chalabi is [just] thinking of cooperating with the Sadr group -- he’s already working with them in an intense manner.”

Chalabi’s organization has bypassed the Supreme Council and the Dawa Party, which hold key posts in the interim government. Chalabi said the group was instead reaching out to the masses who felt that they lacked representation.

The Shiite Political Council “are the people who were in Iraq fighting the old government but were left out of the new government,” Chalabi said in an interview at his Baghdad home, where papers and computer discs were spread out on a large desk and half a dozen windows were open on his PC as he worked on several projects at once.

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“This will bring into the political mainstream most of the dispossessed Shia groups and those who have been neglected in the past year after Saddam’s overthrow,” he said.

Chalabi’s metamorphosis from the Pentagon’s all-but-anointed choice for president of Iraq to an outspoken critic of U.S. policy and a Shiite leader began quietly several months ago, when it became apparent that he was unlikely to be offered a major role in the government.

He distanced himself from the United States and began to voice the widely shared frustration with the now-disbanded Coalition Provisional Authority and, particularly, U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III.

Chalabi’s transformation was all the more striking because he had been a persistent lobbyist for the invasion of Iraq. But with U.S. officials raising stark questions about flawed intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction and subsequent allegations that Chalabi leaked American secrets to Iran, the former exile denied the accusations and began to draw himself as a victim of a U.S. campaign to destroy him.

That tack helped his reputation among Shiites, who, like Chalabi, are grateful that the U.S. ousted Hussein but skeptical of its intentions.

While many U.S. officials fumed and tried to keep him out of the political mix -- “He’s an egomaniac,” said a senior CPA official -- Chalabi, not one to concede defeat, dug in.

“I am here, this is my home, I am staying in Iraq,” Chalabi said during the interview.

Distanced by his chief foreign sponsor, Chalabi was free to remake himself. As part of that effort, he reached out to Sadr, a move that redefined him publicly as a Shiite politician.

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The two men could hardly be more different. Sadr is a turbaned, robed cleric whose movement bans alcohol and nonreligious music and requires head coverings on women. Chalabi wears well-cut Western suits, speaks fluent English, listens to classical music and has been viewed as secular.

But Sadr is an outspoken opponent of the U.S. presence, and Chalabi’s defense of the young cleric as American forces vowed to “kill or capture” him helped fortify Chalabi’s credentials as an Iraqi who was willing to stand up to American power.

In a mid-May interview on the satellite television channel Al Jazeera, as Sadr’s men fought a losing battle against U.S. forces, Chalabi derided the American insistence on enforcing an arrest warrant against Sadr for his alleged role in the killing of a rival cleric a year earlier.

“Is the implementation of an arrest warrant worth more than 1,000 dead?” Chalabi said, referring to the estimated death toll among Sadr’s militia. “A legal issue has become a humanitarian and political issue. We are saying: ‘Enough killing of our children.’ ”

Now, Chalabi is steadily building his new coalition. The leadership of the Shiite Political Council includes several members of the former Governing Council who, like Chalabi, were left out of the interim government. But the bulk of the members come from small, little-known groups. Unsophisticated in politics, they are joining because they see the organization as a means to make their voices heard.

And because they are Shiites, they hope that by banding together they will avoid being crushed the way they were under the previous regime.

“It has nothing to do with sectarianism. It’s just that Shiites represent the majority,” said Ali Aliausha, an earnest man in a pinstriped suit who spent much of the last 20 years in exile and says he lost two brothers to Hussein’s executioners. He was one of many people at a recent meeting of the council at Chalabi’s headquarters -- known as the China House for its pagoda-like architecture.

“Dr. Ahmad Chalabi is an Iraqi citizen, and he has played a big role in this moment of change,” Aliausha said, admiration in his voice.

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The hope of the Shiite parties is that in the upcoming elections, Iraq will be considered a single electoral district. Coalitions would offer slates of candidates who would join the transitional national assembly in proportion to the votes won by each slate.

“His eyes are on the elections,” said Jabber Habib, a professor at Baghdad University who closely tracks Shiite politics.

There are many scenarios in which Chalabi can work out a deal to ensure that he or those he supports are high enough on a slate to ensure a place in the assembly.

In fact, Chalabi’s approach may have considerable appeal. Many Iraqis take a dim view of political parties -- a legacy of the Hussein era, when a single, often abusive party ran all politics. There is still limited enthusiasm for established political organizations. By putting together a group that styles itself as a coalition, Chalabi may be able to have it both ways: an organization with the reach of a party without the taint that tends to attach to established groups.

Will Chalabi’s effort to return to politics work? It is hard to know at this point, but even his opponents say he is a man of energy, resourcefulness and driving ambition.

“The Americans kicked him out the front door,” Habib said, “but he is climbing back in through the window.”


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