The raid by U.S. and Iraqi forces on “the China House,” as Ahmad Chalabi’s headquarters in Baghdad is known locally, may seem to many as merely the coup de grace on a washed-up politician.
After all, it has seemed for some time that Chalabi’s days as a potent player in Baghdad and Washington were over.
U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has made it known that Chalabi, who currently sits on the Iraqi Governing Council, will not figure in the Iraqi administration he is assembling for a June 30 transfer of power. And just this week the Pentagon revealed that it is at last suspending Chalabi’s $340,000 monthly subsidy.
That’s not all. The discrediting of Chalabi’s prewar “intelligence” on Saddam Hussein’s WMD and terror links has wrecked his once-warm relations with the U.S. media. And his senior aides are under investigation for robbery and kidnapping, the official reason for Thursday’s raid. The raid was not insignificant; it was an indication of just how seriously the U.S. occupation authorities consider Chalabi a threat to their plans for the future of Iraq.
In recent months he has been adopting an increasingly strident tone in denouncing both the U.S. occupation and the U.N. role in Iraq. He has recently compared American officials bringing former Iraqi generals to Fallouja to “putting the Nazis back in power” and has derided Brahimi as “an Algerian with an Arab nationalist agenda.”
Less publicly, he has been putting together a sectarian Shiite bloc with the aim of immediately destabilizing whatever arrangement Brahimi unveils in 10 days’ time. Many fear Chalabi could, for example, champion a move for a separate Shiite state, or indeed, foment anti-Sunni demonstrations. This is indeed a far cry from the days when Chalabi posed as the champion of liberal Iraqi democracy for U.S. supporters, though Iraqis who know him are less surprised at the cynical turnabout.
As one Iraqi who has known and worked with Chalabi in the past observes: “His dream has always been to be a sectarian Shia leader. Not in the religious sense, but as a political leader.” Leading fellow sectarians in opposition to the U.S. and U.N. plans would be a vital step in realizing this dangerous dream.
No one should take Chalabi and his ambitions lightly. This is the man who for years waged a determined struggle to draw the U.S. into war with Iraq -- even as he was abandoned and derided by his original sponsors at the CIA -- and he ultimately succeeded.
Following last year’s invasion, Chalabi’s fans among the neocon faction in the Pentagon -- who supported him despite his conviction for fraud and embezzlement in Jordan -- were of course unable to impose him as ruler upon a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
The overwhelming majority of Iraqis regarded him as a carpetbagger and an American stooge. In response, even as he worked quickly to restore the Iraqi fortune abandoned by the Chalabis when they fled the 1958 revolution (he has reclaimed family properties and made profitable deals including, allegedly, trading oil), Chalabi began to burnish his credentials as a Shiite leader. While attempting to cloak himself in the robe of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, he also, for example, deployed his nephew Salem, a U.S.-trained lawyer, to inject as much of the credo of Shiite Islam as possible into the interim constitution.
Following the horrifying bombings at a recent Shiite religious festival in Karbala, which were clearly intended to incite Shiite-Sunni conflict, a Chalabi aide went on Iraqi radio uttering barely concealed threats of civil war against the Sunnis. As many in Iraq shrank from the prospect of civil war, Chalabi gave the appearance of encouraging it.
As it became more evident that Brahimi had the total backing of Washington in excluding Chalabi from office, Chalabi’s promotion of sectarian politics, from which Iraq has traditionally been free, became even more pronounced.
He initiated a “Supreme Shiite Council,” modeled on a similar institution created during the bloody Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. Among its leading lights were Seyyid Mohammed Bahr Uloum, a fellow member of the Governing Council, who for years has been close to Chalabi. (Chalabi helped fund the mortgage of his house in London in the early 1990s.) Also involved in Chalabi’s group were two other more obscure members of the Governing Council, and, more significantly, both Iraqi Hezbollah and a faction of the Shiite Dawa party. These Dawa adherents helped link Chalabi to the rising star of Shiite extremism, Muqtada Sadr.
Sooner or later, Sadr is going to be killed, one well-informed Iraqi told me, which would leave thousands of his supporters adrift, looking for a new leader. If Chalabi plays the role of victim (of the Americans) he can take on that role.
Many people, including Saddam Hussein and members of the CIA, have counted Chalabi out at various times over the years. By now, his former allies in Washington must realize that he has the skills and resources to cause enormous damage in pursuit of his ambition. As his former associate notes, “he is a gambler, ready to bring it all down.”
The irony is, of course, that having a U.S. gun to his head, as his nephew reports happened during the raid, will only further burnish his credentials among those Shiites he aims to lead into a divided Iraq.
Andrew Cockburn is the co-author of “Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein” (HarperPerennial, 2000).