Iraqi politician’s star rising again

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Ahmad Chalabi, the onetime Pentagon darling who helped the Bush administration make the case for invading Iraq, is in a good mood as he settles into the back seat of his armored SUV to head out on the campaign trail. He ought to be.

As chief architect of the move to disqualify hundreds of candidates accused of ties to the outlawed Baath Party, Chalabi has defined the agenda for the upcoming Iraqi national elections. In doing so, he has thwarted five years of U.S. policy in Iraq aimed at reconciling the Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects and gotten his revenge against America for dumping him as its favorite back in 2004.

Now, with events all going his way, the former exile has a good chance of reentering parliament as a leading candidate for the main Shiite coalition, and perhaps to secure a top job in the next Iraqi government.

Chalabi, a secular Shiite, doesn’t downplay the significance of his estranged American allies’ failure to get the disbarments, mainly of Sunni Arab and secular candidates, overturned.

“It’s a watershed,” he says, citing the intense U.S. diplomatic efforts aimed at persuading Iraqis to allow the barred candidates to run, including an intervention by Vice President Joe Biden. “It became evident to the people that on a critical issue the will of the Iraqis prevailed over the desire of the Americans.”

Some would go further, and cast the events of the last few weeks as a victory for Iran’s will over that of America. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray T. Odierno, fumed in Washington this month that he had evidence that both Chalabi and Ali Lami, his right-hand man at the anti-Baath commission, are directly influenced by Iran.

Chalabi, once the choice of Washington neoconservatives to run Iraq, acknowledges having “many friends” in Tehran, just as most of Iraq’s current top Shiite leaders do. But he denies acting on behalf of Iran.

It is clear, however, that Chalabi’s role as chairman of the Accountability and Justice Commission, the body charged with purging Baathists from public life, has given an enormous boost to his political fortunes just as Iraq is heading into crucial elections.

That is something Chalabi, 65, doesn’t deny. Gripping the handle on the roof of his SUV as his 12-vehicle convoy veers wildly through Baghdad’s dense traffic, he identifies de-Baathification as the top issue on which his election campaign will focus. Iraq’s Shiite majority, whose votes Chalabi is courting as a candidate for the Iraqi National Alliance, remains deeply embittered by the memory of Saddam Hussein’s brutal Sunni Arab-led regime.

Shiites,he says, were only waiting for someone to reverse the last several years of efforts to reintegrate former Baathists into public life. The U.S. had initially dissolved and banned the Baath Party and forbidden senior members from public sector employment. It also formed the first de-Baathification panel in 2003, with Chalabi as head, before changing its stance. But Iraqi officials, including Chalabi, resisted efforts to disband the commission and continued the de-Baathification efforts.

“There was a ready-made public opinion which required leadership to express itself and the U.S. underestimated that,” Chalabi says.

“On the issue of the Baath, I don’t think anyone can match me.”

The heavily protected convoy leaves behind the paved highways of central Baghdad and starts bumping along a rutted track. Chalabi’s destination on this day is a place called Maamel, a forgotten Shiite slum on the easternmost edges of the capital where the roads are unpaved, the taps run dry and people live crowded together in poorly constructed concrete huts.

“Look at how they live,” he says, gesturing toward the dusty, garbage-strewn landscape. “There are millions of people in Iraq living like this.”

The Shiite poor are a constituency that Chalabi has earnestly been courting since his humiliating failure to win a parliamentary seat in the last elections, in December 2005. Then, his Iraqi National Congress Party ran alone, its defeat demonstrating that in decades of opposing Hussein’s regime he had failed to develop a key ingredient of success in even the most rudimentary of democracies: popular support.

That embarrassment compounded the indignity of his fallout with his former American friends in 2004.

After introducing the Bush administration to informants on Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction program, Chalabi had been tipped to lead Iraq’s first post-occupation government.

Instead, U.S. officials say, he was caught passing information to Iran, which Chalabi denies. The U.S. military raided his home, he was ostracized, and in his place, the U.S. appointed a political rival, Iyad Allawi, as prime minister.

But though Chalabi was down, he was never quite out. He remained in the country, unlike many other elected politicians, and was put in charge of delivering services to Baghdad, giving him the opportunity to press flesh and pound pavements in some of the most downtrodden Shiite communities.

This, he says, is his fourth visit to Maamel in recent years, a fact that he impresses upon the audience of about 100 tribesmen and unemployed youths awaiting him outside a small mosque. Giant portraits of the fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr adorn the mosque walls in Maamel, a Sadr stronghold. The chances are high that these people will vote for a pro-Sadr candidate, and not the urbane, silver-haired politician who addresses them in a navy blue suit.

But the Sadr supporters, with whom Chalabi has warm relations, are running as part of the Shiite alliance, and under Iraq’s system of proportional representation, a vote for them will also help him.

Should the major Shiite parties be unable to agree on a candidate for prime minister, there’s even a chance Chalabi could emerge as a compromise choice, diplomats say.

It’s an outside shot. Chalabi remains a controversial figure, and there’s still scant evidence that he has popular support.

On the streets of central Baghdad, many Iraqis are dismissive of his prospects.

“I feel he’s sectarian,” said Islam Adel, 28, who otherwise supports the Shiite alliance.

But Chalabi is trying hard. As the sun sets over the little mosque in Maamel, he delivers his stump speech, focusing on his “victory” as the man who banned the Baathist candidates, and promising more purges of former Baathists from public life.

“Therefore I call for your support, for preventing the return of the Baathists,” he says, before adding a final, ominous-sounding pledge to his Shiite audience, one that leaves little doubt as to the tone of his campaign.

“We support your sect and we will protect it,” he says, before being hustled back into his vehicle by his bodyguards for the journey home through the slum, now shrouded in darkness.

Caesar Ahmed of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.