Published May 23, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Forsaken by his longtime U.S. backers, Ahmad Chalabi (search) is casting off his "outsider" image and reinventing himself as a "man of the people," trying to rally fellow Shiite Muslims to his side to ensure political survival.
Chalabi, once the darling of a Pentagon that groomed him as a possible successor to Saddam Hussein (search), is now embroiled in a public battle with the U.S.-run occupation authority. He has become a vociferous critic of Washington's Iraq policies — a change of roles that has left him with little choice but to try and endear himself to the Iraqis he says he wants to serve.
"I only act from an Iraqi national perspective," he told a TV interviewer Friday, a day after Iraqi police backed by American soldiers raided his Baghdad home and offices. "I consider what happened to me (on Thursday) as a medal from the people of Iraq. It is the final piece of evidence that discredits rumors that I am with the Americans."
However, Chalabi's endeavors to find a constituency after decades outside Iraq were dealt another blow when a senior Iraqi official alleged Saturday that the Shiite politician's security chief, Araz Habib (search), was wanted by Iraqi and coalition authorities for alleged links to Iran's intelligence service.
Habib, a Shiite Kurd, was being sought under an arrest warrant because "he has relations with the Iranian government" and "works for the Iranian intelligence," the official said on condition of anonymity.
Chalabi, a key member of the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council (search), has said Habib was named in one of seven warrants shown to him when Iraqi police raided his home. He did not disclose the charges against Habib, who has not been detained, but praised him as being "brave, tireless" and "competent."
"The CIA has a very big grudge against Araz for the past decade because he is successful and they are not," Chalabi said.
Chalabi's aide, Haidar Musawi, called such allegations part of a "dangerous game" played by the coalition "to hide their failures" in Iraq.
The allegations against Habib are the latest in a series of complaints by the Americans against Chalabi, whose network of Iraqi exiles in the Iraqi National Congress (search) provided the Bush administration, and some news organizations, with reports on Saddam's purported weapons of mass destruction (search) programs.
Those weapons were cited by the United States and Britain as the primary justification for the Iraq war. When no significant weapons stocks were found, Chalabi became a liability.
He also was vulnerable because his reputation was never as high within the U.S. State Department and CIA as in the Pentagon. His critics in Washington are becoming more vocal in bringing up his wheeler-dealer reputation, including his 1992 conviction in Jordan in a banking scandal. Chalabi, who was sentenced to 22 years in prison, has denied the charges.
In recent weeks, U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad have complained privately that Chalabi was interfering with a U.S. inquiry into money skimmed from the U.N. oil-for-food program (search) by pursuing his own probe.
Chalabi's vigorous campaign to purge former members of Saddam's Baath party appears to have backfired. The Americans are now seeking out former regime officials for their expertise in key roles, such as security.
With the United States distancing itself from Chalabi as its image in Iraq plunges, he hopes to use Washington's criticism to enhance his stature among Iraqis, many of whom saw him as an American puppet.
Sources close to the Governing Council say Chalabi has been trying to set up an exclusively Shiite political party. Already, he has successfully persuaded most Shiite council members to act as a bloc independent from Sunni Arabs and Kurds on the council.
"He is looking for a foothold in a country where he has no popular base," said Mahmoud Othman, one of the council's five Kurdish members. "He has been moving closer to the Shiites and anyone who does this must also have ties with the Iranians."
Chalabi's contacts with Iran have left some in the Bush administration suspicious about his intentions. Chalabi has denied claims that he gave sensitive information to Iran about the U.S. occupation in Iraq.
It is too early to tell whether Chalabi has been successful in expanding his popular base. A demonstration called by his supporters to protest the raids drew only a few hundred people Friday.
Although the Governing Council issued a statement condemning the raids, it avoided mentioning the Coalition Provisional Authority (search) and included no demand for an apology — as some members wanted.
Chalabi hopes his anti-coalition outbursts this week will find resonance, as many Iraqis are disenchanted with the U.S.-led occupation and fear the sovereignty due to be handed back to Iraq on June 30 will be limited.