Feb 17, 2010
Ahmed Chalabi, the former Iraqi exile whom the Bush administration once hoped would replace Saddam Hussein under its “regime change” policy, has been openly branded an Iranian collaborator by the top commander of US forces in Iraq.
General Ray Odierno told an audience at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington that Chalabi and another Iraqi politician, Ali Faisal al-Lami, are “clearly influenced by Iran… We have direct intelligence that tells us that.”
Odierno’s comments the latest episode in a decades-long struggle by Chalabi, widely seen to have misled the Bush administration over Saddam Hussein’s WMD capacity, to gain power in his homeland.
Chalabi and Lami had had “several meetings in Iran with a man named [Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis] Muhandis… who was on the terrorist watch list for a bombing in Kuwait in the 1980s – they are tied to him,” Odierno said., adding that Muhandis was right-hand-man to General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Army’s Quds force. The US claims Quds, which reports directly to the Ayatollah Khamenei, sponsors Islamic militant groups around the world.
Lami, a Shiite who is close to the hitherto secular Chalabi, headed an Iraqi panel that tried to bar around 500 mostly Sunni candidates, many of them members of Saddam’s banned Baathist Party, from running in the general election scheduled for March 7, which is to be the second since the invasion of Iraq. Following pressure from the United States, the list was reduced to 145 candidates, though leading Sunni member of parliament Saleh al-Mutlak is still excluded.
The US fears an outbreak of fresh violence between Sunnis and Muslims in the wake of Lami’s perceived move to marginalise Sunnis. Chalabi, who was deputy prime minister of Iraq between May 2005 and May 2006, claims he had no role in barring the Sunni candidates. Nevertheless on Sunday he directly accused US Vice President Joe Biden of
interfering in the election by pressuring the electoral appeals committee into reversing its decision to ban all 500 candidates.
Odierno said “no one denies that… you have the right to work through de Baathification, [to] disqualify anyone who’s involved in the Baath Party, or leans towards the Baath Party… [but] what actually was the authority of this commission. What’s the authority of those running it, and why they were able to do this, and was it according to the law…”
He said the candidate vetting process had not been transparent. “Unfortunately, it happened right before the election, which was clearly planned very carefully by certain individuals — Ahmed Chalabi and others who I would argue are getting support by other nations, who in fact are trying to push very specific agendas inside of Iraq.”
Lami vehemently denies he has any link with Iran or any hidden agenda. Supporters of Chalabi say he was in fact encouraged by the US to set up an office in Tehran in an attempt to improve relations between the US and Iran. Before the invasion – and before President George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech helped bring Iranian hardliners to power – Chalabi was close to the reformist President Mohammad Khatami. “There are geopolitical reasons to be friendly with Iran,” he told the New Yorker in 2004.
“Iran has the longest border with Iraq. Also, Iran is a much stronger state than Iraq, with three times the population. So strategically it’s not a good idea to be on bad terms. My good relations were not a secret from the US.”
Indeed, Chalabi was close to US hawks Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy secretary of defence, and Richard Perle, former chairman of the US Defence Policy Board, both architects of the Bush administration’s “regime change” strategy. In 2004, US officials accused Chalabi of revealing to Iran’s top spy in Baghdad that the US was reading Iranian spy traffic. Perle, in Chalabi’s defence, told the New York Times at the time that he believed the CIA had turned against Chalabi because he had refused to be the agency’s “puppet”. Chalabi, said Perle, had “a mind of his own”.
However, Chalabi’s reliability had worried the CIA even before the invasion of Iraq. Though President George W Bush was informed of the CIA’s view of Chalabi at the start of his first term, Bush chose to follow the advice of Vice-President Dick Cheney and the neo-conservatives. Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC) organisation provided the hawks at the Pentagon with the WMD “evidence” they wanted. Though the CIA believed much of the information passed to the Pentagon by the defectors was false, the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003, was based largely on this “evidence”. As Robert Baer, a former top Middle East operative put it, “Chalabi was scamming the US because the US wanted to be scammed.”
Wolfowitz acknowledged in an interview with Vanity Fair that the WMD evidence was not the best argument for the invasion of Iraq, but “we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction”.
Chalabi appears to believe that he is being pilloried for having influenced US policy. “There is a smear campaign that says I am responsible for the liberation of Iraq,” he once said, “but how bad is that?”
On Tuesday, General Odierno had this response: “Chalabi, you know, has been involved in Iraqi politics in many different ways over the last seven years, mostly bad.”