Rehabilitating a Controversial Figure

US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice spent only one day in Iraqi, May 15, but among the many issues she dealt with was the sensitive and long lingering problem of the bad blood between the Jordanian throne and new Iraqi deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi. Their quarrel has dragged on for 13 years, one more symptom of how central politicians’ egos are to events on the international stage at large and the Middle East in particular.

A brief recap:

In 1992, a year after the first Gulf war, Jordan sentenced Chalabi in absentia to 22 years’ imprisonment alleging that as the owner of the Petra Bank in Amman, he embezzled $120 million. The accused man, a leader of the Iraqi opposition, had lived in Jordan from 1989. The bank’s collapse left its clients penniless. He argued his innocence then, as he does now, claiming the bank was a thriving enterprise which the reigning monarch’s father, King Hussein, decided to dismantle as a personal favor to Saddam Hussein, with whom he was in good relations at the time.

According to DEBKA-Met-Weekly’s sources, Rice’s bid to settle the quarrel between Chalabi and King Abdullah arose out of two developments in Washington:

1. The Pentagon, which consistently backed Chalabi for more than 20 years, has won out against the CIA which just as consistently spurned any dealings with the Iraqi Shiite politician after the 1980s. Washington is now fully receptive to his rehabilitation; again Chalabi’s star shines as brightly in the US capital as it did in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Iraqi politicians have always regarded the secular Shiite politician as the consummate cat with nine lives, adept at picking his way through labyrinthine Iraqi politics and coming out on top. But after the 2003 invasion, he was thoroughly and believed irretrievably blackballed and discredited by the CIA. In the fall of 2003, US forces searched his home amid US media reports that US intelligence services in Iraq had found Chalabi, a frequent traveler to Teheran, spying for the Iranians and transferring secret documents to them.


Chalabi sets a steep price for his rehabilitation


Even then he was not finished, but started again on his upward climb. A political outcast, Chalabi went to work as an adviser to Iraqi Shiite leaders, including the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia was then battling the Americans in Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala.

Chalabi tried to broker a ceasefire between Sadr’s men, Sunni guerrillas in Falluja and Ramadi and US forces. Slowly, he clawed his way back to the center of the Iraqi political arena. In the January 2005 election, his National Congress party made a strong showing among the factions of the Shiite alliance.

But he knew he had been reinstated finally when the US secretary of state picked up the phone to congratulate him on his appointment as prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari’s deputy.

2. Resolving Chalabi’s problems with Jordan is one of the keys to opening a new chapter with the Sunni Muslims of Iraq. The Bush administration realizes it needs Chalabi’s help in the task of slotting Sunni leaders into senior positions in Jaafari’s Shiite-Kurdish administration. To get this help, Chalabi’s problems with Jordan must be resolved else he could derail American efforts.

To Washington, King Abdullah offered Chalabi a pardon. But the deputy prime minister replied that accepting a pardon would be tantamount to admitting his guilt in stealing funds from the Petra Bank. Instead, he laid out three demands:

1. All Jordanian charges must be dropped against him and the royal government state publicly that they were false. This would entail the throne conceding that King Hussein had manipulated false charges against Chalabi and the bank in the interests of good relations with Saddam Hussein.

2. Appropriate compensation paid to all bank employees.

3. Restitution to the bank’s shareholders for the investments they lost when the institution collapsed.

King Abdullah has rejected Chalabi’s demands. He will on no account portray his father in a negative light. The task of finding a compromise acceptable to both sides has since been laid on the king’s new national security adviser General Saad Kheir, who is also senior broker of US negotiations with Iraq’s Sunnis.

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