The Return of Ahmed Chalabi

As leader of the Iraqi National Congress during years of exile, Ahmed Chalabi was once the Pentagon’s great Iraqi hope.

But he has had his share of ups and downs. Now he is a leading critic of America’s role in Iraq.

First he was accused by the Americans and Iyad Allawi‘s interim government of espionage and passing secrets to Iran. Then, two months ago, chief investigating judge Zuhair Maliky of Iraq's Central Criminal Court, ordered his arrest after a police raid found counterfeit currency in his house. Chalabi was in Tehran at the time. US forces had conducted a bull-in-a-china-shop search of his Chinese-style home in Baghdad, smashing glass knickknacks and shooting holes in paintings Chalabi had brought with him after years of exile. After surveying the damage, the former exile moved to a more downscale dwelling in a Baghdad suburb.

An arrest warrant was also issued against his cousin, Salam Chalabi, who was to have been the presiding judge at Saddam Hussein‘s trial.

The jurist, in London at the time, promptly declared he would never return to Iraq.

To many, it appeared as if Ahmed Chalabi, one of Allawi’s most detested rivals, was finally washed up. But, while his cousin contemplated life in exile, Chalabi himself refused to run scared. He returned from Tehran and challenged his opponents to put him on trial. Instead, on September 27, Maliky dismissed the case for time being on grounds of insufficient evidence that Chalabi owned the house where the fake money was found.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Baghdad report exclusively that last week Allawi and the Americans were bowled over when they found Chalabi had popped up in a new career. He had snagged an appointment as national security and foreign affairs adviser to… firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, who has been holed up in Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani‘s Najaf residence since his rebellion was put down in August.

The first thing Chalabi did to earn his keep and Sadr’s continued trust was to put the anti-American cleric back in the media spotlight.

Through his Iranian connections, Chalabi arranged for Sadr – invisible since the ferocious battles in August around Najaf’s Imam Ali mosque – to be interviewed by Hizballah’s al-Manar television. Chalabi thus signaled that neither he nor Sadr needed the government-controlled Iraqi media or the Americans to get their message across. In the interview, Sadr said he would not participate in Iraq’s “American election” in January, but would enter Iraqi politics in a “clean way”.

This was taken by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq experts to mean that henceforth the radical young cleric would walk the political path charted for him by is new mentor.

Chalabi, as a PR whiz and deft political manipulator, lost no time in securing a presence for both mentor and disciple in the thick of things in Baghdad and Washington ahead of the decisive US battle in Fallujah. He went straight to the supreme Sunni Muslim religious body in Baghdad and sold them a proposition: if the Sunni religious authority agreed to publish edicts ordering the Baath guerrillas in Fallujah to refrain from battling US and Iraqi government forces, Chalabi, himself a secular Shiite, was in a position to reciprocate with a similar proclamation from the senior Shiite clerics of Najaf and Baghdad, endorsed by Sadr.

In a trice, a historic Sunni-Shiite front for averting a bloodbath in Fallujah was wrapped up and placed before the Americans as an inter-communal consensus.


Wheeling and dealing for Sadr


Normally, US policymakers and military commanders in Iraq would have dismissed the deal outright in view of its source. But at this particular juncture they had three good reasons for thinking it over very carefully:

A. US and Iraqi forces took heavy casualties in last week’s successful campaign to wrest the Sunni Triangle town of Samarra from insurgent control. Conscious that the toll in Fallujah could be much higher, the US military command owns an interest in a negotiated framework that would result in Fallujah’s guerrilla war being quelled and Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi‘s terrorists evicted from the town. As the November 2 presidential election nears, a Fallujah settlement, even one brokered by Chalabi and Sadr, might be preferable to a raging battle.

B. Chalabi has come with additional gifts: in the bag too is the consent of Fallujah’s insurgent chiefs to expand the truce negotiations between Shiite and Sunni leaders to cover a second Sunni city, the western hotbed of Ramadi. If the discredited Iraq politician can mediate this deal in its entirety, he will have deposited the two key rebel-held towns in the laps of US and Iraqi government forces with a minimum of combat.

On Thursday, October 7, the Americans suddenly released from custody a senior Sadr aide Muawad al Harjazi, held more than a year at Abu Ghraib prison. This looked like a good omen, possibly even a goodwill gesture for lending momentum to the negotiations and a credible signal to Shiite insurgents in Fallujah and Ramadi that a genuine deal is on the table.

C. Two separate truce talks tracks are on course in addition to the channel opened by Chalabi – one through Amman, the second talks led by the Kurdish deputy prime minister Salah Braham with guerrilla leaders, on behalf of prime minister Allawi.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Amman, Washington asked Jordan to send across the border into Iraq a select group of several dozen Iraqis, who reside in the capital since some 300,000-400,000 Iraqi Baathist activists fled into exile in Jordan after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. The men the US has asked for were once senior Baath party members.

They will have a dual mission: to reach Baath guerrilla leaders and convince them to end their insurgency and also to establish local political groupings and lead them in the January election.

These parties will only be new in name. Their leaders will be Baathists, selected by heads of the Sunni community. Sunni Muslims will therefore have an incentive to turn out in force and take part in the vote, instead of sabotaging it.

Members of the Iraqi delegation from Amman were told by their Jordanian intelligence recruiters that Jordan’s King Abdullah, a Sunni Muslim himself, has a supreme interest in keeping his coreligionists in power in Baghdad. The last thing the Hashemite Kingdom desires is a Shiite Iraq or a Kurdish Iraqi state next door.


Three rival negotiating streams converge


The Americans, meanwhile, trust in the competition among their three negotiating channels to produce results.

There are at least two common factors in all three.

Baathist guerrilla leaders, recalling the participation of the 36th Kurdish Brigade in the Najaf battles, say they are worried about certain Kurdish commando units entering Fallujah and Ramadi with Iraqi forces.

Our sources in Kurdistan report this issue will not be a deal-breaker. The Kurdish leadership anyway wants its troops back home from their duties in central Iraq. They are needed in the northern town of Kirkuk to strengthen the Kurdish hold on the oil city and stand ready for possible clashes with Sunni and Turkmen fighters in the city.

On all three tracks, bargaining is hot and heavy on the hefty sums Baathist insurgent leaders are demanding for giving up the fight in Fallujah and Ramadi, pay off their followers and retain their positions.

The talks are moving forward smoothly, but the Americans have set an October 11 deadline for results. If no agreement is reached by then, US forces will go ahead with an armored push into Fallujah similar to their offensive in Samarra. Nonetheless, according to our sources, all the parties are optimistic that a deal can be signed within days – the Americans, the Baghdad government, Chalabi, Sadr and the Jordanians. Removing Fallujah and Ramadi from insurgent control without bloody battles would be a feather in Bush’s cap in the nick of time less than a month before the presidential election.

If their efforts bear fruit, Sadr and Chalabi will expect a substantial political quid pro quo.

But Chalabi’s followers are not yet out of the woods.

Mithal Al Alusi, a former member of Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress Party, has been arrested on orders of Iraq’s central criminal court for the crime of visiting “an enemy state”, namely Israel, last month – according to a report in the London-based Arabic paper Al Sharq Al Awsat Tuesday, October 5. Alusi attended a conference on terrorism held in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.

But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources believe there is more to Alusi’s arrest than meets the eye. Allusi headed a committee appointed by the interim government to stamp out the last remnants of the Baath regime in the country. But, with former Baath officials now pouring in from Jordan and returning to national politics, this committee is out of place.

Arresting its chairman was a neat solution.

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