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Jordan Takes Dim View of a Rising Star in Iraq

Ahmad Chalabi's critics recall the financial ruin he caused and his flight from their kingdom.

May 11, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — Hailed by some in the Pentagon as a pro-American visionary and an emerging leader of the new Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi evokes quite a different response in Jordan, where he spent 12 years and left behind economic chaos, a court conviction on numerous financial charges -- and a lengthy prison term he never served.

The Iraqi dissident's sojourn here engendered a complex web of ambition, money and political intrigue. When he arrived in 1977, he dazzled and charmed his way into the highest echelons of Jordanian society, including the Hashemite palace. He was considered to be a cultured financial innovator with an Eastern mind and Western outlook.

By the time he left, he was widely regarded as a crook who robbed a gullible nation and got away with it.

"There is one difference between him and [Osama] bin Laden," observed Najib Farah, a shopkeeper here who says he lost $9,000 when Chalabi's Petra Bank collapsed in 1989. "Bin Laden is an honest man, and Chalabi is a thief."

The failure of the Petra Bank in Amman, the Jordanian capital, cost this already poor country nearly $1 billion, according to government officials, and nearly crippled its flagging economy. Stockholders lost their investments, and some depositors are still waiting to be reimbursed.

Chalabi fled to Syria. A Jordanian court convicted him in absentia, sentencing him to 22 years of hard labor for embezzlement, misuse of the nation's funds and illegal currency speculation.

Chalabi later surfaced in London living near ritzy Park Lane. A few years later, he founded the Iraqi National Congress, made up of exiles dedicated to the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein.

Jordan's political leaders have publicly questioned whether Chalabi should lead the homeland he left as a teen. Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher called him a "divisive character" lacking in credibility.

"Chalabi would be arrested if he were to come here today," Information Minister Mohammed Adwan said. "For us he is a convict, and until he clears his name in court he will remain so."

But Monday, retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the civil administrator for Iraq, said Chalabi, 58, and four other prominent Iraqis already are meeting to discuss their nation's future and probably will be a part of a U.S.-appointed nine-member Iraqi leadership to be formed this month.

Chalabi has claimed that he was set up by the Iraqi president, working in cahoots with the Jordanian government. The former banker says his dissident activities infuriated the Iraqi regime, which used its political and economic ties to Jordan's King Hussein to have Petra shut down. The Jordanian monarch, who died in 1999, and Saddam Hussein were not related.

Chalabi, who is now in Iraq, could not be reached for comment for this report. However, a close advisor, speaking from Baghdad, said Jordanian intelligence working with Iraq circulated pamphlets in 1989 claiming that Chalabi was an agent of Israel. They also tried recruiting employees of Petra to inform on Chalabi, he said.

"There was an increasing pattern of harassment and intimidation. The Iraqi ambassador was making vocal protests about Chalabi's activities there," said the advisor, who requested that he not be named. "In 1989, Jordan's economy was almost entirely dependent on Iraq. The Iraqis had infiltrated newspapers, student groups and trade unions. In the end, the Jordanians engineered the collapse of Petra at the behest of Saddam."

Political intrigue, wars in the shadows and deception are part of the landscape of Jordan, which lies at the crossroads of the turbulent Middle East. It is a fragile, byzantine place where outsiders -- Palestinians, Iraqis, Israelis and Muslim militants -- fight their battles and jostle for influence. Chalabi stepped into this world, even courted it, and then claimed that it tried to devour him.

Ahmad Chalabi was born to a wealthy and politically well-connected family that fled Iraq in 1958 when King Faisal II was overthrown in a military coup that paved the way for Baath Party rule a decade later.

Educated at MIT, Chalabi later received a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Chicago. In 1977, he came to Jordan to explore the idea of opening a bank.

Bassam Saket, an Oxford-educated economist who was secretary-general of the royal court and close friend to King Hussein and the monarch's brother, then-Crown Prince Hassan, said Chalabi first sought him out to propose a business deal.

"Ahmad asked my family if we wanted to join forces with him to start a bank, and we declined," recalled Saket, who now heads the Jordanian Securities Commission, the equivalent of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Like others, Saket said he fell under the spell of the erudite Iraqi.

Chalabi, Saket said, was keen on making an entrance, arriving in a luxury car accompanied by servants. "He was seeking power and glamour," Saket said.

Others found that Chalabi's charm had limits.

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