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THE WORLD

U.S. Tries to Stop a Key Iraqi Official From Embarrassing Bush

The White House reportedly tells Chalabi to halt his calls for a rapid transfer of power.

October 03, 2003|Robin Wright and Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — After supporting Ahmad Chalabi for years, the United States has grown disenchanted and made a serious effort during the past two weeks to rein in the former Iraqi exile leader, pressing him specifically to stop embarrassing President Bush with calls for a speedy handover of power in Baghdad, according to senior U.S. officials.

Administration officials are questioning his credibility and growing increasingly concerned about the positions he is taking on Iraq's future.

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice confronted Chalabi in a meeting last week in New York with him and two other members of the Iraqi Governing Council, and again Tuesday in Washington, on recent statements calling for greater Iraqi control over both political power and the economic reconstruction, the sources said.

"She was instructed to tell him to behave. She stressed how unhelpful it was for Iraqis to be enunciating positions that were personally embarrassing for the president, who was the strongest advocate of a new regime in Baghdad," said a senior U.S. official. "She was blunt."

The Bush administration's pressure on Chalabi, a Shiite Muslim, comes as he increasingly emerges on the world stage as the face of the new Iraq, speaking at length before the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday on behalf of the 24-member Governing Council.

Until recently, Chalabi, who had not lived in Iraq since 1958, had been the political favorite of many in the Bush administration, with top Pentagon policy-makers backing him to lead postwar Iraq. Chalabi, born in 1945 to a wealthy banking family, was airlifted by U.S. military forces into southern Iraq in early April and was eventually selected to serve on the Governing Council, whose members were appointed in July after weeks of discussions with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

In a crucial meeting of Cabinet-level officials shortly before the president spoke at the United Nations on Sept. 23, even Pentagon officials conceded that Chalabi had gone too far and was endangering American efforts, U.S. officials said.

In recent talks with Middle East leaders, Bush has expressed anger -- in tough language -- at Chalabi and his political lieutenants for undermining the U.S. effort to return stability to Iraq, according to Arab and U.S. officials.

L. Paul Bremer III, the American civilian administrator of Iraq, has also become increasingly frustrated with the U.S.-educated former banker, senior U.S. officials say.

The White House was particularly angered by Chalabi's position on Iraq's future because it in effect supported France's call to hand over power to a provisional Iraqi government within weeks and hold national elections as soon as December -- a timetable that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has repeatedly called "unrealistic."

The Bush administration instead wants Iraq to write a new constitution that outlines a power-sharing arrangement to avoid friction among Iraq's ethnic and religious factions when full sovereignty is eventually returned by the U.S.-led coalition.

Some U.S. officials have suggested Chalabi's call for greater immediate control by the Governing Council is a bid to ensure that he gains the top leadership position, since he has emerged as the dominant figure on the council but so far has not rallied enough national support to gain position through elections.

The State Department and CIA have long had doubts about Chalabi, stemming in part from accountability problems with U.S. funds provided to the Iraqi National Congress, which he founded and long controlled. That disillusionment has grown in other sectors of the administration in the postwar period because information he supplied on politics and weaponry proved either faulty or unrealistic.

"Chalabi has a very serious credibility problem. And the failure to find weapons of mass destruction hasn't helped," said an administration official.

Added Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department policy planning staffer who worked with Chalabi, "He didn't deliver. Once we got into Iraq, intelligence provided -- whether on weapons of mass destruction or other issues -- could be tested. We began to realize that all these things he was telling us were not exactly correct."

Since the meetings with Rice, Chalabi has backed down somewhat, not speaking out on the sovereignty issue in public or in meetings in Washington this week, say both U.S. and Iraqi officials involved in the discussions. But administration officials worry his current position on Iraq's future may not last.

With characteristic ambition, Chalabi took a major step Thursday toward the goal of leading Iraq by quietly wrangling a place on the U.N. stage as the country's representative. Speeches to the General Assembly are usually reserved for a nation's highest-ranking official. Not only is Chalabi not the president of Iraq, he is no longer even the president of the Governing Council -- his one-month term ended Tuesday.

But absent an organized opposition, he staked his claim to be the face of Iraq, much in the same way, diplomats say, as he is trying to wrest control of Iraq's acting government.

Chalabi delivered an extended speech outlining the new Iraq. Although there are deep differences within the Governing Council about what kind of federal system Iraq should have and the role of Islam in the government and society, he declared that the country will have a representative democracy, with no ethnic or religious quotas.

He emphasized Iraq's unity, implying there will be no separate Kurdish entity. And he said that religion cannot be separated from the state.

Wright reported from Washington and Farley from the United Nations. Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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