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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

U.S. Knew of Chalabi Warrants

The administration earlier denied any discussions with Iraqi leaders on plans to charge a former ally with counterfeiting.

August 14, 2004|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials were informed in advance that Iraq's interim government planned to crack down on Ahmad Chalabi, a longtime Bush administration ally, and did not object to the move, a U.S. official said.

Early this week, administration officials sought to distance themselves from the furor over arrest warrants issued Sunday for Chalabi, a prominent former exile, and his nephew Salem. They said they were unaware of the Iraqi government's plans.

But a U.S. official acknowledged in an interview Thursday that the Bush administration had been aware of the impending move against the Chalabis.

"We knew we were heading in this direction," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We had had discussions with senior members of the interim government, who had basically been telling us what they had uncovered."

In Iraq, the speculation is widespread that the charges were part of an effort by the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a longtime rival of Ahmad Chalabi, to tighten its hold on power.

U.S. officials publicly tried to steer clear of the confrontation, portraying it as the internal workings of a sovereign country. At the same time, the Americans have avoided taking steps -- such as consulting on the criminal charges -- that would make Allawi's government appear to be under U.S. control.

Chalabi, a longtime U.S. ally, is seeking a prominent role in the future of Iraq. His nephew heads the tribunal that is to handle the case against former President Saddam Hussein and other senior members of Hussein's deposed government. Ahmad Chalabi has returned to Iraq and plans to attend a national conference that begins Sunday and will pick an interim legislature.

"I expect him to attend, and he'll engage in a vigorous political discussion," said Francis Brooke, an advisor to Chalabi in Washington.

The arrest warrants were issued by the chief investigative judge of the Iraqi Central Criminal Court, Zuhair Maliky, who accused Ahmad Chalabi of counterfeiting and Salem Chalabi of murder in the death of a senior Iraqi official who had been investigating Chalabi family holdings. On Wednesday, the government forced Ahmad Chalabi's political party, the Iraqi National Congress, out of its offices in Baghdad.

Chalabi and his supporters in Iraq and the United States have claimed that the charges were unfounded, an attempt to neutralize Chalabi politically. They have charged that the United States worked in concert with Allawi's government.

Allawi, also a longtime U.S. ally, has taken tough steps recently. He shut down the offices of satellite TV channel Al Jazeera, imposed new rules for martial law and backed strong military moves against dissident Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr and his militia.

In the first U.S. response to the accusations against the Chalabis, a State Department spokesman told reporters Monday that the charges were "certainly new to us. This is a question of the Iraqi justice system at work. And we are going to play the appropriate role, which is to let that process take its course."

Brooke, Chalabi's advisor, said he was not aware of specific contacts between U.S. and Iraqi officials before the warrants were issued. But he said, "I consider the judge to be an agent of the U.S.

Brooke insisted that the charges would come to nothing.

By Wednesday, the impact of the charges seemed uncertain. An official with the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which would be responsible for making any arrest, said there were no plans to detain Chalabi in the near term.

"There was and there is now no intention to carry out any measure in this regard until finalizing the legal measures," ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim said, referring to the arrest warrant.

But the U.S. official said he believed the charges could make it hard for Chalabi to take part in politics, at least in the immediate future.

Iraqi authorities raided Chalabi's home in May and found forged, old currency that they believe he intended to swap for newly issued dinars.

Officials have said they also have evidence that Salem Chalabi threatened the Finance Ministry official before the official was assassinated. The charges leave open the question of who will oversee the trial of Hussein and others from the former regime. There has been speculation that the Iraqi government will name a new prosecutor.

Also this week, Ahmad Chalabi filed a lawsuit in Washington against the government of Jordan in connection with his 1992 conviction for fraud in the failure of Petra Bank, which he founded. Chalabi was sentenced in absentia to 22 years in prison in the case, which has been a source of embarrassment as he has pursued his political career.

In the suit, Chalabi described the charges as a scheme crafted by Hussein's government and senior Jordanian officials. He contends the funds were stolen by Jordanian officials.

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