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The Conflict in Iraq

Chalabi Reinvents Himself as a Populist

July 29, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The U.S. has encountered many surprises in its efforts to forge a democratic government in Iraq, but few have been more unexpected than the transformation of Ahmad Chalabi from patrician exile to deft populist.

Chalabi is a survivor. Snubbed by the Bush administration neoconservatives who once embraced him, and excluded from the interim government, he is building a grass-roots coalition of Shiite Muslim groups who lack a voice in the new Iraq.

At the same time, he's reaching out to Iraq's most prominent anti-American Shiite cleric, Muqtada Sadr, whose followers come mainly from Baghdad's urban underclass and the impoverished south of the country. Political analysts here believe that the new approach will eventually win support from a significant segment of Sadr's followers if Chalabi chooses to run for office -- and, as expected, Sadr chooses to wield his power from the pulpit instead.

That would give Chalabi and his new organization, the Shiite Political Council, mass support that could yield considerable clout in the majority Shiite community.

More established Shiite parties alternately discount Chalabi and describe him as a strong opponent. He is gathering up the political scraps, "mingling with little groups," in the words of Ridha Taqi, director of political relations for a major Shiite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

But he acknowledged that if Chalabi can bring Sadr on board, he will be a formidable force. "If the Sadr movement abandons violence and makes an alliance with Ahmad Chalabi, he will gain something from that movement," Taqi said. "Sadr is one of the big pillars of the Shiite family." And, he added, "it's not that Ahmad Chalabi is [just] thinking of cooperating with the Sadr group -- he's already working with them in an intense manner."

Chalabi's organization has bypassed the Supreme Council and the Dawa Party, which hold key posts in the interim government. Chalabi said the group was instead reaching out to the masses who felt that they lacked representation.

The Shiite Political Council "are the people who were in Iraq fighting the old government but were left out of the new government," Chalabi said in an interview at his Baghdad home, where papers and computer discs were spread out on a large desk and half a dozen windows were open on his PC as he worked on several projects at once.

"This will bring into the political mainstream most of the dispossessed Shia groups and those who have been neglected in the past year after Saddam's overthrow," he said.

Chalabi's metamorphosis from the Pentagon's all-but-anointed choice for president of Iraq to an outspoken critic of U.S. policy and a Shiite leader began quietly several months ago, when it became apparent that he was unlikely to be offered a major role in the government.

He distanced himself from the United States and began to voice the widely shared frustration with the now-disbanded Coalition Provisional Authority and, particularly, U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III.

Chalabi's transformation was all the more striking because he had been a persistent lobbyist for the invasion of Iraq. But with U.S. officials raising stark questions about flawed intelligence on Saddam Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction and subsequent allegations that Chalabi leaked American secrets to Iran, the former exile denied the accusations and began to draw himself as a victim of a U.S. campaign to destroy him.

That tack helped his reputation among Shiites, who, like Chalabi, are grateful that the U.S. ousted Hussein but skeptical of its intentions.

While many U.S. officials fumed and tried to keep him out of the political mix -- "He's an egomaniac," said a senior CPA official -- Chalabi, not one to concede defeat, dug in.

"I am here, this is my home, I am staying in Iraq," Chalabi said during the interview.

Distanced by his chief foreign sponsor, Chalabi was free to remake himself. As part of that effort, he reached out to Sadr, a move that redefined him publicly as a Shiite politician.

The two men could hardly be more different. Sadr is a turbaned, robed cleric whose movement bans alcohol and nonreligious music and requires head coverings on women. Chalabi wears well-cut Western suits, speaks fluent English, listens to classical music and has been viewed as secular.

But Sadr is an outspoken opponent of the U.S. presence, and Chalabi's defense of the young cleric as American forces vowed to "kill or capture" him helped fortify Chalabi's credentials as an Iraqi who was willing to stand up to American power.

In a mid-May interview on the satellite television channel Al Jazeera, as Sadr's men fought a losing battle against U.S. forces, Chalabi derided the American insistence on enforcing an arrest warrant against Sadr for his alleged role in the killing of a rival cleric a year earlier.

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