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The Conflict in Iraq

Now He's Just Another Iraqi Pol

Ahmad Chalabi, a former key ally of the White House whose image has suffered, won't be grandly received in Washington.

November 09, 2005|Tyler Marshall and John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — For an administration in political trouble, the distraction of a high-profile foreign visitor often serves as a welcome respite. But today's visit by Iraq's controversial deputy premier, Ahmad Chalabi, is hardly that.

Chalabi's planned meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley have heightened the debate swirling around the administration's use of intelligence to make the case for war against Iraq.

Chalabi -- a former exile closely linked to much of the now-discredited intelligence -- seems focused on refurbishing his image in Washington and boosting his possible candidacy for prime minister. Iraqis are scheduled to elect a new government Dec. 15.

Senior U.S. officials admit privately that they would like to keep his profile as low as possible on the trip. "This was his idea, not ours," said a U.S. official who requested anonymity when commenting on Chalabi.

The official said Chalabi would receive the same treatment as a less-flamboyant Iraqi politician also making the rounds in Washington this week, Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi. Mehdi's meeting with Rice on Tuesday was closed to the media.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli characterized Chalabi's visit as routine. "He is an official and a representative of the government of Iraq.... In that capacity, U.S. government officials regularly meet with [Chalabi]," Ereli told reporters Tuesday.

But keeping Chalabi out of the limelight has never been easy. This afternoon, for example, he is scheduled to give a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, on the future of democracy in Iraq.

The institute's spokeswoman, Veronique Rodman, predicted a full house. "We've got 12 TV crews coming," she said.

Congressional Democrats, some of whom say their votes three years ago in favor of invading Iraq were based at least in part on assertions linked to Chalabi, are pressing him to come to Capitol Hill and answer questions.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) sent Chalabi a letter signed by himself and 17 other Democratic House members asking for a meeting "to discuss his role in manipulating the intelligence that led to war with Iraq."

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) issued a statement Tuesday calling on the Senate and House intelligence committees to subpoena Chalabi to testify "about his role in providing false intelligence about Iraq and leaking U.S. secrets to Iran."

Chalabi's trip to Washington comes just days after he met with Iranian leaders, and he has done little to damp speculation that he is carrying a secret message from officials in Tehran.

Last year, there were allegations that he gave Iran classified information about the U.S. breaking the messaging code for Tehran's intelligence service. An FBI inquiry into the allegations is pending.

Chalabi's political ship has hit rough waters back home as well. His popularity remains low among the Iraqi public, and he has quit -- some say he was forced out of -- the United Iraqi Alliance. That group, dominated by Shiite Muslims, won the largest share of National Assembly seats in January's election and is favored in the vote next month.

Chalabi has cast his lot with the tiny monarchist party and a collection of independents, which does not bode well for his electoral prospects. But his camp still believes he can work the nascent political system to install himself in the country's most powerful office after December's election.

Chalabi and his followers are not expected to win more than a few seats in the National Assembly. But if Chalabi is nimble enough, he could ally with the electoral bloc that will pick the next prime minister. In the postelection wheeling and dealing, it is thought, he might have the opportunity to assume the office.

Born to a wealthy, royalist family with whom he went into exile at 13, Chalabi lived outside Iraq for 45 years. More than any other Iraqi politician, he can be credited with helping to make the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein a top U.S. foreign policy goal and bring it about.

He won over neoconservative thinkers such as former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz before they became major players in the Bush administration. And when the U.S. decision to invade Iraq was made, many of his allies in the United States saw the urbane, articulate Chalabi as the probable head of a new government in Baghdad.

But Chalabi's popularity in Iraq has never matched the esteem in which he was once held in some quarters of Washington.

Speaking to reporters in Baghdad last week, Chalabi said that, contrary to pundits' expectations, his reception in Washington would prove that he could deal successfully with the Bush administration. "I believe there was no wall of ice between me and Washington," he asserted.

Marshall reported from Washington and Daniszewski from Baghdad.

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