Wall Street Journal
REVIEW & OUTLOOK
The Chalabi Fiasco
He's a pawn in a much larger strategic game.
Wednesday, May 26, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT
The more we dig into last week's Baghdad raid against Ahmed Chalabi, the
more curious it seems. Clearly there's much more going on here than a fight
over one man's credibility.
If nothing else, this has to be the strangest "spy" case in U.S. history. Onthe day of last week's raid, a spokesman for U.S. regent L. Paul Bremer denied that Mr. Chalabi was even the target. But the papers and TV shows have since been filled with accusations that Mr. Chalabi provided classified information to Iran. None of his accusers is ever on the record, and no one has explained how Mr. Chalabi would have access to such U.S. secrets. But someone in the U.S. government clearly wants to damage him.
For someone so accused, Mr. Chalabi is hardly backing down. He appeared on any TV network that would have him last weekend, denying the charges and offering to visit Capitol Hill and face his accusers under oath. Meanwhile, Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers told Congress last week that Mr. Chalabi's political group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), "has provided intelligence to our intelligence unit there in Baghdad that has saved soldiers' lives."
That's not just General Myers's opinion. Back in March, the Pentagon requested feedback on the effectiveness of cooperation from five Iraq political organizations. The written report from the chief intelligence officer of one front-line U.S. division declared that the INC "proved to be head and shoulders above the information provided by the other four organizations."
According to this report--which is classified but was made available to us--the INC has provided "imminent threat warning" and "reconnaissance surveillance capability that U.S. forces cannot match in an urban environment." For example, Saddam Hussein was captured last December with documents containing eight names. The INC was directly responsible for the capture of four on that list, and thanks to its lead a fifth was captured within a month.
The intelligence assessment calls the INC a "true force multiplier" and saysthat the U.S. division's "ability to accomplish our mission would have been significantly hampered" without its support. "In the final analysis, the INC has been directly responsible for saving the lives of numerous soldiers as a result of early warning and providing surveillance of known enemy elements," the report says.
Does this sound like the work of "con men" opposed to U.S. interests in Iraq? Without security clearance ourselves, we can't determine the real truth. But at a minimum, the above suggests that our troops in Iraq have a different view of Mr. Chalabi and the INC than the leakers in Washington or at the Coalition Provisional Authority. The charge of spying for Iran is serious enough that Mr. Chalabi, Iraqis and the U.S. have a substantial stake in getting to the truth. As Mr. Chalabi suggests, ideally that would be in public, before Congress.
Mr. Chalabi has long maintained good relations with Iran, in particular to gain access to northern Iraq during Saddam's rule. But this is hardly news to U.S. officials, who financed the INC's Tehran office. In any event, the last thing Iran's mullahs want is the emergence of a secular, stable, Shiite-led free government of the kind Mr. Chalabi has long favored.
So what's really going on here? We think Mr. Chalabi is a pawn in a much larger battle that is strategic, ideological and personal. On the first, he has long battled the CIA over the best way to topple Saddam. The Agency argued for, and tried to arrange, a coup that would leave most of the Baathist regime in place, and it predicted after the first Gulf War that Saddam would fall within two months.
Mr. Chalabi correctly argued that Saddam's control was too tight and that only a U.S. invasion would succeed. He was wrong himself in overestimating how much Shiites would help in rebelling against Saddam, and clearly some of the INC's intelligence was mistaken. But then so was the CIA's; twice it told President Bush that Saddam had been killed and after both attempts Mr. Chalabi was correctly saying he was still alive. The man who told Mr. Bush that it was a "slam dunk" that Saddam had WMD wasn't Mr. Chalabi; that source was CIA Director George Tenet.
The ideological battle concerns Iraq's future governance. As a secular Shiite, Mr. Chalabi has sought to make an alliance with Grand Ayatollah Sistani and other moderate Shiite leaders. This puts him at odds with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy to Iraq, as well as with the neighboring Arab leaders who are wary of control by the Shiite majority.
Jordan's King Abdullah, a longtime Chalabi enemy who is close to Mr. Brahimi, has already called for another Sunni strongman to run Iraq. Mr. Bremer and the Bush Administration have handed control over the June 30 transition to Iraqi sovereignty to Mr. Brahimi, and one of his demands is that Mr. Chalabi be frozen out.
As for the personal, Mr. Chalabi is a blunt man who can seem arrogant even to his friends. Unlike some others on the Iraqi Governing Council, he has frequently been critical of Mr. Bremer and has fought him over many issues, especially elections and the probe into the U.N. Oil for Food scandal.
All of this is to suggest that there are many people, in the U.N. and U.S. government, who were only too happy to see Mr. Chalabi humiliated in that raid and then trashed afterward. The idea that this could have taken place without Mr. Bremer's blessing is impossible to credit. Mr. Bremer has pleaded lack of resources to explain why no one from Saddam's circle has yet been tried for a crime, but somehow an Iraqi judge found the time and money to investigate Mr. Chalabi.
The mystery is how any of this serves U.S. interests. Iraqis have now witnessed America turn quickly against, and even ransack the home of, one of its longtime allies. This will not make more of them eager to take our side.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, critics of Mr. Bush's Iraq policy are using the raid and the leaks as an excuse for demanding a purge of anyone who ever supported Mr. Chalabi. A Monday piece in the New York Times, based on more anonymous leaks, noted that "intelligence officials" are investigating "a handful of officials in Washington and Iraq who dealt regularly with Mr. Chalabi." Are they Iranian agents too?
We still believe Mr. Bush can succeed in Iraq. But the Chalabi fiasco is emblematic of the mistakes this White House has made in not deciding among its warring camps on Iraq policy, and in failing to exert any discipline on its factions at the CIA and the State Department that oppose Mr. Bush's policy. We don't know what role Iraqis will decide Mr. Chalabi should play in their future government--perhaps it will be none. But we do know that the way for America to succeed in Iraq is not to make war on its friends.