Zubaydi was picked up

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April 23, 2003 12:29 a.m.

“Zubaydi was picked up by the Iraqi National Congress (INC) exile group’s militia, the Free Iraqi Forces, and turned over to the U.S. Central Command yesterday, the official said.”

That’s the third graf in Walter Pincus’s piece in Tuesday’s Post.

A couple days ago, Saddam’s son-in-law Jamal Mustafa Abdallah returned from Syria and turned himself in to members of the INC ‘militia’.

Then there’s the headline in Tuesday’s Washington Times: ‘INC says it’s closing in on Saddam‘.

It’s not too early to start asking just what’s going on here. We already know that the Pentagon airlifted Chalabi and several hundred of his ‘Free Iraqi Forces’ into Iraq not only over the objections of many others in the administration but apparently without even notifying many of them.

The question everyone is asking today is whether the Pentagon — and the Bush administration more broadly — is going to try to install Chalabi as the head of a new Iraqi government or at least tip the scales decisively in his favor.

(My new column in The Hill this week discusses the Chalabi question, some of his background, and how this may all come back to bite us.)

I think it’s clear that that is precisely what’s happening. Is Chalabi’s militia just getting really lucky grabbing all these guys? Or is the Pentagon working with him on these captures, making him privy to US intelligence, using his ‘militia’ as a proxy, or simply letting it be known that if you want to turn yourself in, they’re the ones to go to?

More generally, Iraq is currently under US occupation. That means the US military is responsible for law, order and security in the country, as well as the apprehension of potential war criminals or former regime leaders. An occupying power usually doesn’t look very kindly on self-declared ‘militias’ freelancing around the country trying to set up their own de facto authorities. The situation is different with the peshmergas in Iraqi Kurdistan since the Kurds have had de facto self-rule for a number of years. But under just what authority is Chalabi’s crew operating? Under whose auspices?

If our plan is that the INC militia is to be the basis of the new Iraqi army — as some suggest — that makes a mockery of our claim that we’re not favoring any particular leader.

Most of Chalabi’s supporters in Washington understand that he has little support inside the country. They think, however, that he’s earned a right to at least a shot at leading Iraq because of his work on the outside agitating for regime change over the years. On top of that, they believe that the sort of Iraq he’d help create would be the best both for the Iraqis and for us.

So what to do about the fact that he’s got no constituency in the country and the fact that the Iraqis seem hostile to the idea of being governed by emigres? Well, the thinking goes something like this … America’s got a lot of stuff. Stuff? Well, money, water purifiers, electrical generators, medicine, you name it, all sorts of stuff.

But who becomes the conduit for that stuff? If that conduit happened to be someone like Ahmed Chalabi that would be a very good way of building up a constituency on the ground in the country.

If this is what we’re up to, it’s something that should really be debated.

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