Were beginning to hear

|
April 2, 2003 9:35 a.m.

We’re beginning to hear a
lot more about US
plans
for the post-war administration
of Iraq, as well as disagreements between the State Department and the Pentagon
over who should be involved and how it should be done. One of the key figures
in all this is Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi
National Congress
, an Iraqi Shi’a emigre who is beloved and admired by the
hawks and often treated with suspicion and ridicule by their critics, particular
at the State Department and the CIA.

Here’s a snippet from an unpublished article of mine on Chalabi, based on reporting from last spring and summer …

In 1991 the CIA was looking to create what eventually became the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization intended to foster unity and cohesion amongst Iraq’s notoriously fractious exile and dissident groups. The man they chose to head it was Ahmed Chalabi. Chalabi was charismatic and enterprising and he understood the pulse of Western politics and media something key to the sort of media and propaganda operation the CIA wanted to create. “He understands the West very well,” says Whitley Bruner, a retired CIA agent who was the first to reach out to Chalabi, “and he was very useful in the sense that he grasped what the Agency was doing, and what its aims were, and how to translate that back and forth to various Iraqis who were working with him.” Chalabi’s very lack of connection with any established dissident groups in or out of Iraq was actually one of his main attractions to the CIA since it set him apart from the parochial concerns of the various feuding groups and made him more useful to the United States.

Chalabi was dynamic and entrepreneurial. But he was also headstrong and he quickly alienated many of the other exile leaders operating within the INC fold, particularly those with greater bases of support inside Iraq. Chalabi, said some critics, consistently focused on Washington rather than forces in Iraq — a trait which both caused and fed off his antagonisms with other dissident leaders. “Chalabi takes the blame of taking the INC from its mission of trying to win the Iraqis and to reach out to the Iraqis to a new mission which is to try to win Washington and reach out to Washington,” says one Iraqi émigré involved in the creation of the INC.

But this was only one of the problems plaguing the INC and American Iraq policy in the early 1990s. After 1991 American policy toward Iraq was confused and meandering. The Bush and Clinton administrations take a measure of the blame for this. But the real cause was more deep-seated. All US policy was based on a cardinal assumption — that Saddam could not long survive his massive defeat in the Gulf War — which was quickly proving to be a fallacy. During the first Clinton administration, while Chalabi was intermittently running the INC from the safe-haven in Iraqi Kurdistan, the CIA toyed with different strategies to topple Saddam. Chalabi’s plan was for a so-called rolling coup — essentially getting the INC to lop off chunk after chunk of Iraqi territory under the cover of US air power until the tide of defections swept Saddam’s regime from power. The US eventually lost faith in Chalabi’s plan and got behind a separate effort to foment a military coup using Iraqi exiles in Amman. Chalabi’s attachment to the rolling coup plan was not rooted in any ideological or operational compunction. He didn’t seem to have much of either. He just wanted to do something. Anything. Preferably sooner than later. “He was pushing the envelope and [the CIA was] not ready,” says a Washington-based Arab journalist.

That was part of the problem. The CIA was not sure Chalabi was up to the task; they were not sure what if anything they wanted to do or how they wanted to do it. The one thing the Agency was increasingly sure of was that whatever they were going to do they didn’t want to do it with Ahmed Chalabi. “If an error was made over the first several years,” says Bruner, “it was that [Chalabi] was so capable and so able to do these things that I think that a lot of the managers at [CIA headquarters in] Langley let him run, because he seemed to be able to do all this so well. And it wasn’t until later that he began to get out of control. And then it was too late.”

The latest word seems to be that Chalabi isn’t slated for quite so high a role as he would like. But with friends as powerful as he has among those running the post-war show, I’m sure that’s not the final word.

More on this soon.

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