In Iraq, key US ally falls from grace

Thursday, US forces raided the Baghdad house of Ahmed Chalabi, who loomed large in the decision to invade Iraq.

A year ago, Ahmed Chalabi was the darling of American policymakers, a political powerhouse with unprecedented access to the highest levels of the Pentagon.

It's hardly an exaggeration to say that he changed the course of Iraqi history: the information he and his party gave to the US about weapons of mass destruction - much of which proved to be false - was central to Washington's decision to launch the war that toppled Saddam Hussein.

But Thursday, US troops raided his house and the offices of his Iraqi National Congress political party. Earlier this week, his party's monthly US stipend of $340,000 was abruptly cut off.

Mr. Chalabi's standing is a marker of sorts showing the philosophical shift in the US effort to create an Iraqi body politic.

Hours after the raid, Chalabi repudiated the American occupation authority and declared himself a leader of the new Iraq.

"My relationship with the Coalition Provisional Authority doesn't exist," he told a packed room at "Chinese House," in the wealthy Mansur neighborhood of Baghdad. "And together with the governing council, we are still seeking to form a stable government."

Thursday at 10:30 a.m. local time, American troops and Iraqi forces surrounded Chalabi's compound in Mansur and entered the house. They overturned desks, seized computers and documents, and loaded boxes into waiting cars. Coalition officials told Associated Press that warrants had been issued for "up to 15 people" on allegations of "fraud, kidnapping, and associated matters." An Iraqi National Congress (INC) spokesman, interviewed on the Arabic language Al Jazeera satellite TV channel, said troops accused Chalabi of harboring terrorists.

Observers say that Chalabi's fall from American graces began months before Thursday's sudden raid. After allegations that Chalabi had provided faulty intelligence to American defense leaders - mainly, weapons of mass destruction that were never found - the American government cut off his party's monthly stipend.

In recent days, American officials have hinted that Chalabi was impeding US investigations into funds allegedly skimmed from the United Nations oil-for-food program during the time of Saddam Hussein. In a strange twist, Chalabi claimed Thursday that one of the reasons for this raid was his leading role in opening the investigation.

Last year, Chalabi was one of 25 Iraqis handpicked by US authorities for Iraq's governing council. His name was originally floated as a possible finance minister, though that idea was eventually scrapped, in large part because of his 1992 conviction for embezzlement in the neighboring country of Jordan. (Chalabi, who lived in exile for years during Hussein rein, claimed the conviction was politically motivated.)

Despised in Iraq

In Iraq, Chalabi is so widely despised that people blame him for everything from kidnapping and assassinations to electrical outages. But he continued to wield influence with American authorities, in large part, through his long-standing relationship with the Pentagon.

But Chalabi began distancing himself from American powers long before Thursday's raid. On June 30, American authorities are slated to hand over power to an interim Iraqi government composed of highly respected technocrats who will shepherd the country through national elections scheduled for January 2005.

The interim government is being chosen by UN officials in consultation with US and British authorities and with the governing council itself. It is intended to include a wider array of groups than that of the 25 member council.

As plans for the transitional government progressed, Chalabi grew increasingly critical of US and UN authorities. In recent weeks, he began to press for an increased role for the political parties represented on the governing council, and began launching bitter attacks at UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

"The dirty UN employees are double agents: they were spies for the Americans and also received bribes from the former regime," fumed a columnist in Al Mutamar, the INC's daily newspaper. Striking an anti-American note, the writer accused "Brahimi and his American masters" of trying to prevent Iraqi national elections.

Losing influence

Chalabi's objections were no surprise. As a political appointee viewed as illegitimate by most Iraqis, he stood to lose his influence once Brahimi's plan came into being.

Desperate to keep its place the US appointed government, Chalabi's party has accused the UN special envoy of everything from "impudence" to leading a "white coup" in conspiracy with the Jordanian government.

But in Baghdad, few were convinced by Chalabi's reincarnation from the Pentagon's man in Baghdad to Arab nationalist hero. "People see them as opportunistic attacks, in order to divert people's attention to events which took place long ago," says Saad Jawad, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "Had he attacked something and provided something better, people would have accepted it."

In fact, Chalabi is so distrusted that immediately after the raid, a rumor circulated in Baghdad: The American authorities in a last ditch attempt to salvage their man's reputation had staged the raid to increase his stature among the people as an anti-American figure.

"I think that he will try to improve his popularity and tell the Iraqis 'Look, you have a nationalist leader now, and he's against the Americans. I don't think people are so naive as to accept it," says Professor Jawad.

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