Our Man in Baghdad

For Washington conservatives, Ahmed Chalabi is the best man to lead a ?free? Iraq

| March / April 2003

Of the many imponderables making war with Iraq a dicey proposition, none raises a bigger question mark than who will rule the country if and when Saddam Hussein is ousted. Although the Bush administration has not officially declared itself for any one of the fractious anti-Saddam groups, many influential hawks are rooting for the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and its leader, a University of Chicago?trained mathematician and banker?and an accused embezzler?named Ahmed Chalabi.

As Robert Dreyfuss reports in The American Prospect (Nov. 18, 2002), Chalabi differs from the mullahs, monarchists, and Kurdish militants who make up most of the rest of the Iraqi opposition. He?s a debonair moneyman and Washington insider who has cultivated close ties with neocons like Donald Rumsfeld aide Richard Perle and deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and with conservative groups like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Practically unknown inside Iraq, Chalabi has a checkered r?sum?. Exiled with his family after a 1958 coup, he was invited to Jordan in 1977 to establish the Petra Bank. In 1989 the Jordanian government seized Petra and Chalabi fled the country; a Jordanian court later accused him of embezzlement and fraud. Iraqi National Congress spokespeople insist that Chalabi?s ouster was political: He was using the bank to transfer funds to Iraqi opposition groups and amassing information on secret Jordanian-Iraqi trade.

In any case, soon after his ouster, Chalabi began seeking out CIA support. He set up the INC in 1992 as an umbrella group for several anti-Saddam factions. But disputes over his handling of U.S. money have dogged him, making him persona non grata at the spy agency and the Department of State. Former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Akins flatly calls him a ?swindler.?

Despite concerns of this magnitude, Dreyfuss suggests, Chalabi?s appeal to the Bush insiders can be summed up in a comment he made to The Washington Post about his vision for a postwar Iraq: ?American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil.?

And the fact that Chalabi has so little support in Iraq that he would need American backing to rule the country may actually serve Washington; propping him up would require U.S. troops to occupy the oil fields for years. ?Controlling that much oil,? writes Dreyfuss, ?would give the United States enormous leverage over Europe and Japan, which depend heavily on Gulf oil; over Russia, whose economy is hinged to the price of its oil exports, which could be manipulated by an American-run Iraq; and over Saudi Arabia.? It might even spell the end of OPEC. All this, plus a division of the spoils among the American oil giants?now that?s a new world order.

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