Our Man in Baghdad

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
(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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