U.S. Gen. Ray Odierno, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, recently unleashed an extraordinary attack on Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, accusing the onetime darling of U.S. neoconservatives of attempting to "hijack" the country's March 7 parliamentary elections in an effort to promote the interests of Iran.
Odierno's charge that Chalabi is "clearly influenced" by Iran caused a stir in Baghdad, but was no surprise to the U.S. intelligence community. Odierno's comments echo more than a decade of private warnings by CIA officials that, even while he was being embraced by Paul Wolfowitz and others in the Bush administration, Chalabi was secretly aligned with the regime in Tehran.
Chalabi "is doing the bidding of Iran," said John Maguire, formerly one of the CIA's top Iraqi operations officer who served as a deputy station chief in Baghdad following the U.S. invasion in 2003. "He's getting specific instructions [from the Iranians], and he's responding to them. This has been going on since 1996, but there's no hiding it anymore."
For his part, Chalabi─once hailed by some neocons as the "George Washington of Iraq"─adamantly denies that he is anything but an Iraqi patriot looking after the interests of his country. "These accusations resurface every time we take a course of action that is contrary to the political agenda of the U.S.," Chalabi wrote in an e-mail last week to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
Asked about Odierno's charge that Chalabi has recently had "several" meetings with Iranian officials to discuss the Iraqi elections, including one with Qassem Soleimani, the Revolutionary Guard Corp's Quds Force commander, Chalabi spokesman Francis Brooke stated in an email to NEWSWEEK: "Dr. Chalabi, like all other competent Iraq leaders, has diplomatic, political, intelligence, military and personal relationships with all of Iraq's neighbors." He added that, while Odierno is a "fine general" and "we will always be grateful to him for his role in the capture of Saddam Hussein," he "cannot be considered a competent judge of Iraqi nationalist conduct."
But Odierno, Maguire and others see more sinister motives than Iraqi patriotism behind the recent political activities of Chalabi and his deputy, Ali al-Lami. As senior members of Iraq's Justice and Accountability Commission, Chalabi (a secular Shiite) and Lami have managed to disqualify 145 Sunni candidates from the March 7 ballot on the nominal grounds that they are former Baathists─a move that U.S. officials see as a blatant attempt to boost the prospects of a Chalabi-backed Shia political slate that is closely tied to Tehran.
Maguire charges that Chalabi is disqualifiying Sunni candidates as a political power grab, "not because they are former Baathists," he said. "This is all about─'if you can't defeat them on the playing field, get them kicked out before the game begins." In doing so, Maguire adds, the interests of Chalabi and Iran are perfectly aligned. Chalabi "wants to be prime minister, and Iran wants a client state that it can control, like Lebanon. What is happening now is straight out of the Lebanese Hizbullah playbook."
For Maguire, there is nothing new about this. As David Corn and I reported in Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War, Maguire and another CIA officer at the time, Robert Baer, uncovered evidence in the 1990s that one of Chalabi's top aides at the Iraqi National Congress, Aras Habib, was receiving "tasking" instructions from agents of the MOIS, Iran's intelligence service, and using CIA safe houses in northern Iraq for meetings with his Iranian contacts.
Habib later served as one of the top officers of a U.S. government-funded "information collection program" that disseminated allegations about Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction program, raising the prospect that some of the bogus intelligence reports about Iraqi WMD fed to the U.S. media by Chalabi's INC during the run-up to the Iraq War was actually disinformation from Iranian intelligence.
But as Maguire tells it, the alarm bells that he and other CIA officers tried to sound about Chalabi's Iran connection fell on deaf ears during the Bush administration─at least until May 2004 when U.S. officials uncovered evidence that the Iraqi politician may have been sharing information about U.S. intelligence-collection capabilities with Iranian agents. This in turn led to a highly publicized raid on Chalabi's home and offices. (In Sunday's e-mail correspondence with NEWSWEEK, Brooke said "there is not a shred evidence implicating Dr. Chalabi in the exposure of US. intelligence operations to any other country.")
Most off of the U.S. government's evidence against Chalabi was never made public during the Bush years. But Odierno and the Obama administration are now sharing previously classified intelligence about Chalabi's meetings in Tehran. Were Chalabi to succeed in his efforts, warns Magure, it could result in an Iraqi government that is a "puppet state" of Iran. The country's Sunnis, in turn, might revolt, triggering a new wave of violence that has plagued Iraq since the U.S. invasion.
And that, to say the least, could put a crimp in President Obama's plans to withdraw combat forces from Iraq by the end of August─not to mention his hopes of withdrawing all the 96,000 troops currently there by 2011.