Ahmed Chalabi, the one-time Pentagon favorite to lead a post-Saddam Iraq, has been removed from a top Iraqi government post over his continued contacts with suspected Iranian operatives, according to U.S. officials.
Only last fall, Chalabi had resurrected his turbulent political career when the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, with backing from U.S. military commander Gen. David Petraeus, named him to head a committee charged with restoring essential services, including electricity and public safety, to Iraqi communities. "He was going to be the guy to turn the lights on in Baghdad," said a former U.S. intelligence official who has closely followed developments in Iraq. (The official, like others quoted in this story, spoke on condition of anonymity about internal government deliberations.)
But three U.S. government officials told NEWSWEEK that Maliki's government recently forced Chalabi out of his new job over an issue that has long clouded his reputation--his murky ties to Iran, including leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the country's internal security force. The Bush administration has accused the IRGC and its paramilitary spinoff, the Quds Force, of training and arming pro-Iranian renegade militias that are attacking U.S. and Iraqi troops.
The White House and State Department press offices referred all inquiries about the latest Chalabi controversy to the Iraqi government. Tahseen al-Sheikhli, an Iraq government spokesman for security operations in Baghdad, said "I cannot confirm or deny" the removal of Chalabi. Mohammed al-Mousawi, a Chalabi spokesman in Baghdad, told NEWSWEEK's Christian Caryl: "This information is completely wrong. Ahmed Chalabi and the INC [Iraqi National Congress, Chalabi's political organization] haven't been informed by the Iraqi government or the American troops about this issue." John Markham, a U.S. lawyer who represents Chalabi, said he was unaware of Chalabi's removal from his Baghdad position. (Update: Markham e-mailed NEWSWEEK on Friday saying Chalabi "has not been dimissed from any board and that in fact today he went to a meeting of the services committee at the Prime Minister's office.") He strongly disputed that there was anything improper about his client's dealings with Iranian officials. "I know he is extremely dedicated to his country," Markham told NEWSWEEK. "Most Iraqi leaders have relationships with various people in Iran and his are like everybody else's."
But U.S. officials contacted by NEWSWEEK said Chalabi's ouster was triggered by his ongoing relationships with pro-Iranian figures inside Iraq who, in the eyes of the Maliki government, are trying to destabilize the country. "He was once again operating in that same gray zone that he always has," said the former U.S. intelligence official who is close to several figures in the Maliki administration. "There was enormous friction inside the Iraqi government over this."
A suave, University of Chicago-trained mathematician, Chalabi and his controversial exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, were major players in Washington during the run up to the Iraq War. Leading neoconservatives and some top Bush officials--mainly in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office--promoted Chalabi as a pro-Western democrat. Some supporters dubbed him "the George Washington of Iraq." Chalabi, who for years had lived in exile in the West, claimed he could unite his country after the ouster of Saddam. But many top officials in the State Department and CIA deeply distrusted Chalabi. They regarded him as a duplicitious double-dealer who was feeding the U.S. government and media with phony intelligence about Saddam's weapons programs and ties to terrorism in order to build a case for war.
When weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize after the invasion, Chalabi's star faded. In the spring of 2004, the administration cut ties with him, in part because of persistent questions about his links to Tehran. The Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency asked the FBI to investigate allegations that Chalabi or one of his aides had leaked ultrasecret information to his Iranian contacts about how U.S. intelligence had cracked an Iranian intelligence code. The Iraqi police, assisted by the U.S. personnel, even raided Chalabi's Baghdad headquarters. But no charges were filed against him and Chalabi claimed the codebreaking story was fabricated by his antagonists in the CIA and the U.S. media.
According to a new book by Aram Roston, an investigative reporter for NBC News, one of Chalabi's alleged Iranian contacts was Brig. Gen. Ahmed Foruzandeh, a commander of the Quds Force. In January, the Bush administration designated Foruzandeh a terrorist supporter and financier, freezing any assets he might have in the U.S. and banning any transactions between him and anyone inside the United States.
Roston reports that a Chalabi aide confirmed that Chalabi--who regularly visited Iran during Saddam's rule and once maintained an office in Tehran--met with Foruzandeh at least twice before the U.S. invasion. Roston quotes an unnamed former CIA official describing Foruzandeh as "an intelligence officer of a hostile service which is directly involved with operations that kill Americans." (Click here to read extracts from Roston's book, "Ahmed Chalabi: The Man Who Pushed American to War.")
The Bush administration has repeatedly accused Foruzandeh's Quds Force of smuggling weapons to renegade Shiite military units inside Iraq--including crude but deadly parts for roadside antipersonnel and antitank bombs known as EFPs (explosively formed penetrators). The official Treasury Department statement blacklisting Foruzandeh charges that he "leads terrorist operations" against U.S. and Iraqi forces and that he has directed "assasinations of Iraqi figures." The Treasury Department also alleges that as of mid-February 2007, Foruzandeh a ordered Iranian intelligence officers under his command to continue to stoke sectarian violence in Iraq and that he was responsible for establishing training courses in Iran for Iraqi militias to "increase their ability to combat Coalition Forces." The Treasury order claims that this training for Iraqi insurgents included "courses in guerilla warfare, light arms, marksmanship, planting improvised explosive devices and firing anti-aircraft missiles."
Markham, Chalabi's lawyer, provided NEWSWEEK with a statement Chalabi previously gave to NBC News about his relations with Foruzandeh. "All top Iraqi leaders who visit Tehran meet regularly with Iranian revolutionary guards, including this individual," he said. "To illustrate this: some of the Iraqi leaders who met with President Bush as recently as 2007 have met with [Foruzandeh] and did so before and afer their meetings with President Bush. Moreover, the U.S. itself has met with many individuals it has decried as having some something wrong. The object of any meetings I attend is to promote the stability that my country needs, and speaking to people from various points of view sometimes moves the process in a favorable direction."