Next Year In Baghdad

Set yourself up as Saddam Hussein's worst enemy and you've got to be very courageous, very crazy or some kind of scam artist. Ahmed Chalabi, 57, has been called all of the above. He's also been dubbed a genius--even by his detractors--and a Machiavellian plotter who wants to drag the United States, one way or another, into a new war against the Butcher of Baghdad.

To this last charge, Chalabi pleads guilty: "We do! Yes!" says the enthusiastic ex-banker, immaculate in a pale blue pinstripe suit as he receives visitors in his London offices. Trained as a mathematician at the University of Chicago and MIT, Chalabi has developed a military and political formula for Saddam's defeat: the United States would seize air bases in southern Iraq, and defend them if necessary with its troops. Chalabi's allies would carry out guerrilla operations and welcome what he promises will be such hordes of defectors and deserters that Saddam's regime will crumble much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

And he could be right. But would you want to buy a war from this man? Or, as one American official puts it, "Without disputing the merits of taking out Saddam, do you really want to [hand] the keys to American national-security policy to a foreign national who has his own agenda and objectives, to lead us down a path at his time and choosing?"

That question--and others concerning Chalabi's credibility--keep surfacing as President George W. Bush weighs strategies to contain or eliminate Saddam. Chalabi's many friends on Capitol Hill and among the civilians at the Pentagon see him as the driving force who kept the Iraqi opposition alive through years of neglect by the Clinton administration. The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, in which Congress appropriated $97 million for new efforts to undermine Saddam, was written largely with Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC) in mind. And Chalabi's intelligence network has fed some big stories to the press, among them the meeting between September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi spy in Prague, later confirmed by the Czech government.

But at the State Department and the CIA, Chalabi is routinely dissed as ineffectual. In the latest salvo, the State Department publicly warned him that the INC will be cut off at the end of this month if it doesn't start keeping reliable records of the cash it spends. Of $4.3 million that passed through INC accounts, $2,107,093 required "additional supporting documentation," according to a forthcoming State Department report obtained by NEWSWEEK. The State Department doesn't like the pattern. Chalabi "went out and insisted on operating a program in contravention of the supervision we provided," says one official. "It appears it was an attempt to go his own way." Chalabi says the INC will comply with the accounting demands, but he also says he's being smeared. "It's such a cheap shot," he told NEWSWEEK.

Chalabi has long been vulnerable to corruption charges. In 1989 his Petra Bank in Jordan was seized by the late King Hussein. At the time, the king was deeply involved with Saddam both politically and finan-cially. Chalabi fled the country overland with a fake passport, and was later convicted in absentia by a Jordanian military court of embezzling tens of millions of dollars. Chalabi argues he was set up, and the king's cronies took the money. But many of Petra Bank's depositors never forgave him. "In the Arab world, going into bankruptcy means you are a bankrupt person for the rest of your life," says a Lebanese financier who knows Chalabi well.

So as American officials hint of a fresh campaign against Iraq, does Washington have an Iraqi ally it can trust? The very question warms the hearts of Iraqi officials. In Baghdad last week, one of Saddam's spokesmen gloated over the public slights to Chalabi. "We are glad to have such an opposition," says A. K. Al-Hashemi, the former Iraqi ambassador to France. "If the U.S. could have found a better opposition they would have. So let them lead their 'struggle' from posh hotel rooms in the West if they want to."

In fact, the INC was never so ineffectual as either Baghdad, or Chalabi's detractors in Washington, would have us believe. Throughout the early 1990s Chalabi was living in northern Iraq, where the Kurds had carved out a virtually independent homeland in mountains protected by the American-patrolled no-flight zone. The INC received hundreds of defectors, including one of Saddam's top generals, Wafiq al-Samurrai. Chalabi worked tirelessly to mediate feuds among the different opposition factions.

By March 1995, Chalabi, al-Samurrai and the Kurds were ready to launch a coup attempt and an uprising. But when the appointed day arrived, they received a cable from the then national-security adviser Tony Lake telling them they couldn't expect backing from Washington. Bob Baer, the CIA agent on the ground with them, says in a forthcoming book that even when their offensive racked up stunning results over the next few days, the NSC and CIA just didn't want to know about it. After that, the Iraqi opposition's faith in American backing largely evaporated.

Today, the American criticism that really burns Chalabi is the claim that the INC never really does anything inside Iraq. He says his hands are tied by rules that expressly prohibit his group from operating inside the country--or even distributing its newspaper there. The training Chalabi's people have received from the Pentagon has included water purification, sewage control, Internet-site development, how to gather evidence of war crimes--and how to manage U.S. assistance. All from outside.. "The State Department and the CIA are not interested in dealing with us," says Chalabi, "for the very simple reason that they are concerned that we will lead to a military confrontation with Saddam. That's the reason. Not because we 'can't do anything'."

The CIA is always on the lookout for alternatives to Chalabi and his plans for American-backed insurrection. Yet Iraq's Shiite Muslims are the country's largest and most oppressed group, and most of the Shiite opposition leaders are Islamists--many of them tied to Iran. As it happens, Chalabi is from an old Shiite family closely tied to the monarchy that was overthrown in 1958. If the United States supported the creation of havens in southern Iraq, according to the Chalabi scenario, Shiites could look for a different kind of leadership than the radical fundamentalists. Post-Saddam Iraq could even move toward democracy.

If not? Then Saddam may stay in power for a long time to come. But nobody, presumably, will hold Ahmad Chalabi accountable for that.

Next Year In Baghdad | News