Foreign Policy

Puppet Show

Will Ahmed Chalabi Govern Post-War Iraq?

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Iraqi opposition figure Ahmed Chalabi arrived in Southern Iraq today, airlifted there by U.S. military forces, according to the Los Angeles Times. The move raised speculation that the Pentagon hopes to bolster his chances of governing a post-war Iraq.

The speculation is nothing new, of course. Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress resistance group and a Shi'a Muslim, has long been a highly controversial favorite of administration officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and former Pentagon Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle. And though his relations with the CIA have soured completely since he led a failed 1996 uprising, he was once supported by at least $97 million in agency and congressional funds—money which detractors have accused Chalabi of mismanaging.

Chalabi has faced criticism on a number of other fronts. Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, special envoy for the Middle East, has dismissed the Iraqi National Congress as "silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London." Chalabi is a wanted criminal in Jordan, where he was sentenced in absentia to 22 years of hard labor for embezzling $70 million from his family's Petra Bank. (He says he was set up by competitors and by Saddam Hussein.) Of late, both the CIA and the State Department have accused him of giving bad intelligence that suggested war in Iraq would be a cakewalk. (On 60 Minutes last night, Chalabi defended himself by saying that war in Iraq so far has been a cakewalk.).

Last November, The American Prospect published a damning piece on Chalabi and his U.S. backers, calling Chalabi the "front man for the latest incarnation of a long-time neoconservative strategy to redraw the map of the oil-rich Middle East, put American troops—and American oil companies—in full control of the Persian Gulf's reserves and use the Gulf as a fulcrum for enhancing America's global strategic hegemony."

There's one thing most everybody seems to agree about: Chalabi has little to no support within Iraq. The Los Angeles Times, 60 Minutes and other news outlets have reported that to officials at both the CIA and the State Department, this alone should remove him from consideration as post-war Iraq's new leader, since he would be perceived as a U.S. puppet. Several members of Congress have aired similar concerns.

Given his history with the White House, could he be perceived any other way? The public perception that America is installing a puppet is of more than passing interest when you're trying to hold up Iraq as a model of democracy. What better way to convince skeptical neighbors, prospective terrorists and just about anybody else that our attack on Iraq is just the latest advance of Western imperialism and oil greed?

On the bright side, a post-war Iraq briefing scheduled for today was postponed, suggesting that the issue is still under hot debate among the administration, the CIA, and the State Department.