Following on from Jeff?s post below, a few things seem clear in the Chalabi affair: First, that whereas many tended to see Chalabi?s problems as part of the rivalry between the State Department and CIA on the one hand, and the Pentagon on the other (which it was), this tended to downplay Chalabi?s actions after Iraq?s liberation as part of a domestic Iraqi struggle for power. In pushing for the elimination of the Baath?s leading centers of power ? the army, the security services and the party apparatus ? Chalabi was also trying to isolate former Baathists like the current prime minister, Iyad Allawi, who can still call upon the party?s unofficial networks. Allawi has, needless to say, won the first round.
Second, if the above is true, the U.S. has already fallen into the trap of favoring Iraq security at all costs over liberalism. That may be understandable at a time of ambient chaos, and makes political sense, but Allawi has obviously taken advantage of the American need to derive legitimacy from the interim government to overwhelm a domestic Iraqi irritant in Ahmad Chalabi. Does this mean Allawi can be a new Saddam? At this stage that seems absurd ? he does not control the powerful Kurdish militias, and has no real influence over the Shiite militias, even pro-government ones like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). But he is building an army, and dissolution of the militias is a top priority of the interim government
What the Chalabi move has also done is ensure that Allawi (at least temporarily) has won the battle for influence in Washington, where he and Chalabi had a parallel conflict going. I?m not yet ready to read into this a defeat for Chalabi?s American neocon allies, if only because Allawi may soon begin alarming people as he takes on more power. Being tough may work in Washington now, but at some stage people will wonder whether Allawi really represents the new Arab liberalism the Bush administration claimed to be spreading when it invaded Iraq.
Finally, the ongoing U.S. attack in Najaf is, plainly, an Allawi gamble to firmly establish his power. Four of the leading Shiite clerics in Najaf are out of the city ? Ayatollah Sistani, most prominently, in London as a guest of the Khoei Foundation, whose late head, Abdel Majid al-Khoei, was allegedly killed by Muqtada al-Sadr ? in what the regional media is calling a strange coincidence. The implication is that the four clerics left town to allow the U.S. and Iraqi forces to crush Muqtada?s Mahdi Army.
If Allawi can pull this off successfully, he would have eliminated two adversaries from among his Shiite brethren in one swoop. This will set off alarm bells especially at the SCIRI and at Al-Daawa, who have ties with Iran. Indeed, with the Mahdi Army eliminated, all other armed groups will be under great pressure to disarm. Ties with Iran will, I suspect, figure prominently in this move. And what American neocon could possibly disagree?
All this may we worth remembering when we play back the recent statement by Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan, who called Iran ?the first enemy of Iraq.?