Can it get any more bizarre? Only a few weeks before Washington's long-promised hand-over of the keys to Iraq, we discover that the lackey the Pentagon only recently had in mind to manage this very valuable property for the United States is suspected by us of being a world-class con artist and, worse, a spy for America's enemies in Iran.
Nobody is speaking on the record yet, but U.S. intelligence officials are making it clear to a variety of preeminent news sources that Ahmad Chalabi, a longtime darling of the neoconservatives who dragged the U.S. into this war, not only fed Western intelligence sources false information about Saddam Hussein's Iraq but is accused of having passed on U.S. secrets to Iran, possibly through his security and intelligence chief, who is now a fugitive.
"This is a very, very serious charge," Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said on Sunday, noting that his Senate Intelligence Committee will be investigating it. "There were a number of us who warned this administration about [Chalabi]…. But the fact is, there were some in this administration, some in Congress who were quite taken with him."
We might start investigating which Bush official arranged for this hustler — already on the lam for a decade from major banking fraud convictions in Jordan — to sit behind First Lady Laura Bush during this year's State of the Union speech. Was the Secret Service watching her purse?
Too harsh? Not by a long shot. The CIA had stopped using Chalabi as a source in the mid-1990s after his political organization of exiles was accused of deception and incompetence. However, over the last four years, Chalabi was shamelessly resurrected inside the Beltway by neoconservatives, including Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and other Bush officials who were leading the campaign to invade Iraq.
Granted more than $33 million in taxpayer money over that four-year period — funding that was cut off only days before Iraqi police backed by U.S. troops raided his home and office last week — Chalabi was the key window into Iraq for the White House, as well as top reporters such as the New York Times' Judith Miller. She mined him for a long string of now-discredited front-page scoops on Iraq's much-touted weapons of mass destruction. Chalabi is now suspected of having "gamed" the intelligence agencies of eight nations using phony or tricked-up sources and documents, according to intelligence sources cited in the Los Angeles Times.
Yet even as post-invasion searches and interrogations proved Chalabi's hoary claims completely wrong, and even as Chalabi continued his longtime practice of cozying up to the ayatollahs in Iran during frequent visits to Tehran, the Bush political appointees in charge of Iraq allowed Chalabi to run wild. Chalabi and his family and cronies have been granted control over Iraq's banking system and the crucial de-Baathification process, as well as the upcoming trial of Saddam Hussein. The result? At least seven Chalabi aides are wanted on charges of blackmail, fraud and other crimes.
So now we can watch a familiar drama unfold as the United States turns on a lout whom it tried to sell as Iraq's George Washington.
But being a wily survivor, Chalabi apparently decided that after embarrassing his Beltway backers so badly on the question of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and realizing that he was about as popular as the occupation itself, he had better make some new friends. Now he is playing the role of a populist Moses to President Bush's Pharaoh, chanting in Baghdad last week to "let my people go." He says his aides are innocent of spying for Iran but won't turn themselves in because "there is no justice in Iraq. There is Abu Ghraib prison."
So was Uncle Sam played for a sucker by Iran, the fulcrum of what the president has called the "axis of evil"? Was the U.S. maneuvered into unseating Iran's hated enemy, Hussein, whom Washington backed in the 1980s against Iran's holy warriors? We'll see as the scandal unfolds.
But even if this outrage proves true, it is unlikely that anyone high up will be held responsible for coddling Chalabi. After all, nobody of any stature has yet been held accountable for the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the prison torture scandal or the poor planning for the occupation. Certainly not President Bush, who is touring the nation bragging that the obvious disaster in Iraq is actually a great victory for the free world.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times