U.S., Iraqi forces raid offices of Governing Council member

Washington now critical of man it once backed

May 21, 2004|By Edmund Sanders and Monte Morin | Edmund Sanders and Monte Morin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqi police backed by U.S. troops stormed the home and offices of one-time U.S. ally Ahmed Chalabi, rousting him from sleep, tearing his portrait from the wall and carting away computers, documents, weapons and other potential evidence in a criminal investigation.

U.S. officials said yesterday that Chalabi, a member of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council, was not a target of the probe, but they are searching for up to 15 people linked to his U.S.-funded party, the Iraqi National Congress (INC). They are suspected of fraud, torture, kidnapping and misuse of government property, officials said.

But a former government official said that U.S. officials were becoming increasingly concerned about Chalabi's cozy relationship with the Iranians. Officials suspect that Chalabi may have passed along to Iran some U.S. capabilities for decoding and translating protected communications - a potentially serious breach - according to a former U.S. government official.

The raids in the upscale Mansour neighborhood represented a new low in the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Chalabi, who had been the darling of the Pentagon. Friction between Chalabi and U.S. officials, particularly some in the State Department and the CIA, has been building - even while top Pentagon officials continued to support him.

But this week, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told a Senate committee that the Pentagon would stop paying a $340,000 monthly stipend to the INC. Chalabi's party was paid for intelligence that helped the United States make its case for invading Iraq. The funding continued even after U.S. intelligence agencies found that prewar information supplied by the INC about then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's weapons programs was at times misleading, inflated or fabricated.

As head of the INC, Chalabi built support during the 1990s from influential members of Congress and leading neoconservatives, such as Wolfowitz. When President Bush delivered his State of the Union address in January, Chalabi sat with the first lady.

Chalabi emerged from his office yesterday, angry. He held a portrait of his grandfather in a shattered frame. "I am America's best friend in Iraq," he said.

"If the CPA finds it necessary to conduct an armed attack against my home, you can see the state of my relationship with the CPA," he said, referring to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. "My relationship with the CPA is nonexistent."

U.S. officials here declined to say why they chose to target Chalabi's associates less than six weeks before the U.S. handover of power to a caretaker Iraqi government.

Chalabi said the raids were part of a political campaign by the United States and his Iraqi rivals to discredit him and silence his recent criticisms of the U.S.-led occupation.

He recently angered U.S. officials by launching an investigation into allegations of corruption in the United Nation's oil-for-food program. He has refused to turn over relevant government documents to other agencies investigating the allegations - including a U.N. inquiry headed by Paul A. Volcker, a former Federal Reserve chairman. And he also rattled U.S. officials by calling for national elections this summer when the United States was lobbying for a vote next year.

Senior coalition officials said the top U.S. civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, approved of the initial investigation into Chalabi's associates, but he has not been involved in the details and was not beforehand informed of the raids.

An Iraqi criminal judge, Hussein Almazini, who has been spearheading the investigation, declined to discuss the case.

Privately, U.S. officials criticize Chalabi for failing to connect with average Iraqis, and note that he continues to be dogged by accusations of corruption and misconduct. In 1992, a Jordanian court convicted him in absentia of embezzling tens of millions of dollars from Petra Bank, which he founded and ran for 12 years before its collapse. Chalabi disputes the charges.

More recently, an aide to Chalabi has been linked to fraudulent deals involving the conversion of old Iraqi currency, Iraqi officials say. Others have been accused of improperly selling or using government property.

One of the INC members being sought by police is Arras Habib, Chalabi's intelligence chief.

Chalabi said Iraqi police and U.S. authorities wanted Habib for questioning because he had embarrassed the CIA by being more successful at gathering intelligence about terrorists.

But Habib is also suspected of passing along sensitive information about Iraqi security operations to Iranians, according to a report this week in Newsweek.

Coalition spokesman Dan Senor declined to comment on the state of the relationship between the United States and Chalabi, or whether U.S. officials believed Chalabi should be in the new government.

"These are decisions that the Iraqis are going to make about who they want in power, about who they want running their country," Senor said. "The Coalition Provisional Authority is disappearing in less than six weeks."

The United States and United Nations are picking members of the interim government. Chalabi is not expected to be among them.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times staff writers Richard B. Schmitt and Mary Curtius in Washington contributed to this article.

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