Falling out

May 23, 2004

IF THE BAGHDAD offices of Ahmad Chalabi, the one-time darling of the Pentagon, were raided by U.S. agents last week because of concern that his organization was turning over top-secret and highly sensitive American information to Iran, the question is: Who in Washington was giving it to him?

There's something startling about the thought that Mr. Chalabi, who passed along so much phony intelligence to the U.S. government about Saddam Hussein, may now be peddling the real stuff to Tehran.

The rupture between him and the Bush administration is no small matter - for he counted among his ardent champions the chief architects of the war in Iraq, among them Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, and Vice President Dick Cheney. It appears that all of these men misjudged him; even if he turns out to be innocent of the espionage rap, there is strong evidence that his Iraqi National Council has been involved in currency theft, auto theft and blackmail.

At the highest levels of the U.S. government, and until very recently, officials aided and abetted him despite his evident unpopularity among most Iraqis, who saw him for what he was.

This may have been a colossal miscalculation, and it raises the question as to who should bear responsibility for it - potentially, criminal responsibility. More broadly, Americans might ask what other miscalculations have gone into the management of the American war in Iraq.

The Chalabi raid is perhaps only the most striking evidence that the Bush plan for Iraq is in the process of unraveling. First there was the retreat from Fallujah, then from the central mosque in Karbala - both of which suggest a belated realization that the U.S. military can't shoot its way out of the fix it's in. Republicans in Congress, astonishingly, are sniping at each other over the war. With less than six weeks to go, no one has any idea what sort of transitional government will be accepting sovereignty from the occupying authorities. And of course the Abu Ghraib scandal lives on and on; each new revelation makes it more clear that the torture and abuse of prisoners was not an idea cooked up by six Army reservists, but a policy gone badly wrong.

Abu Ghraib demolishes a central justification for this war, which is why it is so important. Americans supposedly went to Iraq as the advance guard of freedom, the apostles of decency and the rule of law, which was just what Iraq needed. But now come pictures of cruelty and humiliation. A comforting illusion lies shredded in their wake.

It is worth noting, moreover, that the photos from the prison have shocked Americans more than they have shocked Iraqis. Middle Easterners are less surprised than we are by what they see as examples of American injustice. The pictures force us to see ourselves as others too often do.

Abu Ghraib may have made political victory impossible in Iraq. And that may explain why the FBI was finally allowed to go after Mr. Chalabi. In a sense, it looks like it's time to start settling accounts. But just as the prison scandal neither begins nor ends with some enlisted men and women from Appalachia, Mr. Chalabi should be regarded as an important but nonetheless subsidiary figure in the disaster of Iraq.

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