Old friends and new problems

May 24, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Even as President Bush was on Capitol Hill the other day bucking up fellow Republicans over the disintegrating administration policy in Iraq, more evidence was surfacing that the wheels are coming off that policy.

The home of the one-time darling of the Pentagon, Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, secretly returned to his native land earlier from London, was being raided by Iraqi police and U.S. troops. It was only the latest indignity to the man his American champions once cast as his country's George Washington.

The raiders also searched two Baghdad offices of Mr. Chalabi's organization, the Iraqi National Congress, for evidence to back charges of kidnapping and fraud against the INC. The actions punctuated a political downfall that is particularly embarrassing to the architects of the invasion of Iraq, who relied on his assurances of the existence of weapons of mass destruction there.

Mr. Chalabi is now casting himself as the scapegoat of the Bush administration's failures in Iraq, a charge that appears to have some merit in light of recent events. His INC, which received $97 million from Congress in the 1990s, recently had its monthly subsidy of at least $335,000 from the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency terminated.

The notion that a man who had sat out much of the Saddam Hussein reign in London could be figuratively parachuted into Baghdad to put an Iraqi face on the American effort to democratize the new regime almost immediately met with indigenous resistance.

Although Mr. Chalabi was given a seat on the U.S.-created Iraqi Governing Council, opposition to him in the council and among Iraqis generally made it clear early on that the administration had backed the wrong horse to front its post-invasion efforts.

Administration hopes that Mr. Chalabi and other American favorites would be part of the interim government when limited sovereignty is to be handed over to Iraqis after June 30 also crumbled. Special U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was called in to form an interim body of profession technicians to serve until elections in January.

Mr. Chalabi's fall comes at a particularly uncomfortable time for his one-time Pentagon sponsors, including the outspokenly hawkish Richard N. Perle, who pushed hard on Mr. Chalabi's assurances that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction as justification for the invasion.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, already reeling from the military abuse stories from Abu Ghraib prison, has now also been confronted with additional brutal photos and sworn testimony from other detainees of more abuse. Also, there is a report that he approved unusually harsh methods of extracting intelligence from suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, only later rescinded.

To counter all this bad publicity, according to The Washington Post, the administration and some Republicans in Congress have been circulating video images of brutal treatment of prisoners at the hands of the Hussein government as a means of taking some of the heat off.

All of this, not surprisingly, has been fodder for more-outspoken criticism from the Democrats. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California responded to Mr. Bush's "pep talk" visit to congressional Republicans by saying his leadership actions in Iraq "demonstrate an incompetence in terms of knowledge, judgment and experience" that have cost American lives and taxpayers' money.

Mr. Bush's campaign manager, Marc Racicot, shot back that Ms. Pelosi's remarks "are now advancing a `blame America first' attitude that [Democratic presidential candidate John] Kerry himself has come dangerously close to advocating."

The war seems increasingly to be crowding out all else, at least in the minds of many politicians facing the voters in November.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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