Iraqi denies giving U.S. intelligence to Iranians

Pentagon favorite Chalabi has criticized occupation

Crisis In Iraq

May 24, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi denied yesterday that he had passed American secrets to Iran, saying that he had never been privy to classified U.S. documents or briefings.

However, a U.S. intelligence official said yesterday that Chalabi had received "extraordinarily sensitive information." Intelligence agencies are concerned that Chalabi might have provided the information to Iran, and that it was leaked to him by someone in the U.S. government, the official said.

Chalabi's fall from grace in Washington has been a bitter sideshow of the rocky U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. A longtime favorite of Pentagon civilians and their conservative allies, he was flown into Iraq soon after last year's invasion and was subsequently granted a prominent role on the Iraqi Governing Council, in charge of purging remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime from the government and overseeing the Finance Ministry.

But last week, the United States abruptly cut off funding to his political party, the Iraqi National Congress, that has amounted over the years to a reported $33 million. On Thursday, U.S. forces assisted an Iraqi police raid on his Baghdad headquarters that netted documents, computers, personal belongings and weapons.

Time magazine, in this week's issue, reports that after a CIA complaint, the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into whether U.S. officials illegally transmitted secrets to the INC that were then passed on to Iran.

An FBI spokesman, Joe Parris, refused yesterday to comment on the report. But Chalabi, appearing on Sunday talk shows, denounced the allegations as false and said that he is willing to face questioning by Congress.

"I'm prepared to go to Congress and testify under oath and expose all the information and the documents in our possession," Chalabi said on NBC's Meet the Press. He said CIA Director George J. Tenet and his agency concocted the allegations "to discredit us."

"We have not had any classified information given to us by the United States, nor have we had any classified briefings, nor have I seen any classified document from the United States," Chalabi insisted.

Chalabi and Iranian officials acknowledged the close ties between the Iraqi National Congress and Tehran. Chalabi said he had met with senior Iranians a month and a half ago and that he deals regularly with their representatives in Iraq.

Chalabi's recent praise for Iran's cooperation has contrasted sharply with the Bush administration's deep suspicion of the Tehran regime and probably contributed to his broken relationship with the United States.

The Bush administration considers Iran a prime sponsor of terrorism, with ambitions of becoming a nuclear power, that poses a major threat to Israel and other U.S. allies in the region.

At a news conference yesterday, a spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry said: "We had continuous and permanent dialogue with Chalabi and other members of the Iraqi Governing Council."

But the Iranian spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, called the spying allegations "unfounded and baseless."

The support for Chalabi among civilian policy-makers in the Pentagon and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney was never shared by some members of the intelligence community and State Department, who viewed him as unreliable and possibly corrupt.

Before the Iraq war, the Iraqi National Congress played a key role in putting Iraqi exiles who claimed to have information about Hussein's regime and its weapons of mass destruction in contact with officials at the Pentagon and other agencies. Much of the exiles' information turned out to have been wrong or misleading.

"There is a school of thought, especially by the CIA, that Mr. Chalabi's intelligence input was not that good, and that's probably an understatement," the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, said yesterday.

But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, last week praised information supplied by the INC to American forces fighting in Iraq.

Chalabi has become a harsh critic of the Bush administration's political plans for Iraq, particularly the heavy responsibility it has assigned to a special United Nations envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, to develop a caretaker government that will inherit power from U.S. occupation authorities on June 30.

Brahimi, an Algerian derided by Chalabi as an Arab nationalist, has hinted that the INC leader is unlikely to gain a prominent role in the new Iraqi government, which he hopes to put together by the end of this month.

The Brahimi plan is expected to be one of the highlights of an outline President Bush will give in a speech tonight on Iraq as the White House seeks to halt the decline of public confidence in the president's handling of the postwar occupation.

Bush's approval ratings on Iraq have been battered in recent days by growing U.S. casualties and continuing revelations of abuses suffered by Iraqi detainees in American custody.

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