Chalabi's making a comeback

SUN JOURNAL

Politician: Spurned by the Pentagon that once supported him, the Iraqi exile leader has shifted gears, finding political power among the masses.

July 31, 2004|By Alissa J. Rubin | Alissa J. Rubin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The United States has confronted many surprises in its efforts to forge a democratic government in Iraq, but few have been more unexpected than the transformation of Ahmad Chalabi from patrician exile to deft populist.

But Chalabi is a survivor. Snubbed by the Bush administration neoconservatives who once embraced him and excluded from the interim government, he is building a grass-roots coalition of Shiite Muslim groups who lack a voice in the new Iraq.

At the same time, he's reaching out to Iraq's most prominent anti-American Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers come mainly from Baghdad's urban underclass and the impoverished south of the country. Chalabi's new approach may eventually win him support from a significant segment of al-Sadr's followers if he chooses to run for office - and, as expected, al-Sadr chooses to wield his power from the pulpit instead.

That would give Chalabi and his new organization, the Shiite Political Council, mass support that could yield real influence in the majority Shiite community.

More established Shiite parties alternately discount Chalabi and describe him as a challenging opponent. He is gathering up the political scraps, "mingling with little groups," in the words of Ridha Taqi, director of political relations for one of the two major Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

But he acknowledged that if Chalabi can bring al-Sadr on board, he will be a formidable force. "If the Sadr movement abandons violence and makes an alliance with Ahmad Chalabi, he will gain something from that movement," Taqi said. "Sadr is one of the big pillars of the Shiite family."

Chalabi's organization has bypassed the Supreme Council and the Dawa Party, which have members in key posts in the interim government. Chalabi said the group is instead reaching out to the masses who feel they lack representation.

The Shiite Political Council "are the people who were in Iraq fighting the old government but were left out of the new government," Chalabi said in an interview in his Baghdad home, where papers and computer discs were spread out on a large desk. "This will bring into the political mainstream most of the dispossessed Shia groups and those who have been neglected in the past year after Saddam's overthrow."

Chalabi's metamorphosis from the Pentagon's all-but-anointed choice for president of Iraq to an outspoken critic of U.S. policy and a Shiite leader began quietly several months ago, when it became apparent that he was unlikely to be offered a major role in the government.

He distanced himself from the United States and began to voice the widely shared frustration with the Coalition Provisional Authority and, particularly, civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III.

Chalabi's transformation was all the more striking because he had been a persistent lobbyist for the invasion of Iraq. But with U.S. officials raising stark questions about flawed intelligence on Saddam Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction and subsequent allegations that Chalabi leaked American secrets to Iran, the former exile denied the accusations and began to draw himself as a victim of a U.S. campaign to destroy him.

That tack helped his reputation among Shiites, who, like Chalabi, are grateful that the United States ousted Hussein but skeptical of the occupier's intentions.

While many U.S. officials fumed and tried to keep him out of the political mix, Chalabi, not one to concede defeat, dug in.

"I am here, this is my home, I am staying in Iraq," Chalabi said during the interview.

Distanced by his chief foreign sponsor, Chalabi was freed to remake himself. As part of that effort, he reached out to al-Sadr, which redefined him publicly as a Shiite politician.

In a mid-May interview on Al-Jazeera, as al-Sadr's men fought a losing battle against U.S. forces, Chalabi derided the American insistence on enforcing an arrest warrant against al-Sadr for his alleged role in the killing of a rival cleric a year earlier.

"Is the implementation of an arrest warrant worth more than 1,000 dead?" Chalabi said, referring to the estimated death toll among al-Sadr's militia. "A legal issue has become a humanitarian and political issue. We are saying: Enough killing of our children."

Now, Chalabi is steadily building his new coalition. The leadership of the Shiite Political Council includes several members of the former Governing Council who, like Chalabi, were left out of the interim government. But the bulk of the members come from small, little-known groups. Unsophisticated in politics, they are joining because they see the organization as a means to make their voices heard.

And because they are Shiites, they hope that by banding together they will avoid being crushed the way they were under the previous regime.

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