The war was for this?

August 10, 2004

THERE WAS Ahmad Chalabi, in the company of Laura Bush, at the 2004 State of the Union address, already lionized by Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, defense department guru Richard Perle and other architects of the coming war in Iraq. He was the Iraqi of the hour.

And here is Ahmad Chalabi today, at a mountain retreat in Iran, vowing to fight an arrest warrant issued by a new Iraqi judge - a judge installed by the U.S. government.

While fighting rages in Najaf, and the U.S. military inexplicably boasts of the number of Iraqis it has killed in the past several days, Mr. Chalabi's pathetic plight underscores the ever-more-obvious bankruptcy of America's ideological policy in Iraq.

Suppose, on the one hand, that he's guilty as charged - that he was actively engaged in a counterfeit ring. He admits he had counterfeit money in his house when it was raided in June (though he protests that he was merely looking into the problem of fake currency). What does that say about the naivetM-i of the neo-conservatives who swooned over him as the man of destiny and who bent U.S. strategy so as to put him in the catbird seat in Baghdad? They knew he was already wanted for bank fraud in Jordan, but that couldn't dim the stars in their eyes. These were the geniuses who thought it was a good idea to go to war in Iraq.

Suppose, on the other hand, that Mr. Chalabi is right to insist that the charges are baseless and politically motivated. Certainly the timing and circumstances lend some credence to that notion. What, then, does that say about the democracy America has bequeathed to Iraq? Did nearly 1,000 Americans die so that a vengeful prime minister and a hanging judge would have the power to manipulate the legal system and even scores against political rivals? Has the United States botched the job that badly?

Mr. Chalabi's nephew, Salem Chalabi, is also wanted - as an accessory to murder. Salem is head of the Iraqi war crimes tribunal, and through his uncle had been given possession of the previous regime's secret police files, courtesy of the United States. That was a potent gift. Now is he being made to pay for it? Or did he really have an Iraqi treasury official who was asking too many questions knocked off? At the moment, he's in England, which happens not to have an extradition treaty with Iraq, and which wouldn't send him back even if it did, because he faces the death penalty.

This is the sordid mess that is Iraq. Some neo-conservative thinkers are arguing that the Bush administration has betrayed Mr. Chalabi and the ideals for which America went to war. Others are lying low - which may be a considerably more prudent course. The less we hear from the likes of Mr. Wolfowitz and Mr. Perle and their friends in the months and years to come, the better.

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