Iraq judge vows pursuit if Chalabis don't return

Ex-U.S. ally wanted for money laundering, nephew sought in murder


BAGHDAD, Iraq - The Iraqi judge who issued arrest warrants for one-time U.S. ally Ahmad Chalabi and his nephew said yesterday that he would seek international police assistance and file extradition requests if they don't return voluntarily to Iraq.

Ahmad Chalabi, who is accused of laundering counterfeit Iraqi currency through money markets, was in Tehran, Iran. His nephew, Salem, a prosecutor now charged with murder stemming from the killing of a Finance Ministry official investigating corruption, was in London.

Both men have said that they will return to Iraq.

But Judge Zuhair al Maliky of Iraq's Central Criminal Court made it clear he's prepared if they decide not to return.

"The court cannot wait for them so long," he said.

The court's overseas pursuit would be the latest legal and political challenge for Ahmad Chalabi, who has survived past legal entanglements and remained active in Iraqi politics despite a falling-out with the Bush administration. With parliamentary elections less than six months away, he's been portraying himself as a champion of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority.

The situation is more serious for his nephew, Salem Chalabi, who could face the death penalty if convicted.

Al Maliky said he has alerted Iraq's ministries, intelligence services and other government authorities. "Any judicial officer has the right to arrest them, if he spots them."

The Chalabis have denied any wrongdoing, saying that they are victims of a political vendetta.

Ahmad Chalabi, once favored by the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney, and a member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council that helped run Iraq until the restoration of sovereignty June 28, said yesterday that the charges against him are "false and outrageous."

"I can easily prove that these charges are untrue, and I intend to defend myself and clear my name," Ahmad Chalabi said in a written statement issued through the Iraqi National Congress, the political party he founded while in exile from Iraq.

INC official Methal al Alwesi said at a Baghdad news conference that Chalabi would return to Iraq "very soon." He declined to be more specific.

Al Alwesi blamed foes in the U.S. administration, political rivals in Iraq and holdouts from Saddam Hussein's now-banned Baath political party.

"We are ready to face these subjects and the attempts to defame the reputations of Ahmad Chalabi and Salem Chalabi," said al Alwesi, who heads the committee to remove Baathists from civic institutions.

In his statement yesterday, Ahmad Chalabi accused al Maliky of pursuing personal and political vendettas.

"The person making these charges, Zuhair Maliky, is not a bona fide Iraqi judge but rather an unqualified person who was put in his position by the American occupation authorities," he said.

Iraqi Finance Ministry spokesman Khadim Shubar denied that American influence was at work.

"The Americans have nothing to do with this case," Shubar said. "We're now a sovereign country, and we have independent laws and judgments."

The charges against Ahmad Chalabi stem from a May raid on his residence by Iraqi authorities that turned up counterfeit Iraqi dinars.

Chalabi, who was chairman of the Governing Council's Finance Committee, said yesterday that the fake bank notes were provided to him because of his role overseeing the Central Bank of Iraq.

But al Maliky said Chalabi shouldn't have had the counterfeit currency. "They were marked with ink in order to be sent to the furnace to burn, and that is where the money should be."

He said the amount of counterfeit money involved was substantial, though he declined to say exactly how much, and he defended the warrant's significance.

"This is a forgery," al Maliky said. "It is a crime of ruining the national economy."

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