Chalabi Smackdown

A year ago, U.S. forces airlifted Ahmed Chalabi and his band of freedom fighters into Iraq. Today, U.S. authorities raided his Baghdad house at gunpoint, seizing boxes of documents. What happened? Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Middle East specialist based in Turkey for the Central Intelligence Agency, tries to explain what happened.

Why did the Americans raid Chalabi's offices? What's going on?

It appears the Americans are going after a variety of paperwork. He has an enormous amount of documents in his possession, which the Americans allowed and encouraged him to have for several reasons.

First and foremost, the Americans simply don't have the means to review the documentation in Arabic themselves. It's simply beyond our capacity. To be frank, the safe houses in Afghanistan that we took possession of more or less broke the back of both the DIA and CIA for translation purposes. We were run ragged.

Also, the Americans were enormously slow to secure sites after the fall of Baghdad, and their overall ignorance of what was in them led them to hand that stuff off to Chalabi.

So what really is the nature of the documents in the INC's possession? Are these mostly files seized from the [Iraqi intelligence agency] Mukhabarat?

The INC has an enormous amount of files from the Mukhabarat building. It was flooded after the fall of Baghdad and virtually became a lake. There was a lot of material, thousands and thousands of pages. I saw some of it stacked up to dry at INC headquarters when I was there.

So there was an enormous amount of material there. I don't even know if the Americans had the desire to take possession of those files. It was simply beyond their capacity. If the Americans had gotten ahold of that stuff, I fear nobody would know what's in it. I suspect you would see it in some Harvard dissertation in ten or fifteen years.

I would add an amusing note. If there is anything one could do to improve Chalabi's political fortunes in Iraq, this would be it.

Do you think this whole break with Chalabi thing was staged, to improve his political reputation in Iraq?

The amount of money the INC was getting from the Pentagon, [$355,000 per month] is pathetically small. Just your average cell phone bill in Baghdad, if you use it a little, is about five grand a month. If you use it a lot, ten grand.

One of Chalabi's main problems in Iraq -- and Chalabi has a lot of problems -- is that he has been seen as too close to the Americans. So the Americans are cutting off money to Chalabi. But the Agency is dumping cash into that country and it will continue to dump huge quantities of cash. And the real discussion ought to be, to whom the Agency is giving money to.

The reflex of the Agency has been to dump cash on those who I would argue are the wrong people, particularly on those I call the unreconstructed Sunnis. There is one thing one must always remember: You lose the Shia, you lose Iraq. I am not sure the Agency fully grasps that. It would be amusing to find out if the Agency were giving money to the same people the Iranians are giving money to.

There have been recent reports in Newsweek that the United States is investigating whether Chalabi himself has been passing sensitive U.S. information to Iran and how close his ties are with Tehran. Why do the same people at AEI who make such a fuss about the mullahs in Tehran seem to give Chalabi a pass on this?

Chalabi has always had close ties to certain Iranians. The Iranians have a certain attitude to Iraq. They give a lot of money to a lot of different people, and they see what sticks. I am not sure how much money Chalabi has received from Tehran. He has certainly received tactical aid from Iran in the past.

What do you mean by tactical aid?

Help with transportation and movement of personnel. Particularly before Saddam fell, Chalabi could not operate in the north of Iraq without the Iranians giving him assistance. The Turkish border was shut; the Syrian border was not one you can use reliably. So the primary means for moving back and forth was through Iran. So one had to have relations with the Iranians. And that means you had to have relations with [the hardliners Ayatollah Seyyed Ali] Khamenei and [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani. Because they control the Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guard.

But there's an enormous difference between tactical cooperation and shared strategic objective. Was it good for us to have a relation in and of itself with Stalin during World War II? I think the answer would be no. Was it tactically necessary? Yes.

What about the Iraq Survey Group and the weapons of mass destruction issue. Are the documents in Chalabi's possession thought to have information on that?

I don't think Chalabi is in possession of a great treasure trove of WMD-related [documentary] material. I have some friends who do WMD. And they tell me that a lot of the critical issues when it comes to documentation were taken by Ba'athists themselves, destroyed, etc.

So can you explain what really led to such an apparent deterioration in relations between Chalabi and the United States?

It's primarily a reflection of the facts on the ground in Baghdad.

The Pentagon has been a waning and declining force in the Coalition Provisional Authority [CPA] for months. So State and the CIA have what I would describe as an irrational, supercharged hatred of Ahmed Chalabi. It's there for a long variety of reasons. Primarily, foremost because both institutions, with some notable exceptions, did not want to go to war in Iraq, and they blame Chalabi for us going to war, and hate his guts.

It is not at all surprising that bureaucratically, we are seeing a change as State and CIA become the dominant bureaucratic forces inside the Green Zone.

Laura Rozen writes on national security and foreign policy from Washington, D.C.