World Watch: Chalabi's triumphal return to D.C.
Ahmad Chalabi is back in Washington after two years of virtual exile but not with his tail between his legs. No, despite the long list of allegations, convictions, and investigations, Iraq's current deputy prime minister has managed to make somewhat of a triumphal return.
He has meetings scheduled not only with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice but also with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Treasury Secretary John Snow, and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. He gave a talk at the American Enterprise Institute, with protesters gathered outside holding banners with such slogans as "Chalabi Lied, Innocents Died." Introduced by the AEI president, Chris DeMuth, who called him "one of the leading founding fathers" of Iraq, Chalabi gave what sounded for all the world like a campaign speech.
That's because he is now campaigning for the parliamentary elections to be held December 15 in Iraq. He split off from the Shiite alliance of the largest Islamic parties, with which he ran in the January elections, and is making a run of it on his own with a collection of independents, including the tiny monarchist party.
But that's not what the overflowing room of spectators at AEI wanted to hear about. Following his speech, which touched on how he would end subsidies, ferret out corruption, and distribute oil revenue to the people in order to increase their stake in Iraq's stability, the audience got its turn.
Question after question, he was grilled about whether he deliberately lied to the United States about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction program, whether he wanted to take this opportunity to apologize, and what his relationship with Iran is, since he is still under investigation by the FBI for leaking U.S. intelligence to that country. And over and over again, he denied any wrongdoing, calling it an "urban myth" that he deliberately misled the U.S. government and referring questioners to the Robb-Silberman report (specifically, Page 108), put out earlier this year by a presidential commission, which faulted U.S. intelligence agencies rather than any improper political influence for the WMD fiasco. After one scathing question from an MSNBC reporter, he said only, "Read the report!"
But the reality is that Chalabi has reinvented himself into one of the top candidates to lead the Iraqi government. (Another major contender, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq party, is also in Washington this week, meeting many of the same administration officials.) Though he lacks popular support in Iraq and his coalition is not expected to win many seats in the National Assembly, with some postelection maneuveringat which he has shown himself to be quite adepthe just might be able to win the coveted leadership position.
And no matter what anyone says, that is an amazing feat for an alleged embezzler convicted in absentia in Jordan who is still under FBI investigation. But when asked, finally, whether he had ambitions to be prime minister of Iraq, Chalabi responded with an American schoolchild taunt, "That's for me to know and for you to find out."