Release date: 5/21/04
Yesterday's early-morning raid on the home and office of Iraqi national Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi in Baghdad sends "the wrong message" to America's would-be allies in the Arab world, former Pentagon official Michael Rubin tells Insight. "This is a huge blow to America's prestige. The message we've just sent is that we do not stand by our allies, that the United States can't be trusted. We've just told Arab liberals and democrats that it's just plain crazy to work with America."
Rubin, who served as an aid to Deputy Undersecretary of Defense William Luti, spoke with Sunni clerics, Shiite professionals, and independent Kurdish businessmen in Iraq in the hours immediately after the Baghdad raid. "Everyone in Iraq believes that because of U.S. actions, we are now heading for civil war. We have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory."
Deeply involved in planning for the Iraq war, Rubin tells Insight that he left government in April out of a sense of frustration. "This administration has been taking so many hits, many of them based on outright fabrications or on information from 'anonymous intelligence sources,' that I felt I could be more effective on the outside," he says. Rubin now is a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Francis Brooke, an American aid to Chalabi who was at Chalabi's home in Baghdad when Iraqi troops supported by 25 U.S. military policemen and "an SUV full of OGA guys" - an acronym commonly used in Baghdad to designate the CIA ("other government agencies") - stormed the house. Chalabi was awakened by four armed men pointing guns at him. "I myself stood for an hour with an American military person pointing a gun at my chest," Brooke told Insight by phone from Baghdad. "It was totally misplaced."
The raids were carefully orchestrated and appeared part of an effort to embarrass Chalabi. "They had TV cameras across the street," Brooke says. "They were hoping to lead out a bunch of guys in handcuffs, but they didn't find anybody they were looking for." Instead, they seized computers, documents relating to the Iraqi National Council's (INC's) investigation of the U.N. oil-for-food scandal, a family Koran and a set of prayer beads.
A spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad insisted in a telephone interview with Insight that the raid was not the work of the CPA, but had been ordered by an independent Iraqi judge. "They wanted six or seven people for questioning," the spokesman said. "I can't tell you their names - I can't even get one Arab name straight."
American news reports on Friday gave several variants of the alleged charges against the Chalabi aids, ranging from corruption, fraud, vehicle theft, to intimidation and blackmail. But INC sources and Rubin believe there is no doubt that U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer ordered the raid. "The decision to 'cut Chalabi down to size' was taken in Washington," Rubin said, "but the operation against Chalabi originated in Baghdad. There is no doubt that Bremer signed off on this. Basically, Bremer has gone mad. This raid shows the U.S. has not learned the lessons of Abu Ghraib, and is still trying to humiliate" perceived opponents.
At a press conference in Baghdad after the raids, Chalabi identified one of the individuals allegedly being sought as Aras Habib, his long-time security and intelligence chief. Before the U.S.-led invasion, Mr. Habib ran the INC's network of informants within Saddam's regime and identified defectors the INC ultimately helped to escape Iraq. Chalabi's detractors claim that the intelligence provided by those defectors relating to Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs was false or fabricated. But in fact, says Rubin, the INC provided intelligence and human sources at a time when the CIA has no assets inside Iraq at all. "The CIA hates Chalabi because he comes out with information they do not have and that later gets confirmed," Rubin says.
Insight worked with Mr. Habib on several occasions before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq while reporting stories involving Saddam's WMD programs, and consistently found him to be reliable, providing documents and sources not connected to the INC, allowing independent verification of the INC allegations [see "Eurobiz Is Caught Arming Saddam," posted Feb 4, 2003, and "How Saddam Got Weapons of Mass Destruction," posted Sept. 30, 2002].
Chalabi also has alienated the State Department, which has taken its cue from neighboring Arab governments which are seeking to put an end to the experiment in democracy in Iraq and replace the Iraqi Governing Council with a new Arab strongman, Rubin and others believe. "While Americans tend to overlook family relations, Iraqis do not," Rubin says. "[UN Special Envoy Lakhdar] Brahimi's daughter is engaged to Prince Ali of Jordan, the brother of King Abdullah." Not only do Iraqis see Brahimi as partial to Jordan, but many feel he is hostile to Iraqi Shias and Kurds.
The first time Brahimi met with the Governing Council, an Iraqi source tells Insight, he said he came not just as the U.N. envoy, but as a "brother Arab." Brahimi's words "sent chills" down the spines of the Shia and Kurdish members of the councilmen.
Since the insurgency began last summer, Mr. Habib and the INC have provided invaluable intelligence to the United States "that has saved American lives," says INC spokesman, Entifad Qanbar. Rubin agrees with that assessment. "The most virulent hatred of Chalabi comes from those who have never met him," he says. "Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA] and U.S. military commanders in Iraq who have worked with the INC have given them stellar reviews. They have used INC intelligence to stop operations by insurgents that were targeting Americans. They have caught insurgents red-handed because of information provided by Chalabi. [Secretary of State Colin] Powell and [Deputy Secretary of State Richard] Armitage appear to place greater value on winning bureaucratic battles in Washington than in saving American lives in Iraq."
The most extravagant allegation against Chalabi was launched on Thursday evening by Dan Rather and 60 Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl on the CBS Evening News. In what Rather portrayed as an "exclusive report," CBS claimed that U.S. intelligence operatives were seeking to arrest Chalabi because he had delivered "top secret U.S. intelligence" to the Islamic Republic of Iran." The intelligence was so sensitive, Rather ventilated, that it could "get Americans killed."
The CBS allegation, which Rather and Stahl said they had learned from "senior U.S. intelligence officials" they refused to name, sounded serious, but it turned out to be a word-for-word repeat of an earlier report that appeared in Newsweek that also quoted anonymous U.S. intelligence officials. CBS did not credit Newsweek with the alleged "leak."
One of the "former U.S. intelligence officials" who frequently feeds the media with false allegations about Chalabi actually has a name. He is Pat Lang, a former DIA Middle East analyst, who sometimes appears on air as a CBS News consultant.
Lang was quoted by Washington Post reporter Robin Wright in her front-page story on the raids that appeared on Friday, disparaging the intelligence Chalabi's group had provided the United States before the war. "Now it's demonstrable that [Chalabi] told the U.S. government a lot of things that were not true," Lang said.
In citing Lang as an expert on Iraq, neither CBS nor the Washington Post ever has mentioned that Lang has registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for an Arab government. "How can somebody working for an Arab government parade about as a neutral analyst?" says Rubin.
Chalabi has never denied his many visits to Iran or his meeting with high Iranian government officials. Before the U.S.-led invasion, Chalabi and top INC officials had to travel through Iran to reach Iraq because Turkey had closed its borders to INC operatives. "Actually, if truth be told, I think Ahmed has actually used the Iranians for our benefit," a key Chalabi supporter tells Insight. Chalabi appears to have been instrumental in getting the Iranian government to drop its support for radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, several sources tell .
But in Washington, where no good deed goes unpunished, Ahmed Chalabi is paying dearly for those efforts.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.
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Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight and author of The French Betrayal of America, just released from Crown Forum.