Discredited Iraqi Ally Regroups ; Ahmed Chalabi Is Trying to Build a Shiite Power Base in the Wake of a US Raid

Article excerpt

A year ago, he was the man who could be president of the new Iraq. For decades, Ahmed Chalabi had crafted and pursued a vision - an exile's dream - of ousting Saddam Hussein with Washington's help.

Now, Mr. Chalabi has fallen far from the graces of his American backers. His home and office in Baghdad were raided by coalition forces, and he is excluded from Iraq's transitional government.

But sources in Iraq and elsewhere are reluctant to write the political obituary of Chalabi just yet. An inveterate political survivor, he is on the move still, seeking to build ties to Iraq's Shiite religious establishment and, according to some of his former allies in the US government, to Iran.

"The one thing you can say for sure about Chalabi is that you can never count him out,'' says Ghassan Attiya, a former Iraqi exile and one-time supporter of the Iraqi National Congress, the political party Chalabi led. "He's an incredi- ble political survivor ... an incredible charmer."

The story of how Chalabi charmed his way to the top and became the Iraq guru to key advisers around President Bush goes a long way to explaining why the administration both overestimated Mr. Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs and underestimated the difficulties of occupation.

Indeed, a template for the experience that US officials now say they've undergone with Chalabi can be found in the 500-year-old words of Machiavelli. "How dangerous a thing it is to believe" exiles, he wrote. "Such is their extreme desire to return home, that they naturally believe many things that are false."

To be sure, Chalabi isn't a Svengali who single-handedly deceived the US into imagining postinvasion Iraq would be easy. Instead, a cadre of high-level Americans - Vice President Dick Cheney; Richard Perle, former adviser to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith - were inclined to believe what he had to say, despite the objections of many colleagues.

It was a seductive vision. A post-Hussein Iraq, Chalabi promised, would quickly normalize relations with Israel and build an oil pipeline to the Israeli port of Haifa. A new Iraq would strike a major blow against terrorism and the postwar environment would be stable, with US forces embraced by grateful Iraqis. Chalabi assured his audience that his support crossed ethnic and sectarian lines.

Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress provided invaluable intelligence to the US before and after the first Gulf War. More recently, the Pentagon says the INC's information has helped save US soldiers' lives. And Chalabi denies passing secrets to Iran.

Yet many critics felt his dream of a new Iraq was without any grounding in reality. "We've known all along that anything coming from Chalabi should be treated with extreme skepticism, particularly this stuff about being showered with flowers,'' says a senior State Department official. "But we were overruled by people at Defense who think we were just looking for excuses not to go to war."

Starting to come apart

Chalabi's vision for an independent Iraq started to come apart soon after marines escorted him and a US-trained militia loyal to him into southern Iraq. They'd been told to expect thousands of Iraqis to flock to the banner of the man the US expected to install as an interim prime minister. But instead, they found that no one had ever heard of him. In the months that followed, with the failure of US searchers to find significant chemical or biological weapons that Chalabi promised would be there, his star fell further. Though given a seat on the US-appointed Governing Council, he spent much of his time abroad.

All this led to the cancellation of his monthly $340,000 check from the Defense Department for intelligence assistance in April. On May 20, US-backed forces raided his home and offices in Iraq as part of a corruption investigation. …