The Face of Iraqi Democracy

Article excerpt

Byline: Babak Dehghanpisheh

Ahmad Chalabi may not be what his U.S. backers wanted--but he's what they got.

Salih Mutlak can only wonder where in Iraq he might find justice. As one of the country's leading Sunni politicians, he was puzzled and angry to learn shortly before this spring's parliamentary elections that the Accountability and Justice Commission had barred him from running, along with roughly 500 other candidates. Prominent Sunni politicians like Mutlak were particularly targeted. So he picked up the phone and called the commission's head, Ahmad Chalabi, who was relaxing in Beirut. "I had nothing to do with it," Chalabi calmly asserted. "Come on, Ahmad," Mutlak persisted. "What does the committee have against me?" Chalabi told him there was a letter showing that Mutlak had cooperated with Saddam Hussein's notorious secret police, the Mukhabarat. "That's nonsense!" Mutlak snapped. Chalabi promised to look into the matter and try to resolve it.

But it was not resolved. With the March elections looming, Mutlak's brother Ibrahim took over the vacant slot--and won. That didn't stop the commission from stepping in again with dubious authority and disqualifying the substitute candidate retroactively. Today, the fate of Ibrahim Mutlak and a dozen or so other similarly disqualified candidates remains an open question. "It's a disaster that Ahmad Chalabi would have such an influence in this country," says Salih Mutlak. "He wants to bring sectarianism back. He wants to damage the reputation of the Americans. He wants to spoil everything here!"

Strange as it may seem today, some very influential Americans once viewed Chalabi as someone who could bring Western democracy to Iraq. Impeccably tailored and U.S. educated, he played a central role in the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion, helping unearth swarms of Iraqi defectors who claimed to have proof of Saddam's arsenal of mass destruction. By the time their stories were discredited, turning back was no longer an option: Saddam's regime had fallen. And now that the last U.S. combat forces have officially pulled out, more than seven years later, it's up to Iraqi politicians like Chalabi--who declined to talk to NEWSWEEK for this story--to hold the country together.

It won't be easy, and Chalabi hasn't made the task any easier by playing the sectarian card. Nearly six months after the elections, the winners still have not managed to form a government. Chalabi, meanwhile, has been shuttling among various blocs, seeking to broker a compromise and, more likely, to ensure his own place in the next government. "Chalabi can be a very hard-nosed politician," says a senior American adviser to the Iraqi government, asking not to be named on such a sensitive topic. "He has staying power, and he's got the thirst for power." A senior Iraqi politician who has known Chalabi for decades and worked with him in government is less diplomatic. …