Next Year in Baghdad: Ahmed Chalabi, Visionary and Schemer, Has a Plan to Oust Saddam. Should We Buy a War from This Man?

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Byline: Christopher Dickey

Set yourself up as Saddam Hussein's worst enemy and you've got to be very courageous, very crazy or some kind of scam artist. Ahmed Chalabi, 57, has been called all of the above. He's also been dubbed a genius--even by his detractors--and a Machiavellian plotter who wants to drag the United States, one way or another, into a new war against the Butcher of Baghdad.

To this last charge, Chalabi pleads guilty: "We do! Yes!" says the enthusiastic ex-banker, immaculate in a pale blue pinstripe suit as he receives visitors in his London offices. Trained as a mathematician at the University of Chicago and MIT, Chalabi has developed a military and political formula for Saddam's defeat: the United States would seize air bases in southern Iraq, and defend them if necessary with its troops. Chalabi's allies would carry out guerrilla operations and welcome what he promises will be such hordes of defectors and deserters that Saddam's regime will crumble much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

And he could be right. But would you want to buy a war from this man? Or, as one American official puts it, "Without disputing the merits of taking out Saddam, do you really want to [hand] the keys to American national-security policy to a foreign national who has his own agenda and objectives, to lead us down a path at his time and choosing?"

That question--and others concerning Chalabi's credibility--keep surfacing as President George W. Bush weighs strategies to contain or eliminate Saddam. Chalabi's many friends on Capitol Hill and among the civilians at the Pentagon see him as the driving force who kept the Iraqi opposition alive through years of neglect by the Clinton administration. The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, in which Congress appropriated $97 million for new efforts to undermine Saddam, was written largely with Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC) in mind. And Chalabi's intelligence network has fed some big stories to the press, among them the meeting between September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi spy in Prague, later confirmed by the Czech government.

But at the State Department and the CIA, Chalabi is routinely dissed as ineffectual. In the latest salvo, the State Department publicly warned him that the INC will be cut off at the end of this month if it doesn't start keeping reliable records of the cash it spends. Of $4.3 million that passed through INC accounts, $2,107,093 required "additional supporting documentation," according to a forthcoming State Department report obtained by NEWSWEEK. The State Department doesn't like the pattern. Chalabi "went out and insisted on operating a program in contravention of the supervision we provided," says one official. "It appears it was an attempt to go his own way." Chalabi says the INC will comply with the accounting demands, but he also says he's being smeared. "It's such a cheap shot," he told NEWSWEEK.

Chalabi has long been vulnerable to corruption charges. In 1989 his Petra Bank in Jordan was seized by the late King Hussein. At the time, the king was deeply involved with Saddam both politically and finan-cially. Chalabi fled the country overland with a fake passport, and was later convicted in absentia by a Jordanian military court of embezzling tens of millions of dollars. Chalabi argues he was set up, and the king's cronies took the money. …