June 03, 2004

Stand by Your Man

Tammy Wynette is back in vogue.

WaPo version:

"Richard N. Perle, the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board and a longtime supporter of Chalabi's, said yesterday he found it "impossible to believe" that Chalabi is accused of informing the Iranians about U.S. code-breaking and the station chief "would use a compromised code to report to Baghdad when he could convey it in 2 1/2 hours by car." Perle added: "It would be a tragedy if we jettisoned an Iraqi leader on such a hairy story."

NYT Version:

"Richard N. Perle, the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board and an influential Chalabi supporter, said Wednesday that the notion that Mr. Chalabi would compromise the American code-breaking operation "doesn't pass the laugh test." Mr. Perle said it was more plausible that the Iranians, knowing already that the United States was reading its communications, planted the damning information about Mr. Chalabi to persuade Washington to distance itself from Mr. Chalabi.

"The whole thing hinges on the idea that the Baghdad station chief of the MOIS commits one of the most amazing trade craft errors I've ever heard of," Mr. Perle said, referring to Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security. He said it defied belief that a seasoned intelligence operative would disclose a conversation with Mr. Chalabi using the same communications channel that he had just been warned was compromised.

"You have to believe that the station chief blew a gift from the gods because of rank incompetence," Mr. Perle said. "I don't believe it, and I don't think any other serious intelligence professional would either." [emphasis added]

Perle is really going out on a limb here. If the specific charges against Chalabi are true--Perle's reputation will take a major blow.

Listen, Perle is a very smart Beltway operative of long-standing. For him to pitch his tent so directly to Chalabi's (in the face of the gravest accusations) indicates to me that Chalabi has personally denied the allegations to Perle in the strongest terms.

So, you ask: could Perle really be getting so ingloriously bamboozled by Chalabi?

Perle haters (and there are many, of course) will say, well yeah, duh.

After all, Chalabi (aka the Iraqi George Washington) was simply swiftly to, post-Pentagon Nasariyah fly-in/drop-off, lead legions of gratitude-infused Iraqi liberated to engage in en masse flower tossing rituals at the feet of coalition GIs moving northwards to the sounds of hearty encouragement (Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy! Oh, and 'Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel forevermore!' 'What's up with those crazy Mullah's next door!' 'Bashar sucks, can't he close up that dastardly porous border! And so on.).

Talk about getting bamboozled!

But lots of smart people thought the going in Iraq might be a bit easier than its proven to be. And it wasn't just Chalabi and Perle (or other assorted nefarious neo-cons or Rumsfeldian troop-lite, 'shock and awe' proponents) who thought so.

But this unfolding Chalabi situation is different.

A guy heavily hyped by leading architects of the Iraq war is being accused of betraying U.S. intelligence services in favor of an Axis of Evil government--one, it bears repeating, that is pretty hell-bent on going nuclear asap.

Talk about having to wipe lots of egg off one's face if you thought the individual in question should have been leading Iraq!

So yeah, given this, of course, the question on everyone's mind is--did Chalabi actually hand over the goods (the codes) to the Iranians?

If so, it appears he is either a) baldly lying to Richard Perle or b) Perle is deluding himself and entering Leeden or Mylroie terrain (which I don't believe is the case).

But if not--if the charges against Chalabi prove a CIA-concocted canard or such (which I strongly doubt too, btw)--the story certainly doesn't end there.

Chalabi As Pawn Amidst Titanic Bureaucratic Battles Underway?

Part of all this, of course, is that State and CIA (feeling newly ascendant given the Pentagon's piss-poor handling of post-war Iraq) are hitting back at the civies at Defense.

Those aren't pen-knives flying around Washington these days.

Those are Crocodile Dundee-size cutlasses being hurled around town.

Chalabi, obviously, is one pawn (or, hell, bishop or rook) in all of this.

But I just can't see George Tenet allowing his Agency to go out and falsely frame Chalabi.

Still, in the heated atmosphere of Washington with recriminations flying about, one could see how the charges against Chalabi are getting fanned beyond his actual culpability in the affair.

Chalabi Willfully Framed By Iranian Intelligence?

Another theory has been making the rounds--courtesy of Perle and like-minded souls.

It's being suggested that it may have been in the Iranian interest to scuttle Chalabi because the Iranians (at least the hardline clerics) view Chalabi's secularist Shi'a orientation as a threat to their more theocratic agenda.

Josh Marshall, in an interesting post, doesn't buy that line of argument.

He writes:

"This new line of reasoning is either disingenuous or truly sad, and perhaps both.

I'm not at all convinced that Chalabi was a spy per se. From all we know about the guy I think it far more likely that he was just playing both sides and only truly working for himself. As our star waned in Iraq and Iran's waxed, he probably did more and more to curry their favor. And that may have led to sharing some of our prized information with them. I also don't completely discount the possibility that much of Chalabi's current problems are the result of a bureaucratic war being fought against his supporters in the administration. People can, after all, be both framed and guilty. Finally, perhaps the Iranians sent this some disinformation back to us simply to sow confusion in our ranks, notwithstanding who it might hurt in Iraq.

But the idea that they see Chalabi as a threat because he's likely to light the region afire with democracy is a sad misreading of which way the wind has been blowing of late. Set aside whether Chalabi compromised this piece of highly classified information. He has quite openly been courting Islamist groups in the country, setting up his Sharia caucus, hobnobbing with Iraqi Hezbollah, strengthening his ties to the Iranians and pro-Iranian groups..."

By "Sharia caucus," I presume Josh means the Shiite Caucus (I've also seen it referred to as the "Shite Political Council").

Either way, Marshall's point is clear.

Chalabi has been getting mightly cuddly with lots of Shi'a actors in Iraq whose interests, er, aren't necessarily in alignment with Washington's.

Put differently, Chalabi might not be prima facie lying that he didn't actually hand over the codes. But he's been getting in bed (or at least flirting heavily) with lots of constituencies that aren't friendly to the United States.

Still, regarding the codes, there's a helluva lot of smoke in the air, isn't there?

But part of the smoke, as indicated above, likely results from the sheer chaos of the madcap, furious political machinations underway in Baghdad.

You Tilt Too Far Towards Teheran; We'll Drop You Hard

Anyway, back to the larger picture.

Check out this analysis from Stratfor.

I think, while quite aggressively anti-Chalabi, it's a pretty persuasive take on what Chalabi has been up to over the past few weeks/months (and why lots of people in Washington want his head on a pike):

"IraqÕs al-Dustour newspaper reported on May 17 that a new Shiite political entity had been launched in the country. This umbrella body, called the Shiite Political Council, consists of four members of the Iraqi Governing Council and 18 other unnamed political groups.

The four named members included former U.S. Department of Defense favorite Ahmed Chalabi (representing the Iraqi National Congress) and Abdel-Karim Mahoud al-Mohammedawi, representing Hezbollah. Also named as members were Ahmed al-Barak (an attorney from Babylon) and Salama al-Khafaji (professor of dentistry at Baghdad University). Al-Khafaji is a newcomer to the IGC, replacing Aquila al-Hashmi, who was shot dead in Baghdad in September 2003.

To cut to the chase, Chalabi is in a political coalition with a representative of the Iraqi Hezbollah. Given where we were a year ago, that is a pretty startling evolution....ChalabiÕs game with the United States is up. If he is to be a political power in Iraq, he will have to do it on his own.

He has significant challenges in achieving this. The biggest one is that Shiite political power is centered in the Islamist parties: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Hizb al-Dawah. There are also the Hawza, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and IraqÕs clerical establishment based in An Najaf. ChalabiÕs group is an attempt to promote a Shiite political party that does not have the support of the clerics, yet has an Islamist element, given the presence of the Iraqi Hezbollah group.

Chalabi will be a footnote to history. What is important to note is the degree to which currying favor with the Americans is declining as a major political consideration in Iraq [ed. note: My immediately prior post make this point less persuasive]. As the United States presses for some sort of transfer of power on June 30 Ñ and as political and military turmoil in Iraq buffet the United States Ñ the Americans are loosening their grip on the political process....

From ChalabiÕs point of view, an alliance with the United States is a liability. In Iraq, he is content to be seen as the man who led the United States by the nose to destroy Saddam Hussein, and having achieved that goal, is not only independent of Washington, but also is actually critical of and opposed to the Americans.

Chalabi, of course, has little trust in Iraq. Whatever his secret relations might be with the Shiite establishment and the Iranians, Chalabi is used goods. Nevertheless, as a seismograph of Iraqi politics, it is interesting to watch him chart his course far away from his American moorings."

Chalabi, I sense, is a wily opportunist and intriguer--one of the key reasons I never really trusted him.

In the end, I suspect, the most charitable Chalabi analysis is that his too ambitious navigating of the immensely complicated currents buffeting the Iraqi political process did him in.

Basically because he became too associated with a pro-Iranian agenda.

Even if he didn't actually hand over the codes to the Iranians.

All this begs a much larger question, of course.

How much influence is Teheran going to wield in Iraq, say, a year hence--once all the various Shi'a groupings have consolidated their power and begin flexing their muscles with fewer Bremerian restrains in their midst?

In other words, to what extent are all the assorted furies, reprisals and allegations surrounding one dubious character (Chalabi) foreshadowing much bigger questions coming down the pike?

Posted by Gregory at June 3, 2004 11:13 AM
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