Our Man in Iraq: Hero or Crook?

Whether the physical demise of Saddam Hussein has been achieved or not, his political destruction is nearly complete. Once the United States committed military force against him, Saddam’s eventual defeat was never in doubt. But what follows in the wake of his unlamented dictatorship will determine the success of the war that ousted him.

For advocates of the war, the justification for this enormous expenditure of blood and treasure is the liberation of the Iraqi people and the establishment of democracy as a light unto the Arab world. And now those of us who opposed the war must hope that project succeeds-or at least avoids disastrous failure. If we are perceived as imperialists who have installed a puppet regime, then the true victors will be the propagandists of Al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, signs are emerging that a puppet regime may be exactly what the war’s intellectual authors have planned. The most troubling indication was the U.S. airlift into Nasiriya’s smoking ruins of a gentleman named Ahmed Chalabi.

If that name isn’t familiar yet, it will be. Although his recent return to his homeland is the first time he has set foot there since 1958, Mr. Chalabi is the dominant leader of the exile movement known as the Iraqi National Congress. Among his admirers in Washington-where he has long been a favorite of the neoconservative right-he is regarded as brilliant, selfless and courageous. Senator Joseph Lieberman has called him “a person of strength, principle and real national commitment.” His friend Richard Perle, the influential Defense Department adviser, notes that Mr. Chalabi, a very wealthy man with an American education and British citizenship, “could have lived comfortably without spending a day on the effort to liberate Iraq.”

That last remark is surely true. Just how Mr. Chalabi came to be fixed so comfortably remains a matter of grave concern in neighboring Jordan. Eleven years ago this week, he was convicted in absentia on more than 30 counts of embezzlement, theft and fraud after the mysterious crash of Petra Bank, a large financial institution he founded and ran in Amman. (In some profiles, this episode is described discreetly as his “controversial past.”) By the time he fled, Jordan’s central bankers were trying to uncover what had happened to about $300 million in missing deposits.

According to Mr. Chalabi and his defenders, the government of the late King Hussein framed him at Saddam’s behest. Since he may well get his hands on his native land’s vast oil wealth someday, let’s hope he is indeed innocent. The problem is that many informed observers suspect otherwise.

Among the doubters is the impeccably conservative journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave, author of a thoroughly unflattering Chalabi profile for the Washington Times last December. Quoted in that article is the “widely respected” former governor of the Jordanian central bank, who said that after a full examination of Petra’s books, he concluded that “they had been cooked and that Ahmed Chalabi was the master cook …. Chalabi was one of the most notorious crooks in the history of the Middle East.”

Not the best endorsement for the would-be Iraqi savior, but an all-too-typical description of past and present leaders in that region. If Mr. Chalabi is indeed guilty as charged, his ascent would continue a tradition that includes the late Shah of Iran and the greedy criminals who rule various emirates and monarchies in the Gulf region. Plus ça change , as the despised French might mutter.

Aside from all those musty details, Mr. Chalabi’s critics in the C.I.A., the State Department-and other groups who have shed blood fighting Saddam Hussein-wonder how a figure with no visibility or known support among the Iraqi people is qualified to lead them. Among his pronouncements from exile, he has said that he would extend diplomatic recognition to Israel, a laudable idea that probably has very little support among the Iraqi public.

Apparently, Mr. Chalabi believes he will be best served by a long U.S. military occupation of his country. He told the CBS program 60 Minutes that he expects our troops to stay for two years. That is a dangerous notion, not only for American and British soldiers, but also for the stability of the Gulf region.

Meanwhile, at his Belfast summit, President Bush denied that the United States is seeking to install Mr. Chalabi or any other Iraqi in power to succeed Saddam. Other top U.S. officials have vowed repeatedly that only the Iraqis can choose their future leadership.

In affairs of state, denial is all too often the equivalent of confirmation. Let’s hope that the White House is telling the truth this time-and that the Iraqis themselves, rather than the Pentagon or the State Department, will render the final judgment on Mr. Chalabi’s ambitions. Our own future as well as theirs may depend on it.