Who Will Trust Our Man in Iraq?

The costs cannot be calculated nor the consequences foreseen, yet we are now officially bringing democracy to the people of Iraq. For all the happy talk emanating from the White House about Iraqis ruling themselves, it is clear that the war’s intellectual authors have strong ideas about exactly which Iraqis should end up in charge. They’re for self-determination, so long as the process concludes with the preferred result.

The leadership preferred by the civilian hawks in the Pentagon would emerge from the Iraqi National Congress, specifically in the personage of its leader, Ahmad Chalabi. Although he now says that he harbors no such ambitions, Mr. Chalabi’s disclaimers must be regarded with the skepticism reserved for American politicians who hesitate to declare their candidacies prematurely. He didn’t spend all those years in Washington for nothing.

Having lately set foot in his homeland for the first time since 1958, Mr. Chalabi arrived in style, courtesy of the U.S. armed forces. Just the other day, American planes airlifted his entourage into the town of Nasiriya. Now that the fighting is over, several hundred members of the I.N.C. militia are rolling into the nation’s ruined cities and towns, escorted by American armor. Mr. Chalabi envisions these “Free Iraqi Forces” as the nucleus of a new Iraqi army-which could come in handy if this democracy fad doesn’t eventually ensconce him in one of Saddam’s old palaces.

So far, so good, if what we mean by “democracy” is no different from what we once described by that name in places like Guatemala and the Philippines. Otherwise, we should reconsider all the advantages (such as money, guns and American prestige) that we have placed at the disposal of Mr. Chalabi’s crowd. The Iraqis themselves are already restless at the prospect of an imposed democratic regime controlled by U.S.-sponsored exiles.

Besides, Mr. Chalabi’s credentials are somewhat tarnished, as noted in this space last week. New details are emerging about his strange business career, although the mainstream media have yet to provide much information to American taxpayers about the man whose organization they have spent many millions promoting over the past decade. Our tame press has published only a few discreet mentions of the $300 million failure of his family’s bank in Jordan, and even fewer of his conviction on fraud and embezzlement charges by the Jordanian authorities in 1992. Newspapers that spent untold amounts of time, money and ink pursuing the Whitewater chimera seem curiously uninterested in the financial career of Iraq’s would-be president.

For that kind of information, it is necessary to read the European press. The first hints that the Chalabi banking scandal ranged far beyond Jordan’s borders appeared in Le Temps on April 9. The Geneva daily reported how the sudden crash of the family’s Petra Bank in Amman was followed by the failure of other Chalabi financial institutions in London, Geneva and Beirut, at a huge loss to depositors. Citing sources familiar with the probe that ensued, Le Temps indicated that the Chalabis transferred large sums from those deposits into private companies owned by members of their family.

This unsavory tale was picked up and expanded on April 14 by The Guardian. Previously secret documents obtained by the London daily’s reporters, including audits conducted by the Arthur Andersen firm, “describe how millions of dollars of depositors’ money was transferred to other parts of the Chalabi family empire in Switzerland, Lebanon and London, and not repaid.”

The Chalabi business empire encompassed a gold dealership in London, an investment company in Geneva and another bank, Mebco, with branches in both Geneva and Beirut. Andersen’s report found that Petra had overstated its assets by about $200 million, including at least $80 million in bad debts. “Many of the bank’s bad loans,” noted the Guardian , “were to Chalabi-linked companies.”

According to Le Temps , Swiss authorities were still trying to clean up the financial mess as late as September 2000, when two of Mr. Chalabi’s brothers were given suspended sentences of six months in prison on the charges of ” faux dans les titres ” (filing false documents) in connection with Socofi, their Geneva investment firm.

More still remains to be discovered in a 500-page “Technical Committee Report” on the Petra failure, compiled in Arabic for the Jordanian authorities on June 10, 1990. The Guardian says that the report accused Mr. Chalabi of direct responsibility for “fictitious deposits and entries to make the income … appear larger; losses on shares and investments; and bad debts” to Jordanian companies he also owned. (Sounds a little like Harken Energy or Halliburton, doesn’t it?)

There were a few more millions of our own taxpayer dollars that disappeared without sufficient explanation into the I.N.C. under Mr. Chalabi’s purview, but space is too short to go into that episode. Elevating this kind of dubious leadership will not only demean the Iraqis and betray democracy, but is likely to disgrace us as well.

Who Will Trust Our Man in Iraq?