In the Arena

The Chalabi Show

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This, by Jackson Diehl, is a pretty good summation of the coming Iraqi electoral mess–despite the reflexive, and unfounded, Obama-bashing and the tacit assumption that Iraq is, somehow, ours to “lose.” The most interesting aspect of the current election is the reappearance, like clockwork, of Ahmed Chalabi, who always seems to position himself as a prospective Iraqi leader, in advance of the voting, only to be revealed as a fraud after the results are in: He couldn’t even gather enough votes to win a seat in the Iraqi parliament last time. This time, he is running as Iran’s man in Iraq:

Tehran’s leading agent, as both Hill and Odierno noted, is Ahmed Chalabi, a Shiite who in 2002 played a major role in persuading the Bush administration to go to war. Now he has managed to have hundreds of candidates eliminated from the election on the mostly bogus grounds that they were or are loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. His targets are not just Sunni leaders but secular nationalists — the two most important banned candidates are leading members of cross-sectarian alliances.

There are several aspects of the Chalabi situation that should be noted:

First, this is the very same Ahmed Chalabi who was the neoconservative candidate for President of Iraq in advance of the Bush invasion. His group, the Iraqi National Congress, was the “government in a box” of its day, just waiting to be installed once Baghdad was liberated. This assumption proved somewhat embarrassing when it turned out that Chalabi had absolutely no constituency inside Iraq. Even then, his publicists–neocon pundits like Danielle Pletka and Richard Perle–yearned to let “the Iraqis take over” governance, which was code for installing Chalabi as Our Man in Baghdad. Several years into the war, I asked John McCain what he thought of Chalabi and he said, “He’s an Iraqi patriot.”

Uh-oh. Because it can be argued that Chalabi was always working for Tehran. He was the most fanatic proponent of de-Baathification, a doctrine that led to the disbanding of the Iraqi military and civil service–without doubt, the second most disastrous action taken by the Bush Administration in Iraq (the first was invading in the first place), an action taken, depending on who’s telling the story, by Donald Rumsfeld, or Jerry Bremer, or both. It was only after David Petraeus–who had opposed the deBaathification orders as early as 2003, in Mosul–stopped the madness and began courting the Sunni tribes that Iraq began to calm down in 2007.

And now, as Diehl points out, Chalabi’s allies have damaged the possibility of a true democratic outcome by banning legitimate Sunni candidates from the March 7 election on de-Baathification grounds. There is a strong possibility that this will further muddle a result that was bound to be muddled in the first place: Americans have come to understand that Iraqis take six months after any given election to produce a semi-working government.

My assumption is that such a government–crippled or convoluted–will emerge as the last U.S. combat troops leave town next August. (About 50,000 U.S. troops will remain to help the Iraqi security forces with logistics, intelligence and some operational support.) Iraq, I fearlessly predict, will continue to be messy, a never-ending ethnic maelstrom and, perhaps, drifting toward a Shiite autocracy–though, I’ve been told by more than a few experts that the fears of an Iranian takeover are overblown, as the perennial Arab-Persian division between Iraqis and Iranians is even stronger than the Shi’ite brotherhood that binds them. However it turns out, I’d bet that Ahmed Chalabi will have no part in it.