Obama's Shifting Positions on Iraq: A Rezko Connection?

Both Mr. Auchi and Mr. Obama say they have no memory of meeting each other. But, according to a source, the two may have had a brief encounter at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago where Mr. Auchi's visit was being honored with a dinner attended by the governor when Mr. Obama, coincidentally in the hotel, dropped in.

Rezko was very heavily involved in Chamchamal. In addition to bidding for building the power plant itself, Rezko apparently bid to provide security for the installation. John Batchelor again:

The third bidder on the Chamchamal deal was most likely Companion Security of Illinois. Companion Security was an Illinois company, concocted by Mr. Rezko along with his long-time Rezmar partner Daniel Mahru and an ex-Chicago policeman Donald Frawley, that proposed to train 150 Iraqis to be a security force at the new Chamchamal plant; and it included the novel concept to fly the Iraqis to Illinois for this training. Companion Security signed a contract April 18, 2005, with CPA Minister of Electricity Alsammarae -- for which, it is alleged by now cooperating government witness Mr. Mahru, Mr. Alsammarae was paid a $1.5 million bribe.

From April 2004 onward, Barack Obama's position on Iraq remained remarkably constant. The Illinois senator believed it was important not to abandon Iraq until it was stable enough to fend for itself. In November 2005, he said:

I believe that U.S. forces are still a part of the solution in Iraq. The strategic goals should be to allow for a limited drawdown of U.S. troops, coupled with a shift to a more effective counter-insurgency strategy that puts the Iraqi security forces in the lead and intensifies our efforts to train Iraqi forces.

At the same time, sufficient numbers of U.S. troops should be left in place to prevent Iraq from exploding into civil war, ethnic cleansing, and a haven for terrorism.

We must find the right balance -- offering enough security to serve as a buffer and carry out a targeted, effective counter-insurgency strategy, but not so much of a presence that we serve as an aggravation. It is this balance that will be critical to finding our way forward.

Second, we need not a time-table, in the sense of a precise date for U.S. troop pull-outs, but a time-frame for such a phased withdrawal. More specifically, we need to be very clear about key issues, such as bases and the level of troops in Iraq. We need to say that there will be no bases in Iraq a decade from now and the United States armed forces cannot stand up and support an Iraqi government in perpetuity -- pushing the Iraqis to take ownership over the situation and placing pressure on various factions to reach the broad-based political settlement that is so essential to defeating the insurgency.

In June 2006, despite the counterinsurgency troubles being encountered at that time, Obama reiterated his desire to keep American troops in Iraq until it stabilized. The senator said following a visit:

But having visited Iraq, I'm also acutely aware that a precipitous withdrawal of our troops, driven by Congressional edict rather than the realities on the ground, will not undo the mistakes made by this administration. It could compound them.

It could compound them by plunging Iraq into an even deeper and, perhaps, irreparable crisis.

We must exit Iraq, but not in a way that leaves behind a security vacuum filled with terrorism, chaos, ethnic cleansing, and genocide that could engulf large swaths of the Middle East and endanger America. We have both moral and national security reasons to manage our exit in a responsible way.

But on Nov 20, 2006, Obama suddenly changed his mind on Iraq. He believed it had become unwinnable. There was no point in going on and a withdrawal had to begin within a few months. CNN reported:

Sen. Barack Obama called Monday for U.S. troops to start leaving Iraq in 2007, arguing that the threat of an American pullout is the best leverage Washington has left in the conflict.

"The time for waiting in Iraq is over. It is time to change our policy," said Obama, a freshman Democrat from Illinois touted as a possible national candidate in 2008.

"It is time to give Iraqis their country back, and it is time to refocus America's efforts on the wider struggle yet to be won."

Obama's speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs came as the debate over Iraq policy has heated up in Washington, with policy makers making proposals that range from a phased withdrawal that begins in four to six months to an increase in troop strength.

What had changed between June and November 2006 to alter Obama's position? Possibly the situation on the ground. But one circumstance that had also changed was that the Rezko Chamchamal contract had been finally and irrevocably canceled only two weeks before. John Batchelor reports what Rezko told the judge during the discovery proceedings:

We had, for whatever it's worth, sometime in June received a letter saying the contract was canceled. We protested the cancellation. And, then, we received this [the November cancellation] letter.

Batchelor describes some of the last-minute efforts to bring the Rezko power plant project back from the dead.

The Chamchamal construction plan was canceled in June 2006, and this not only ended the power plant deal for Rezko's Rezmar International and Alsammarae's KCI Engineering Consultants, but also it ended the Companion Security deal. Companion was nested inside Chamchamal. The security guards to be trained in Illinois were for Chamchamal. This is important to understand. The same men controlled all three bids.

Mr. Rezko said, "We protested the cancellation." How did they protest? It appears that part of the protest was to send Mr. Frawley to Senator Obama in August 2006 to seek help reviving the deal.

Senator Obama declined to help, though not right away. According to Obama staff spokesman Tim LaBolt in mid-2007: "The Senate staff had two meetings, one conference call, and sporadically emailed with representatives of Companion Security about their request for Senator Obama to write a letter introducing the company to senior officials in the Iraqi government. That is not the kind of action Senator Obama usually takes for individual companies, and our staff concluded on that basis to decline the requested assistance."

Also, according to a report by the Chicago Sun-Times, Mr. Frawley negotiated over a six-month period with Senator Obama's staffer Seamus Ahern at the Moline, Illinois, office. The explanation at the time was that the senator regarded Companion Security as an employment opportunity for the troubled Quad Cities area around Moline.

The deal was definitely dead in August 2006, when Aiham Alsammarae came under investigation for corrupt practices. The New York Times reported that the case against Alsammarae began "with investigations by the Commission on Public Integrity, an Iraqi organization independent of the government that was created by the United States." A New York Times reporter, visiting him in jail, wryly noted, "Mr. Alsammarae, an American citizen who lived in the Chicago area and built a thriving engineering firm there, is the only cabinet-level Iraqi official to be convicted and jailed for misusing money during his time in office."

On December 16, 2006, Alsammarae successfully escaped from his Baghdad jail in mysterious circumstances, flew to Jordan, and from there returned to his home in Oak Brook, Illinois, without any apparent trouble. He did not take the trouble to hide. On April 27, 2008, Alsammarae demonstrated his affection for Tony Rezko when the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the "former Iraqi official and ex-international fugitive helped spring Tony Rezko from jail earlier this month, putting up homes that comprise nearly one-third of the $8.5 million in property and cash securing Rezko's bail." Tony Rezko may have been broke but Alsammarae was not:

Alsammarae put up $1.9 million in equity in his Oak Brook mansion, along with $840,000 in equity from two South Loop condominiums, according to court records. In recent days, he appeared in the downtown federal courthouse to pledge his property and signed papers related to Rezko's bail. That proceeding, however, was conducted in a private session with U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve and lawyers. Records from the proceeding weren't immediately released.

The shifts in Barack Obama's policy toward Iraq show a remarkable correlation with the rise and fall of Tony Rezko's business prospects in the Chamchamal Power Plant. As the story of the Rezko syndicate is exposed in his Chicago trial, the subject of its Iraqi commercial interests will come under a brighter light. Barack Obama has already said of his convicted ex-fundraiser, "this is not the Tony Rezko I used to know."

What remains to be seen is whether new developments will see the same cognitive dissonance apply to Obama's policy in Iraq.