Roger L. Simon

Chalabi - He's Back

Robert L. Pollock’s piece on the comeback of Ahmed Chalabi is so interesting it is almost worth a WSJ subscription by itself – or at least at least one of the papaer’s two-week free trials. Begging the indulgence of their editors, here are a couple of snippets:

“Welcome to the danger zone,” says a man I’ll call Abbas. It isn’t clear if he means Iraq or “Route Irish,” Baghdad’s perilous airport road. He wedges his flak jacket against the driver’s side-door of the sedan, cocks his pistol, and we head off gingerly, lest we agitate any nervous soldiers or guards. We deliberately overshoot our destination, doubling back on narrow streets to Ahmed Chalabi’s compound in the al Mansour district. Abbas’s wife calls on the cellphone. She is worried, and right to be. That night Khalid al-Saaidi becomes the third associate of Mr. Chalabi to die in two weeks, shot on the Jadiriyah Bridge.
Meanwhile, Baathist insurgents have obtained the phone directory of another murder victim — Haider Mohammed al-Dujaili, Mr. Chalabi’s director of public relations — and are threatening still more. Mr. Chalabi has re-emerged in their eyes as a prime threat. Why? Because he survived a concerted White House campaign last year to undermine him, brokering the Shiite-led electoral list that won the January election and becoming deputy prime minister; because he had become a major player in the constitution-writing process that culminated this past weekend; and because he is rapidly becoming a key figure for U.S. military commanders on the ground here as they contemplate the feasibility of troop drawdowns.
“Very personally courageous,” “not afraid to make decisions,” and a “hugely important figure in Iraq” are among the phrases I heard U.S. officers apply to him during two weeks I spent in the country earlier this month. Another sums up the stakes thus: “Chalabi is there to talk about protecting strategic infrastructure so they can sell oil so they can fund their own security-force development.”
He’s referring to the fact that Mr. Chalabi has assumed special responsibility for oil and infrastructure security — a role in which he is widely recognized to be making major improvements on the abysmal performance of L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority and Ayad Allawi’s interim government. I watch him in action firsthand shortly after my arrival, chairing a meeting of the Energy Committee he helped create. He suggests that the electrical grid be mapped with GPS, since after a recent attack it took three days to locate the damage. The issue is quickly resolved, as a water ministry official informs the room that such data already exists and that the problem is merely information-sharing. Then Mr. Chalabi offers a gentle reprimand to the Iraqi Army’s deputy chief of staff for continued reliance on a local infrastructure protection battalion that has repeatedly failed. What’s more important, he asks, keeping some tribal sheikh happy or keeping the lights on in Baghdad?
It doesn’t sound like much, but in a society where the modus vivendi for decades has been to tell people exactly what they want to hear, real managerial skills are a rare trait. “Chalabi has emerged as a central figure in the effort to improve infrastructure security,” says Gen. David Petraeus, the overseer of Iraqi Security Force training and one of the few officials willing to risk offending the foreign policy mandarins in Washington by going on record about the matter. In particular, Mr. Chalabi is credited with obtaining additional Iraqi funding and focus on the effort, resulting in what one U.S. observer calls “the highest crude oil exports in anyone’s memory.” Northern exports through the Kirkuk pipeline have resumed, albeit quietly — lest it become an even more tempting target for sabotage.

Later, there’s this:
A final irony is Mr. Chalabi’s emergence as a corruption fighter. Unlike scores of journalists against whom he could probably win libel cases were he inclined to sue, I don’t pretend to know much about Mr. Chalabi’s 1992 bank fraud conviction by a military tribunal in Saddam-allied Jordan. What I do know is that the biggest alleged thieves in post-Saddam Iraq have turned out to be those associated with the CIA’s preferred secular Shiite, Mr. Allawi.
The Iraqi Board of Supreme Audit recently charged that Mr. Allawi’s defense minister, Hazem Shalaan, presided over the misappropriation of hundreds of millions of dollars that could have gone towards better-equipped security forces. Virtually everyone I spoke to at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense confirmed this, including the new minister, Saddoun Dulaimi (an honest man by everyone’s account, and a non-Baathist Sunni to boot). But corruption on the scale suggested by the Audit Board should be more difficult now that Mr. Chalabi is chairing a Contracts Committee, which reviews every government expenditure above a certain threshold.
The Chalabi treatment has confirmed that the CIA really can be as nasty and incompetent as its critics on the left used to claim. But what explains the gross political miscalculation by the Bush administration, which knew the CIA had major problems? Part of it, surely, has to do with influence of the foreign policy “realists,” who didn’t really believe in the regime-change mission and blamed Mr. Chalabi for luring the U.S. into Iraq. (The idea that Mr. Chalabi did so by passing faulty intelligence has been thoroughly discredited by the bipartisan Robb-Silberman commission.) Insofar as they had to go through the motions, the realists preferred Iraqi yes-men. “Get him back in his cage,” Colin Powell is reported by the Washington Post to have demanded of Mr. Wolfowitz after Mr. Chalabi began pushing for the rapid restoration of sovereignty in late 2003. “I can’t control him,” Mr. Wolfowitz is said to have replied. (It should be conceded that Mr. Chalabi’s largely admirable outspokenness sometimes becomes a fault.)

That’s my kind of fault…. I’d quote the whole thing, but as a professional writer, I do have sentimental feelings about copyright. (ht: Catherine Johnson – who tipped me to this Aug 29 article I missed while in Japan. It is, as she says, a total vindication of Chalabi.)