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Iran may have used Chalabi to ‘game the system’

Bob Drogin Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – Ahmad Chalabi, the onetime White House favorite who has been implicated in an alleged Iranian spy operation, sent Iraqi defectors to at least eight Western spy services before the war in an apparent effort to dupe them about Saddam Hussein’s illicit weapons programs, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said.

U.S. investigators now are seeking to determine if the effort – which one U.S. official likened to trying to “game the system” – was secretly supported by Iran’s intelligence service to help persuade the Bush administration to oust the Baghdad regime, Tehran’s enemy.

Officials said other evidence indicates that Chalabi’s longtime intelligence chief furnished Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security highly classified information on U.S. troop movements, top-secret communications, plans of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, and other closely guarded material on U.S. operations in Iraq. The U.S. investigation into the suspected spy operation was a key reason behind the raid Thursday on Chalabi’s Baghdad home and the offices of his Iraqi National Congress.

Civilian leaders in the Pentagon long touted Chalabi as a potential postwar leader of Iraq. The former exile leader denounced the raids as retaliation for his increasingly sharp criticism of U.S. occupation policies and operations in Iraq. He has not been accused of any crime.

It is not clear whether Iran had any role in using the INC to provide disinformation to the West. U.S. officials say the INC may have been acting on its own when it sent a steady out a stream of defectors between 1998 and 2003 with apparently coordinated claims about Baghdad’s purported weapons of mass destruction.

Because even friendly spy services rarely share the identities of their informants, or let outsiders meet or debrief their sources, it only has become clear in recent months that Chalabi’s group sent defectors with inaccurate or misleading information to Denmark, England, Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden, as well as to the United States, the officials said.

As a result, the officials said, U.S. intelligence analysts used information from now-discredited “foreign intelligence sources” to corroborate their assessments of Saddam’s suspected chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

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