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Chalabi re-emerges as political contender

Patrick J. McDonnell Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq – “I am waiting to be arrested by the Americans,” declares a mirthful Ahmad Chalabi, having a bit of fun at the expense of his one-time benefactors.

These are heady days indeed for Chalabi, holding court like a 21st-century Sidney Greenstreet for a steady stream of dignitaries and journalists, many incredulous at the dazzling revival of his political fortunes.

Improbable at it seems, Chalabi, who faced a criminal prosecution here not long ago and whose office was ransacked in a U.S.-sanctioned raid, might be on the threshold of snaring the reins of power in Iraq.

The 60-year-old has emerged as one of the top two prime minister candidates of the Shiite-led political alliance that finished first in landmark elections three weeks ago and will have a slim majority on the transitional National Assembly.

Chalabi, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is crunching the numbers, and aides say he has the votes to go all the way within the Shiite alliance. A secular Shiite, Chalabi ran as part of the Shiite list but was not affiliated with the two major Shiite parties.

Even if his operatic bid for the prime minister’s post falls short, Chalabi seemingly has cemented his position as a major power broker in the new Iraq, likely with his choice of top jobs – and the opportunity to exert payback on his many adversaries. From his fortified Baghdad compound, he speaks expansively of a bright future.

“This coming back to Iraq has been the focus of my entire career,” says Chalabi, who hadn’t set foot in his homeland in more than four decades until his return in 2003 as American forces toppled Saddam Hussein.

To say that this lifelong devotee of the shadow world of Iraqi exile politics and intrigue savors the moment is to engage in immense understatement.

“I am going home,” Chalabi recalls replying to a U.S. commander two years ago when asked why he was heading to the Iraqi capital Baghdad with his entourage, after being airlifted in with U.S. forces.

He is the scion of the one-time Iraqi elite but left the country as a teen with his family in 1958 after the monarchy was overthrown. He spent the following decades abroad, at one point being convicted of bank fraud in Jordan.

As Saddam’s three-decade-plus regime crumbled, Chalabi, with strong backing from the Pentagon and neoconservatives within the Bush administration, seemed a good bet as Iraq’s next leader: the exile returned triumphant. U.S. authorities named Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress party, to the Governing Council of Iraqi leaders appointed during the occupation.

But things went south swiftly: Many Iraqis mistrusted this larger-than life figure, U.S. officials cooled to his maneuvering, and ultimately there were inconvenient accusations, including alleged passing of secret information to Iran. Chalabi denied any wrongdoing.

The unpleasantness culminated in a violent raid on his home and party headquarters in May. Chalabi decamped, his career in Iraq seemingly in tatters. There was no MacArthur-like “I shall return” telecast live in Baghdad.

His longtime exile rival, Ayad Allawi, a distant relative, emerged as the interim prime minister and U.S. favorite. It was a bleak panorama, even for someone with a mathematical comprehension of how odds can turn.

Chalabi returned, however, and did what he does best, assiduously cultivating contacts within the Shiite community. He made repeated pilgrimages to the holy city of Najaf and the back alley housing the offices of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the powerful Shiite leader, a figure who never deigns to meet with U.S. representatives.

Today, like a forgiving father, Chalabi speaks with forbearance of U.S. authorities who forsook him.

Ironically, his very falling out with Washington might have bought Chalabi the street credibility to emerge as a viable prime minister candidate in a nation where the U.S. presence is extremely unpopular.

“It clarified the picture to a great many people here,” Chalabi says of his tiff with Washington. “There was a misperception that they (U.S. officials) were protecting me in some sense.”

As prime minister, Chalabi says, he would not seek a timetable for U.S. withdrawal – he acknowledges the need for multinational troops until Iraqi forces are ready to put down the insurgency.

But Chalabi warns he would put restraints on the U.S. operation here, seeking a status of forces agreement that would put Iraqi authorities firmly in control. A Chalabi-led government would call for the more than 8,000 U.S. detainees to be charged or released.

“I am grateful to the American men and women of the armed forces, who have helped us in our liberation from Saddam,” Chalabi declares, voicing words seldom heard from Iraqi politicians hyper-sensitive about being viewed as U.S. stooges. “And I am grateful to President Bush for having the courage to follow through on his promise to bring democracy to Iraq.”

That said, he adds, times have changed. Ahmad Chalabi is putting his enemies and detractors on notice: He will be a player in the new Iraq.

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