Neoconservative allies of Ahmad Chalabi are rallying to the side of the embattled Iraqi politician, insisting that he is the victim of an orchestrated campaign to discredit him.
Chalabi and several of his allies outside of government say that he has been undermined by political enemies at the State Department and at the CIA who falsely claim that he passed American secrets to Iran. But one of his top American allies, Richard Perle, says he thinks the Iraqi leader was actually a victim of a plot between the CIA and Tehran.
In an interview Monday with the Forward, Perle, a leading neoconservative, said that Iran may have suggested to CIA officials that it had received sensitive intelligence from Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress in order to discredit him.
“Iranians are involved in Iraq in a very damaging way, and the last thing they want is Chalabi in power,” said Perle, a former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an advisory board to the Pentagon. “They very well may have induced the CIA to believe Chalabi gave them [sensitive intelligence]. And the CIA was certainly very happy to see that.”
Chalabi is currently a member of the 23-person Iraqi Governing Council, but is not expected to be a part of the new government created by U.N. special adviser Lakhdar Brahimi that is slated to assume sovereignty over Iraq on June 30.
Officials at the CIA, as well as at the State Department, have long argued that Chalabi was an unreliable source of information regarding the regime of Saddam Hussein. But neoconservative pundits and their allies in the Pentagon, on the other hand, spent nearly a decade heralding Chalabi and his claims that Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. Also, Chalabi is often cited as the main source for the notion that U.S. forces would be welcome as liberators by the Iraqi people.
In recent weeks, the INC has locked horns with the U.S.-led administration in Iraq over an investigation into the United Nations oil-for-food program. Reportedly, U.S. officials also are concerned over allegations of influence peddling on the part of Chalabi’s party.
The United States’s shift on the INC became clear when the Pentagon announced last week that it was cutting off the group’s funding. Then, last week, Iraqi police raided Chalabi’s home and offices with the support of U.S. forces.
The Bush administration claimed that an Iraqi judge ordered the operation. But at the same time, U.S. officials were quoted in press reports as saying that the INC may have passed highly classified intelligence to Iran and that the group’s intelligence head, Arras Habib Karim, could be an Iranian agent.
An intelligence source said Karim’s ties to Iranian intelligence forces and the likelihood that Chalabi knew about these connections are seen by the Americans as a “serious issue.” The source confirmed several press reports stating that the FBI is investigating whether U.S. officials have provided intelligence to the INC that was then turned over to Iran.
In the face of such developments, Perle is suggesting that fundamentalists Shiite leaders in Iran are attempting to undermine Chalabi, a secular Shiite leader with a relatively pro-Western outlook.
“Ties with Iran are commonplace among Iraqis,” Perle said. “The question is what kind of ties. It is ludicrous to claim Chalabi passed sensitive intelligence to Tehran. It is just a smear campaign waged by the CIA and other intelligence agencies.”
Perle claimed the CIA was eager to seize upon Chalabi’s reported links to Iran to win over the White House to its long-held opposition to Chalabi. “They have convinced the White House,” said Perle, a former Reagan administration official with close ties to the Israeli right. “There is no question [the raid] was a U.S. operation and that it was politically motivated.”
Before having its funds cut off, the INC had received some $40 million from the U.S. government since 1998, when Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act. Perle noted that the bill, which he strongly advocated, made U.S. funds available to other Iraqi opposition groups, as well.
Laurie Mylroie, another strong Chalabi supporter, rejected the notion of an Iran-CIA plot to sabotage Chalabi.
“The Iranians communicated and said nothing regarding Chalabi passing things on,” said Mylroie, author of the recent book, “Bush vs. the Beltway: How the CIA and the State Department Tried to Stop the War on Terror.”
“Why should they want to discredit Chalabi?” Mylroie said. “The CIA made it up.”
The administration’s falling-out with Chalabi has fueled rampant speculation that his supporters in government — including Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith — will soon be pushed out.
Asked whether the influence of the neoconservatives on foreign policy-making was indeed dwindling because of the ongoing difficulties in Iraq, Perle said he found the question “puzzling.”
“Neoconservatives hold a variety of views [and] it just happens that many of them happened to like Chalabi, but it was not restricted to them; it was not ideological,” Perle said, adding that he still sees Chalabi as a talented, capable leader.
Perle said that the recent events “ironically” would give Chalabi a “flag of independence” that would help him emerge victorious when elections are held in Iraq.