Faced with a storm of attacks and uncertainty over its future role in Iraq, the Iraqi National Congress and its controversial leader Ahmed Chalabi are lashing back at their critics in America.
Chalabi’s exile group-turned-political party issued a statement Monday denouncing what it described as “a CIA-orchestrated smear campaign,” after Newsweek published allegations that the group had provided sensitive information to Iran that may endanger the lives of U.S. troops in Iraq. In addition to its escalating feud with the CIA and increasing claims that it fed false information about weapons of mass destruction in order to bolster the case for war, the INC has locked horns with the American-led administration in Iraq and U.N. officials in recent weeks.
In a sign that the group might be losing support among its neo-conservative advocates, Jerusalem-based attorney Marc Zell branded Chalabi a “treacherous, spineless turncoat,” according to a piece written for the online publication Salon by Financial Times columnist John Dizard.
Zell, a former law partner of Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, told Salon that the Chalabi had failed to deliver on prewar promises that he would end Iraq’s trade boycott with Israel, allow Israeli companies to do business in Iraq and advocate the rebuilding of a pipeline from Mosul in northern Iraq to Haifa.
Several other leading neo-conservatives, including Richard Perle, have maintained their support for Chalabi, a Shiite who was successful in cultivating support among Jewish hawks during the 1990s. But Zell’s outburst could signal that the rapprochement between Chalabi and his more radical Shiite fellows in Iraq and in neighboring Iran is likely to unsettle many neo-conservatives, especially since most refuse any dialogue with Tehran. Chalabi’s group, meanwhile, is vigorously defending its push for stronger ties with Iran.
Entifadh Qanbar, an INC spokesman, told the Forward that the group enjoyed a “strong relationship with Iran” alongside its “strategic relationship with the United States,” adding that this was also the case of other parties in the Iraqi governing council, the 25-member body appointed by the United State to severe as a transitional governing power until sovereignty is handed over to Iraq on June 30.
The INC has operated an office in Tehran for years and Chalabi visited Iran twice before the war and again in December, meeting with senior government officials.
Qanbar insisted that Iran has been a “very good neighbor” in recent months, providing emergency gasoline and propane gas and opening its ports to Iraqi exports and imports.
In addition, the INC spokesman claimed, Iran was been helping to secure its border with Iraq by preventing terrorists from entering the country, contrary to claims made in recent months by the Bush administration.
Qanbar also defended the Iraqi governing council’s role in the unfolding U.N. oil-for-food scandal. The council was recently found to be in possession of documents allegedly showing that the Hussein regime had used oil vouchers as a form of bribery to bypass U.N. sanctions and gain influence abroad, particularly with the U.N.’s oil-for-food chief. The council has refused to hand the documents over to the U.N. and its investigative commission, headed by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker.
Qanbar denied charges voiced in New York and elsewhere that his party, which controls the governing council’s finance committee, was responsible for the decision to withhold the documents or that the move was linked to the INC’s mounting disagreements with American and U.N. officials over Iraq’s future.
Qanbar said the governing council is conducting its own inquiry and had ordered an audit conducted by KPMG and the British law firm Freshfields.
In recent congressional testimony and interviews, Claude Hankes-Drielsma, a financial adviser to the Iraq Governing Council with close links to the INC, accused the top American administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, of obstructing the inquiry into the U.N. oil-for-food program.
American officials in Iraq were quoted as saying they wanted to review the selection of KPMG and Freshfields to ensure the inquiry was immune from political pressure.
Observers said the tensions over the U.N. probe were part of a larger conflict pitting Chalabi against Bremer and the U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi.
Brahimi, with the support of the Bush administration, recently proposed dissolving the governing council and replacing it with a temporary government of technocrats after the June 30 handover. Moreover, diplomats said Brahimi dislikes Chalabi, who, in turn, has branded Brahimi an “Arab nationalist.”
Bremer has also recently reversed a policy strongly supported by the INC of excluding senior members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party from key positions. Chalabi blasted the shift, claiming it was akin to bringing back the Nazis into government just after World War II.
At a hearing last week of the House International Affairs committee on the oil-for-food issue, three lawmakers — Democrats Tom Lantos of California and Gary Ackerman of New York and Republican Ileana Ross-Lehtinen of Florida — expressed concerns that some of the charges against the U.N. were politically motivated.
The congressional criticism comes as Chalabi and the INC are already under fire for allegedly providing false intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The INC produced several defectors who gave information about WMDs that has proven to be false, intelligence sources and congressional reports have said.
This only deepened the INC’s antagonism toward the CIA, a rift that dates back to the late 1990s following failed coup attempts against Saddam.
“The CIA has launched a campaign against us because they want to shift the blame for their failure in Iraq,” Qanbar said, noting that the CIA had the means to vet the defectors and check the information they provided.
In addition, the INC has been at loggerheads with the State Department after officials there voiced misgivings about INC handling of American funding. The INC reportedly receives $340,000 monthly from the American government.