Chalabi comeback mirrors shifting mood of country


IRAQ: Mr Ahmed Chalabi once seemed destined to rule Iraq and behaved accordingly.

In the months leading up to the US-led invasion of Iraq he moved along the corridors of power in Washington, assuring the Bush administration that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq, and that US troops would be treated like liberators.

"He had them [ Bush and Rumsfeld] mesmerised," said one former aide.

Since then Mr Chalabi has had a spectacular fall from grace, out of government, his home raided by Iraqi police, and his name a byword in the White House for the lies that hoodwinked Mr Bush's administration into war.

But slowly Mr Chalabi, a man of immense personal wealth and political adaptability is making a comeback. Yesterday was the final day for political parties to out forward lists of candidates for Iraqi national and regional elections on January 30th. On the list put forward by Shia political parties which have formed a united ethnic block to fight the election, Mr Chalabi is ranked number 10.

It's a far cry from his former exulted position, but his inclusion will see Mr Chalabi elected to the national assembly, courtesy of the Shia majority in the country.

Mr Chalabi's aides believe he is unlikely to be invited directly back into government, especially if Dr Ayad Allawi, who shares a mutual dislike of Mr Chalabi from their days in exile together, resumes his office as Iraqi Prime Minister.

But Mr Chalabi, typical of the man, has his eye on greater prizes. He wants to join the council which will write Iraq's new constitution, the main task of Iraq's new government, paving the way for fully sovereign elections at the end of 2005, and deciding the future of the country's political make-up.

That future might just see Mr Chalabi propelled back into the heart of government, his aides believe.

His political recovery has spanned the shifting mood of the country. He's a changed man, say aides.

Gone are his radical free market vision for Iraq which made such a favourite among neo-con economists in Mr Bush's administration, but bore little relevance on the post-war shattered streets of Baghdad, other than breeding resentment among ordinary Iraqis that America wanted to sell the country to the highest bidder.

Gone too is Mr Chalabi's savage insistence on de-Baathification, a personal crusade which many now believe, by forcing thousands of Saddam's Baath party out of work, has contributed to the insurgency.

One of Dr Allawi's first acts on becoming prime minister last summer was to welcome many former Baathist leaders into the country's flagging security structure.

Dr Allawi also barred the De-Baathification Committee, headed by Mr Chalabi, from its offices in the safety of the Green Zone.

But the biggest change has been the withdrawal of US support amid accusations of betrayal on both sides after American administrator Mr Paul Bremer ordered his house to be raided by Iraqi police to curb Mr Chalabi's growing criticism of the US regime, and his private fiefdom of government contracts.

Mr Chalabi, so long seen in Iraq as little more than an American stooge, has been forced to look for the first time for a genuine support base inside Iraq.

He turned to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric who made his name by leading disaffected Shias in revolt against the American occupation.

Although Mr Chalabi was unsuccessful in persuading Sadr to form a political party under his guidance in time for this January's election, he has, by virtue of his now trenchant anti-American views, established a "meaningful" contact after spending weeks in the Shia holy city of Najaf.

If the future face of Iraqi politics is to be dominated by Shia parties of varying degrees of radicalism, then Mr Chalabi, the consummate chameleon, appears to have kept his ambitions alive.