Chalabi, once on the outs, returns to Washington
By BOB DEANS
WASHINGTON — Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, the poster boy in exile for faulty intelligence in the lead up to the war in Iraq, returned to familiar ground in Washington on Wednesday, where he was hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley.
This time, though, it isn't tales of chemical and biological weapons factories that Chalabi is peddling, but high hopes for democracy and prosperity in post-Saddam Iraq.
After years of being first respected, then reviled, and now resurrected in the eyes of the Bush administration, Chalabi still hasn't changed his favorite tune: send in the (U.S.) troops, and keep them there.
"We are not out of the storm," Chalabi said in a speech. "We are not out of the danger zone."
Much the same might be said of Chalabi himself.
He is the subject of an FBI inquiry into whether he gave away U.S. intelligence information to Iranian agents, an allegation he denies.
And several lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday called for Chalabi to be hauled before Senate and House intelligence committees to answer charges that he deliberately duped Bush administration officials in order to help hatch the case for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and that he leaked secrets to Iran.
"I don't know if these allegations are true. But if they are, Mr. Chalabi has betrayed U.S. interests, caused incalculable damage to our national security and contributed to the death of more than 2,000 of our troops," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., wrote in a letter to Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., chairman of a House subcommittee on national security.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., echoed those sentiments.
In a statement, FBI assistant director John Miller said there is an "active" investigation into whether Chalabi passed U.S. classified information to Iranian agents — and whether U.S. officials illegally passed along classified information to Chalabi. He noted that many current and former government employees have been interviewed.
"We are sorry for every American life that is lost in Iraq," said Chalabi, who offered to answer questions on Capitol Hill.
As to charges that he deliberately misled Bush over the weapons in Iraq, Chalabi replied, "This is an urban myth."
Wearing a dark grey suit, pale shirt and bright red tie, Chalabi made the remarks before an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank where analysts like Richard Perle and Danielle Pletka were early supporters of U.S. military action to topple Saddam Hussein's regime.
On the sidewalk in front of AEI's headquarters in downtown Washington, however, the audience was decidedly less friendly.
"He's a liar, he's a known criminal and this administration has been in collaboration with him to make a case for war, and we now know the case for war was a pack of lies," said Gael Murphy, a 51-year-old peace activist who joined about three dozen others to protest Chalabi's visit.
"We're outraged that Ahmad Chalabi is being taken seriously by the administration," said Murphy, a member of the anti-war group "Code Pink," who led demonstrators with chants of "Chalabi lied, thousands died."
"Apologize to the American people," she shouted toward the black luxury sedan with diplomatic plates that ferried Chalabi around town from his five-star hotel.
There was at least one friendly face in the crowd.
Across the street, standing in front of the National Geographic headquarters and holding a large Iraqi flag, Jesse Kaveh turned out to show support for Chalabi.
"I don't like some of the things that he's done, the lying," said Jesse Kaveh, a 19-year-old Iraqi who is studying political science at George Washington University here. "But he did whatever it took to get Saddam out of power and get democracy, that's the most important thing right now. We can't ever progress until we have democracy."
As to Chalabi's detractors, said Kaveh, "They just hate Bush and they hate the war, no matter what. It has nothing to do with Chalabi."
Chalabi is here on an eight-day visit marking something of a political revival.
As head of the London-based Iraqi National Congress - an anti-Saddam government in exile - Chalabi won the favor of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom trusted his weapons claims far more than some analysts at the State Department and within the CIA.
Like Bush, Chalabi assured the world that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction during the run-up to the war.
"Saddam has advanced chemical weapons. He has advanced biological weapons," Chalabi told the Fox news network on August 5, 2002, as the Bush administration was planning for possible war. "Those are very, very dangerous weapons, and I think in his hands he is bound to use them in terrorist action very soon."
No such weapons were found, and, also like Bush, Chalabi won't say what he thinks happened to them, or whether he thinks they existed at all.
"From our point of view," said Chalabi, "speculation is not beneficial."
That goes for his political ambitions as well. Asked by a reporter whether he hoped to become Iraq's prime minister after Dec. 15 elections, the cagey survivor smiled and said, "That's for me to know and you to find out."