by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
question of who should lead any post-Saddam Hussein Iraq has caused deep disagreement within the administration of President George W. Bush.
On the one hand, neo-conservative hawks around Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney have lobbied heavily for the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and especially its leader, Ahmed Chalabi.
On the other, Mideast specialists in the State Department and their colleagues at the CIA have generally favoured former military officers who are believed to retain influence in Iraq's army.
While the contending sides agreed last summer to co-sponsor meetings among Iraqi opposition leaders in hopes of coaxing a united front out of them in advance of U.S. military action to oust Hussein, the task appears as daunting as ever.
In the past two weeks, both sides have been dealt significant setbacks, even as the U.S. military build-up around Iraq has shifted into overdrive, and CIA officers have returned in force to Kurdish northern Iraq for the first time since Hussein's ground forces routed the CIA-backed INC there in 1996.
Washington had hoped for a planned meeting of top opposition leaders to begin in Brussels at the end of this week. But infighting among the groups, sparked by the INC's demand that several hundred more of its backers be invited, resulted in a three-week delay and a change of venue -- to London if the British government agrees -- according to State Department officials.
While anti-Chalabi forces in the administration saw the delay as a victory, they received a major setback of their own Tuesday when a Danish judge formally charged Gen. Nizar al-Khazraji, a former chief of staff of the Iraqi Army, with crimes against humanity.
The general was accused for his alleged role in the infamous 1988 Anfal campaign, when almost 200,000 rebellious Kurds were killed, some by chemical weapons, in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war.
Khazraji, a self-described nationalist who left Iraq in 1995 and has denied the charges, has been championed by CIA and State Department officials as the best candidate to replace Hussein if there is a U.S. invasion. The charges were reportedly issued just as he was preparing to leave for the Gulf.
Al-Khazaraji's indisposition is likely to strengthen Chalabi, who has made no secret of his desire to become Iraq's Hamid Kharzai, the Afghan politician hand-picked by Washington to become the country's interim president after last year's military campaign.
But unlike Kharzai, the London-based Chalabi, a wealthy, U.S.-educated banker whose family fled Iraq when the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, has lived in exile virtually all of his adult life.
Close to Jordan's Hashemite monarchy until 1989, when he fled the country after being charged with bank fraud, he first came to prominence in Iraqi politics when he launched the INC in 1992.
Chalabi, who hails from an aristocratic Shia family, has depicted himself as an Iraqi nationalist dedicated to human rights, the rule of law, and a federal structure for a future Iraq that would guarantee greater autonomy for the country's disparate regions and ethnic groups.
That image has won him significant support in the U.S. Congress, which in 1998 approved the Iraq Liberation Act (ILA), a bill that provided almost $100 million in aid for opposition groups, particularly his INC.
But what has really given him political muscle in Washington is the enthusiastic backing he has received from a group of neo-conservatives closely identified with Israel's Likud Party and associated with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).
Rumsfeld and Cheney, charter members of PNAC, recruited their top foreign-policy aides heavily from these two groups, while AEI's Richard Perle, who heads Rumsfeld's Defence Policy Board (DPB), has been friendly with Chalabi for some 20 years.
Aside from his avowal of Western ideals, Chalabi's attraction to these forces appears based mainly on the belief that an INC government in Baghdad would fatally weaken what one influential neo-conservative thinker and Perle colleague, David Wurmser, has called a "PLO-Syria-Iraq-Iran axis" against Israel, and strengthen a burgeoning alliance between Israel, Turkey and Jordan, to which Iraq could then be added.
In addition, a supposedly democratic Iraq, according to these forces, could set in motion a series of upheavals against authoritarian regimes, including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, that could bring more representative governments to power.
But the State Department and the CIA, as well as retired high-ranking military officers with experience in the Middle East and the Gulf, have openly scoffed at these notions, beginning with Chalabi himself. Despite his professed democratic values, according to these critics, other INC leaders have complained repeatedly about his centralised control over the organization.
Indeed, the main constituents of the INC -- the Kurdish groups in the north, and the Shiite, Teheran-based Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which together may have as many as 100,000 men under arms -- have repeatedly dropped out of the umbrella group, and last summer joined with the Iraq National Accord, a group of former Iraqi military and intelligence officers with close CIA connections, to create the "Group of Four."
"The INC claims to be an umbrella, but it doesn't cover anyone," noted one State Department official this week.
Chalabi's personal style has fuelled charges that he is unreliable. The former head of the U.S. Central Command, Ret. Gen. Anthony Zinni, who is also a top Mideast adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell, has been particularly outspoken, referring to Chalabi and his INC colleagues as "silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London."
Despite their agreement to work together, the two administration factions still appear to be jockeying on behalf of their favorites. For example, the Pentagon succeeded in wresting control of most of the unspent money from the ILA last summer and is using it to train Iraqi exiles recruited through the INC.
At the same time, the State Department and CIA reportedly blocked a proposed intelligence-gathering project that the Pentagon wanted the INC to carry out.
November 22 2002 (http://albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.