by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
Franklin Roosevelt asked Josef Stalin to consider seeking the advice of Pope Pius XII about the shape of post-World War II Europe, the Soviet dictator is said to have replied, "How many divisions does the Pope have?"
The same question can now be asked about the State Department, or even the Central Intelligence Agency or the British government, which have all argued for months that any post-war Iraq leadership should emerge only as a result of consultation, optimally under United Nations auspices, among mainly internal forces, as well as exile groups.
The Pentagon, on the other hand, has long favored the installation as soon as possible of an Interim Iraqi Authority (IIA) led by the exiled Iraqi National Congress (INC) of Ahmed Chalabi, to give an Iraqi face to the occupation authorities.
The White House has been coy. But on Sunday, President George W. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, appeared to side with the State Department, declaring that both internal figures and exile parties should play a role in any IIA.
So it came as some surprise when, as Rice was speaking, the Pentagon flew some 500 INC activists -- plus Chalabi himself -- from the northern Iraqi safe haven where they had been cooling their heels into the southern U.S.-occupied city of Nasiriyah, where Chalabi quickly met with local dignitaries, apparently to gain their backing.
That this took place on the eve of Bush's Belfast meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair was regarded as particularly significant, since Blair had lined up solidly behind the State Department. "Bush agreed that we would not dream of parachuting people from outside Iraq to run Iraq," one "senior Blair aide" told 'Newsweek' two days before.
While senior Pentagon officials insisted the move was not intended to give a leg up to Chalabi in the competition to succeed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the contingent as "basically the core of the new Iraqi army once Iraq is free."
An INC press release touted the force more precisely as the "First Battalion, Free Iraqi Forces (FIF)," although most of the activists were, according to the 'Washington Post', "so lightly armed they lacked even pistols, let alone assault rifles."
Their arrival, however, marked the successful culmination of a two-week-old campaign by neo-conservatives in and outside the administration to get the INC and Chalabi into Iraq before any other group, presumably to pre-empt any moves by the State Department or other opposition groups to claim the media spotlight.
It also marked the fact that, with 250,000 fighting men on the ground, the Pentagon will be calling the shots in Iraq, even in defiance of other bureaucracies that in contrast to the Defense Department, have real experts on Iraqi politics, history, and culture who could prove helpful in carrying out an occupation.
"You can call this another aspect of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's pre-emption strategy," said one administration official. "You can call this a coup d'etat."
Chalabi has long been a favorite of the neo-conservatives, particularly Wolfowitz and the powerful former chairman of the Defence Policy Board, Richard Perle, who have led the drive to war with Iraq since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
An extremely controversial figure, Chalabi, a London-based banker, first came to prominence in the West shortly after the first Gulf War when he co-founded the INC, the first effort at building an umbrella for various opposition groups to rally against Saddam Hussein.
His opponents, particularly in the State Department and the CIA, which worked closely with him in the early 1990s to help instigate a coup against Saddam, consider him unreliable. They note that the INC itself has suffered many defections of promising Iraqis over the past decade due in major part to their complaints about Chalabi's imperious style and authoritarianism.
The former head of the U.S. Central Command, Ret. Gen. Anthony Zinni, who also has advised Secretary of State Colin Powell on the Middle East, has been particularly outspoken, referring to Chalabi and his INC colleagues as "silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London."
Chalabi's critics also point to his 1989 conviction for bank fraud in Jordan, from which he hurriedly fled after being tipped off about his indictment, as well as his and the INC's failure to predict the extent of resistance to the U.S. invasion despite their long-standing claims of having thousands of sympathizers in key posts in Iraq ready to rise up once U.S. troops appeared on the horizon.
Indeed, Chalabi and his major supporters here were those who most confidently predicted that U.S. soldiers would be greeted with "flowers and sweets" by the Iraqi population as they made their way from Kuwait to Baghdad.
Nonetheless, his backers here have stuck tenaciously behind him. They accuse the State Department and his other foes of representing the interests of the Sunni-dominated governments in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, which, say analysts at Perle's neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), fears that an Iraqi government headed by Chalabi, a Shi'ite like the majority of Iraqis, may provoke instability among its own Shi'a population.
They also insist that Chalabi is devoted to human rights, democratization, and a federal structure for a future Iraq that would provide greater autonomy for the country's disparate regions and groups, a model which also explains, they say, why he is opposed by many of Iraq's neighbors.
On foreign policy, the neo-conservatives in the Pentagon see in Chalabi a reliably ally, particularly in dealing with Syria and Iran.
While Chalabi's networks inside Iraq may be less than what he has claimed -- a recent CIA study reportedly found that "overwhelming numbers" of Iraqis were suspicious of Chalabi and the INC -- his network of support in Washington and especially the Pentagon goes very deep indeed.
Half a dozen Republican senators called this week for the administration to immediately provide millions of dollars to the INC, while on Monday the 'Wall Street Journal', a long-time Chalabi champion, called on Bush to reject the State Department's and Blair's advice. The editorial page also doubled the INC force sent to southern Iraq from 500 to 1,000.
In addition, the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a "citizens' group" chaired by former Secretary of State George Shultz whose membership consists of a "who's who" of neo-conservatives outside the administration, has turned over its website to the INC.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on Monday suggested that he might even defy Congress, which is leaning toward earmarking $2.5 billion in relief and reconstruction aid for Iraq to the State Department instead of the Pentagon.
"In the last analysis," he told reporters, "it's the president's policy, and whatever is put forward by the Congress by way of money will be expended in a way that the president decides should be expended."
April 9, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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