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Chalabi's Bay of Pigs

11.14.2005 14:33 | DISPATCHES

What is this love affair the administration continues to conduct with Ahmad Chalabi? Upon revisiting Patrick and Andrew Cockburn's Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein (HarperCollins, 1999), which chronicles how Hussein solidified his weakening grip on Iraq after the Gulf War, one better understands. The Cockburns dramatically describe what they characterize as the Iraqi Bay of Pigs.

Everyone knows how the exiled Chalabi formed the Petra Bank in Jordan, only to escape with his hide when allegations of improper financial dealings surfaced. He was later convicted in absentia of embezzling sixty million dollars.

After that he immersed himself in the politics of his native country, founding the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition party composed mostly of Kurds. In 1991 Chalabi and other INC leaders met with National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker, who assured them of American support.

Like the Shiites in Iraq's south after the Gulf War when urged to insurrection by President George H.W. Bush, Chalabi and the INC interpreted this as unqualified backing. But to the White House and CIA, they were just one more weapon, along with sanctions and their pipe dream of a palace coup. Still, the INC continued to be funded by the CIA, who were supportive as long as the INC confined itself to propaganda and encouragement of defections and desertions.

But in 1993, the eternally optimistic Chalabi flew to Washington to unveil his plain to foment mutiny in the Iraqi army. Even though the army lay in ruins, the US still wanted no part of an attack because taking out Saddam's still-intact Republican Guard would have required air power--in other words, war.

Though beset with money problems, feuding Kurd tribes, and CIA indifference, Chalabi nevertheless decided to attack weakened generals around Mosul and Kirkuk, not far away from Kurdish territory. "In the best of all possible outcomes for Chalabi, an Iraq counter-attack in the North would in turn prompt U.S. military intervention," the Cockburns explain.

The deployment of a CIA officer named Bob to Kurdistan seemed to herald Chalabi's moment in the sun. When Bob learned that the Badr Brigade (Iraqi Shiites armed and financed by Iran) defeated a brigade of the Iraqi army in 1995, he too decided--in a rogue moment--in favor of a direct attack on Saddam.

Even though cooperation with Iran was forbidden under President Clinton, Bob set out to enlist Iran in his scheme. When the Iranians expressed interest, Bob overstepped his authority and promised Chalabi US air support. Then the two persuaded the warring Kurdish factions to declare a cease-fire.

However, because the CIA had betrayed his father in 1975, the famous Massoud Barzani, leader of the KDP Peshmerga was skeptical and directed his aide to contact Washington. Thus, the Cockburns write, "eliciting cries of horrified astonishment at the news of what was being promised, coupled with fervent denials that the United States was contemplating military action of any kind in northern Iraq." Without telling Chalabi or his rival Kurds--the PDK Peshmerga--Barzani backed out.

Meanwhile the INC's Iraqi freedom-fighting rival, the Iraqi National Accord, contacted Washington too. They described Chalabi's plan as a plot masterminded by disaffected General al-Samarrai, who, earlier, had proposed that he himself make his own "Appointment in Samarra" and assassinate Saddam there. Since assassination of foreign leaders was outside the CIA's legal purview, Bob finally realized he was in over his head and began to back out.

Still, even though national security adviser Tony Lake sent a message to the INC disavowing all support for the attack, Chalabi went ahead with his plans. But when the small INC troops arrived on the scene, Barzani's KDP stopped them. For the second time in one day, Chalabi had been betrayed.

But since the PDK, the other Peshmerga faction remained supportive, he proceded and captured 700 ragged Iraqi. However, the Turks, always ready to corral wayward Kurds, crossed the border into Iraq and the outmanned PUK withdrew.

"The whole sorry affair was a disaster for Ahamad Chalabi. . . There were to be no more attempts at undermining Saddam from the periphery. From the point on, the [CIA] devoted the bulk of its attention to fostering the long-anticipated coup, launched from within the Iraqi ruler's inner circle."

In retrospect, the current administration may see Chalabi as the ultimate tool in their undying campaign to discredit the Clinton administration. In keeping with Bush and company's proactive-to-a-fault approach to international affairs, to them Chalabi's attack on Iraq was no Bay of Pigs folly. The INC were heroic freedom fighters subverted by Clinton's cowardice. Who's to say that's not true?

If, instead of us, exiled Iraqis had destabilized the Iraqi government, the aftermath, volatile as it might have been, would likely have resulted in far fewer civilian deaths. Neither would Iraq have become a magnet for Al Qaeda. Until, that is, a triumphant Chalabi would have turned control of the taps on Iraqi oil over to American oil interests.


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