Brahimi versus Chalabi: The daggers are drawn
By Patrick Seale
May 1, 2004, 13:25
Of all the vicious battles being fought in Iraq, the one between Lakhdar Brahimi and Ahmed Chalabi could be decisive for the future of the country. The two men are deadly enemies, but theirs is not only a trial of strength between individuals. Powerful forces are ranged behind them and it would be rash, in today's highly fluid military and political situation, to hazard a guess as to who will emerge the victor.
Chalabi wants to rule Iraq after the transfer of sovereignty at the end of June. Brahimi is determined to prevent him from doing so. A former Algerian foreign minister and United Nations trouble-shooter in Afghanistan, Brahimi is the man of the hour.
The United States and Britain are relying on him to find a way out of the catastrophic mess in which they find themselves in Iraq. He has been given the task of proposing how and by whom Iraq will be governed in the transition period between June 30, when the US is due to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis, and nation-wide elections scheduled for January 2005.
Chalabi has had a very different career. A former banker and convicted fraudster, he is the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, INC, a body of exiles which lobbied vigorously in Washington for the overthrow of Saddam Hussain.
Chalabi and the INC are believed to have fed the American intelligence community with false and fabricated information on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. They are said to be on the Pentagon payroll to the tune of $340,000 a month.
Today, Chalabi is a prominent member of the American-appointed Iraq Governing Council in Baghdad. He has placed several of his relatives and friends in the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Commerce, the Central Bank and other key posts.
He also pressed for the dissolution of the Iraqi army and is directing Iraq's "de-Baathification" programme – the purging of party members from government jobs and public life.
The battle between them is therefore a struggle between two coalitions. On one side are those, like Brahimi himself, who want the UN to oversee a genuine transfer of sovereignty to a representative Iraqi government, and who want the final outcome to be acceptable to Iraqi national aspirations, as well as to Arab nationalist sentiment.
On the other side, are American "neo-conservative" hawks and "friends of Israel", who backed Chalabi long before the war. Their dream is to turn Iraq into a US client state, the catalyst for "democratic" - in other words, pro-Western and pro-Israeli - change throughout the Middle East.
Their aim is, and always has been, the protection and promotion of American and Israeli strategic interests in the region.
The Chalabi camp is spoiling for a fight, but its weakness lies in the fact that, in Washington, opinion is beginning to turn against the "neo-cons", who are held responsible for the manipulation of intelligence and the geo-political fantasies which drew the US into the Iraqi quagmire.
Chalabi has also lost the confidence of Paul Bremer, the US "viceroy" in Baghdad, who is said to believe that he was misled by Chalabi over the need to dissolve the Iraqi army and sack all Baathists from government posts. These decisions have proved to be disastrous mistakes: they crippled state institutions, threw hundreds of thousands out of work, and swelled the ranks of the resistance.
Bremer has partially reversed this policy in recent weeks by recruiting former Iraqi officers into the "new Iraqi army", and calling back low-level Baathists into government service, including some 10,000 school teachers.
Perhaps seeing it as a threat to his own prospects, Chalabi has strongly criticised this retreat from de-Baathification. "This is like allowing Nazis into the German government immediately after World War II," he said.
Bremer will be gone by July 1, but Chalabi will still have his hands on several levers of power - that is, if Brahimi does not manage to exclude him from the next phase of the Iraqi political process.
Chalabi has mounted a campaign against Brahimi, accusing him of being a Sunni Muslim with no contacts or support in the all-important Shiite community. In turn, Israel and its American supporters have attacked Brahimi for remarks this week on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In a radio interview in Paris (where he had come to preside over his daughter's engagement to Prince Ali, half brother of Jordan's King Abdallah) Brahimi said: "There is no doubt that the great poison in the region is this Israeli policy of domination and the suffering imposed on the Palestinians, as well as the perception of the body of the population in the region, and beyond, of the injustice of this policy and the equally unjust support of the US for this policy."
He added: "The policy of very violent, strictly held security and total repression, and also this determination to occupy more and more Palestinian territory, does not aid the situation in the region."
When a journalist asked him whether he really believed Israeli policy was "the great poison in the region", Brahimi replied: "It is not an opinion. It's a fact!"
William Safire, the pro-Israeli New York Times columnist, at once accused Brahimi of seeking to "gain quick local support by denouncing Israel". He was guilty of "anti-western Arab demagoguery", Safire declared. His UN mission in Iraq had got off to "a troubling start".
The paradox is that the US needs Brahimi and supports his mission, but it is by no means ready to give up its supreme authority in Iraq. US forces are likely to remain in Iraq, and in ultimate charge of security, for the foreseeable future. CENTCOM commander General John Abizaid has even said that he might request an increase beyond the 135,000 troops now in Iraq.
The American press has speculated that 50,000 more troops may be needed to stabilise the situation, and perhaps even more.
John Negroponte, the future US ambassador in Baghdad, told the Senate foreign relations committee at his confirmation hearing this week that a UN role in Iraq would "not come at the expense of the US influence or interests". The State Department's Mark Grossman explained that Iraq would enjoy only "limited sovereignty" after June 30.
Brahimi is well aware of these constraints: the US is not going to allow itself to be driven out of Iraq. In spite of all the bloody setbacks, it has not given up hope of winning.
That is why Brahimi is seeking only a short-term, targeted mandate of which the principal tasks will be to replace the Iraq Governing Council with a caretaker government of "honest, technically qualified and respected people"; and to summon a large national conference, modelled on Afghanistan's loya jirga, of at least 1,000 members representing all Iraqi political forces including the resistance.
Emerging from this body, a consultative assembly would oversee the caretaker government's preparations for the January 2005 general elections.
Brahimi briefed the Security Council of his proposals last Tuesday but warned the US that bloody confrontations at Fallujah and Najaf, including the use of tank fire against mosque minarets, could derail the plan and have "dramatic and long-term consequences".
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has yet to approve Brahimi's proposals. It is an extremely difficult decision. Annan wants to preserve the UN's role as the prime instrument of the will of the international community. He clearly welcomes the fact that the US is now seeking UN help after having derided it.
But he must also protect the UN's credibility and has no wish to be seen as a US puppet. Annan's caution may have been reinforced by the failure of his plan for Cyprus re-unification, by the devastating attack on UN headquarters in Baghdad some months ago, and by alleged scandals in the oil-for-food programme, some said to involve people close to the Annan's own office. Annan cannot afford to fail again.
Meanwhile Chalabi and Brahimi are locked in battle. Chalabi must surely be hoping that Brahimi will stumble and that his own time will come.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs. He can be contacted at: email@example.com