Controversial Commission Influences Iraqi Elections

While once a close ally of the U.S., Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi is viewed with wariness and apprehension by Americans. Chalabi seems to be Iraq's ultimate political survivor, making headlines again with his involvement in the recent purge of candidates linked to Saddam Hussein's Baath party ahead of the elections. Chalabi heads the Justice and Accountability Commission.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

In Iraq, a familiar face is making news again. Ahmed Chalabi was the one-time darling of the Bush administration. The faulty intelligence he provided helped make the case for invading Iraq. The U.S. position on Ahmed Chalabi these days is very different, as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Baghdad.

Mr. AHMED CHALABI (Justice and Accountability Commission, Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ahmed Chalabi's phone is ringing off the hook. As he makes his way to his home in Baghdad, Chalabi fields a half a dozen calls from all over the country, from chefs and officials currying favor.

Mr. CHALABI: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's never been elected to public office here, but his influence, it seems, has never been greater, if his effect on Iraq's upcoming elections is anything to go by. He now heads the Justice and Accountability Commission, a controversial body that was instrumental in banning nearly 500 candidates from running on March 7th because of their alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

In an interview with NPR at his home in the upscale neighborhood of Mansour, Chalabi - a secular Shiite who is running for a parliament seat in these elections - said his influence comes from his history here.

Mr. CHALABI: People perceive me to be largely responsible for the removal of Saddam, and at the same time to be more continuously fighting the Baath and to -try to prevent them from coming back to power. All this is - gets me a lot of friends and a lot of supporters.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And a lot of enemies, who see him as a Svengali-like character who these days, is doing the bidding of Iran.

Saleh al-Mutlaq is a Sunni, and one of the most prominent of the banned candidates.

Mr. SALEH AL-MUTLAQ (Politician): I remember Chalabi came with straightforward lines, how - what to do, from Iran. He came with all the instructions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Chalabi denies the charges.

Mr. CHALABI: It's complete nonsense. These charges are false, and they are motivated by anger at this time. And I don't think that he really believes them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraqi and Western analysts say, though, that Chalabi has been very useful to Iran recently. He was instrumental in bringing together the two main Iranian-linked parties here. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's bloc and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iran, one of the most powerful Shiite groups, are running under a single banner in these elections.

Reidar Visser is an Iraq expert and editor of the Iraq Web site, Historiae.org.

Mr. REIDAR VISSER (Editor, Historiae.org): To Iran, Chalabi is very helpful because he helps maintaining sectarianism on the political agenda in Iraq.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Visser says that Chalabi's resurrection of the Baathist threat is an attempt to push Shiites to vote for his Shiite alliance. Visser also emphasizes that Chalabi has fallen far out of American favor.

Mr. VISSER: It's pretty clear from what they have been saying publicly lately that they are deeply unhappy with him and his political projects in Iraq.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The United States, which funded Chalabi and saw him as a future leader of Iraq in the run-up to the war, now sees him as actively working against their interests here. The Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to get the banned candidates reinstated, fearing the issue could provoke doubts about the legitimacy of the elections.

Chalabi accuses the U.S. of interfering in the legal process here by trying to apply pressure on the commission, and on a panel of judges that was deliberating the appeals of some of the banned candidates.

Mr. CHALABI: In my view, the United States took the position that it's more important for them to combat Iran in Iraq than to work for strengthening the constitutional process.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Chalabi says the United States is acting naively.

Mr. CHALABI: To be against the Baath is not to be against America. To have good relations with Iran is not to take a position against the United States.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But he says he doesn't expect his relations with Washington to warm anytime soon.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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