Rice Meets with Chalabi in Washington

Iraq's controversial Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi begins a visit to Washington, D.C. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice received Chalabi, even though he has been accused of passing U.S. intelligence to the Iranian government. He is also due to confer with Vice President Cheney and other officials.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Today Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with one of Iraq's deputy prime ministers. That may sound like an ordinary meeting, but this Iraqi official is a controversial one: Ahmed Chalabi. He was the key figure in the run-up to the war, helping the Bush administration make its case and predicting the US would be welcomed with flowers. The administration's relationship with him has been hot and cold since then. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, Chalabi is hoping this visit will mark his return to favor.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

Chalabi is a political survivor. A longtime exile and Washington insider, some here saw him as a potential leader of post-Saddam-Hussein Iraq. The Pentagon even flew him into Iraq in the early days of the war. But last year relations soured and the US accused him of passing secrets to Iran. The Bush administration also cut off payments to his Iraqi National Congress, a group now being investigated by Democrats on Capitol Hill for funneling bogus information to the US about Iraq's alleged weapons programs. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin today demanded that Chalabi be subpoenaed to appear before congressional intelligence committees rather than wined and dined.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): This man misled us into a war with bad information and then once there turned on the United States and used information against our national interest. Is that the kind of person you want to invite to lunch? I don't think so.

Unidentified Woman: Shame, Mr. Chalabi. Shame, American Enterprise Institute. Shame, Mr. Bush. Shame, Mr. Cheney.

Unidentified Group: Shame, shame, shame.

KELEMEN: About a dozen anti-war activists gathered outside the American Enterprise Institute, where Chalabi addressed scholars and journalists this afternoon. Inside the conservative think tank, he was hailed as a patriot who is simply facing a smear campaign. He denies he ever said that in spite of his errors he was a hero for persuading the US to topple Saddam Hussein.

Mr. AHMED CHALABI (Iraq, Deputy Prime Minister): I never said that we are heroes in error. We are sorry for every American life that is lost in Iraq. I regret every loss of American lives that happened in Iraq subsequent to the end of fighting with Saddam. As for the fact that I deliberately misled the American government, this is an urban myth.

KELEMEN: Chalabi also denies the allegations that he told Iran last year that the US broke an Iranian code. But Rand Beers, who used to be on President Bush's National Security Council, says the open FBI investigation into the case does put the Bush administration in an awkward position.

Mr. RAND BEERS (Former Member, National Security Council): If we have reason to believe that that's true or I would even go so far as to say if we haven't disproven that it was true, then I think that the people who talked to him have to be, one, very circumspect and, two, not particularly senior.

KELEMEN: Very senior people are meeting with Chalabi, though, including Vice President Dick Cheney and national security adviser Stephen Hadley. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli went out of his way today to describe Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's meeting with Chalabi as a routine discussion with an Iraqi official whose portfolio includes the vital energy sector.

Mr. ADAM ERELI (State Department Spokesperson): The way to look at this visit and the meetings with Chalabi is in the context of a broad, sustained and intensive partnership between the United States and Iraq.

KELEMEN: Officials are quick to point out that Secretary Rice also met this week with another leading figure from Iraq, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, but that visit had been overshadowed by the media frenzy surrounding the Bush administration's former golden boy, Ahmed Chalabi. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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