Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

To Iraq now, where the revolutionary fervor sweeping the Arab world is opening a new door for a familiar and controversial figure. Ahmed Chalabi helped convince the U.S. to topple Saddam Hussein, and he's now taking up the cause of dissidents and rebels around the Arab world.

Chalabi says Iraq should lead the way to democratic change in the region, but Kelly McEvers reports that he might have other motives as well.

KELLY MCEVERS: Chalabi and his colleagues in the Iraqi National Congress are working on all kinds of things these days. His pet cause is Bahrain, a country where mass protests that started in February have been met with a brutal crackdown. Chalabi's group is organizing conferences, featuring Bahraini opposition figures from London like this man, Qasim al Hashmi.

QASIM AL HASHMI: (Speaking in foreign language)

MCEVERS: Speaking to a handful of Iraqi journalists, Hashmi breaks down over the plight of Bahraini protesters.

AL HASHMI: (Speaking in foreign language)

MCEVERS: We went into the streets carrying flowers, he says, and they met us with tanks and rifles. After Hashmi's speech, we ask him why he's raising these concerns in Iraq.

AL HASHMI: This is the first time we found a brother, a big brother who is taking - who is leading us, who is putting their hand into our hand and saying, come, I'll take your case to the world together.

MCEVERS: That hand is coming from Ahmed Chalabi, and it's not just the Bahrainis he's helping. Chalabi's group is talking to Egyptians, to Libyan rebels. And he's talking to Yemenis.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

MCEVERS: In his modernist sitting room, Chalabi receives petitioners like a powerful sheik. He says Iraq should serve as an example to the region.

AHMED CHALABI: Iraq has overthrown one of the most terrible dictatorships and blood-thirsty dictators in the 20th century. Now, Iraq can claim rightfully that it has a democratic government and it has elected parliament and free elections, and there is a dialogue, a political dialogue, going on.

MCEVERS: Thing is, it's not quite so simple. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein led an elite made up mostly of Sunnis. Now that he's gone, many of those in power are Shiites.

Western analysts say rather than just asserting a new Iraq, Chalabi and others are pushing for a Shiite Iraq to become a major player in the so-called Shiite Crescent, which is led by Iraq's neighbor, Iran.

And this, they say, is why Chalabi cares so deeply about Bahrain. The majority of people there are Shiite, but the ruling family is Sunni. Chalabi denies he's stoking sectarian flames by extending a Shiite hand to Bahrain.

CHALABI: It's like accusing Martin Luther King of being a racist. Is he a racist? He stood up for the rights of the blacks because they were oppressed as blacks. These people are oppressed as Shia.

MCEVERS: Even though Chalabi is a secular man, he has long been accused of hitching a ride with Iraq's Shiite rulers, in hopes of one day securing a top position in government.

Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst with the International Crisis Group, says casting local uprisings as a regional battle between Shiites and Sunnis is a dangerous game.

JOOST HILTERMANN: If you're a Bahraini Shiite, and you feel discriminated against, and then outsiders come in and say, oh, we support you...

MCEVERS: It only plays into the Bahraini ruling family's narrative, Hiltermann says, that the protests are being orchestrated by outsiders.

HILTERMANN: If they can cast the revolt as essentially Iranian-inspired, that would give it the ammunition it needs to suppress this revolt efficiently.

MCEVERS: This sectarian divide is already playing out in the meeting halls of officials around the region and in the streets of Iraq, where just a few years ago, Shiites and Sunnis were locked in a bloody war.

Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

MCEVERS: At a recent protest, Iraqis were mostly calling for better electricity and water, as they have been every Friday for months. Then, one woman raised a Bahraini flag. Sunni protesters pushed her, then cheered as she dropped the flag.

Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

MCEVERS: Shiite protesters fought back.

Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

MCEVERS: Why should we care about Bahrain, one protester yelled, when we have so many problems in Iraq?

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.