- 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
- 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.
- Arab nationalism
- 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
- 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
- Difficult choice
- 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
- 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
- Bloody confrontations
- 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
- Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several
books on Middle East affairs. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
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