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The past year of war and occupation has been the occasion for much jaw dropping, but I have to say that as jaded as I have become about one dumb-ass move after another by this incredibly inept administration, I was completely stunned by the idiocy of the Bush administration’s latest move: putting a nephew of Ahmed Chalabi in charge of the tribunal that will investigate and try captured Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein.
Ahmed Chalabi, recall, is the ethically challenged, sticky-fingered Iraqi exile financier who in the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq was the source of many of the wildly scary-and wholly fabricated-tales of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. He is the American government’s favorite pick to head up a new quisling Iraqi "sovereign" government sometime this summer, and as head of the Interim Governing Council’s economic and finance committee, has already overseen the appointment of the country’s ministers of Oil, Finance, Trade and the heads of the central bank, trade bank and largest commercial bank. (Chalabi was also convicted in absentia in Jordon of embezzlement in the 1980s, and is still subject to arrest and imprisonment in that country.)
Bad enough that most Iraqis view this fugitive from Jordanian justice with a mixture of distrust and disdain. Now, when the crucial prosecution of Iraq’s former dictator-a trial that is certain to galvanize the attention of the whole world-is about to get underway, the U.S. occupation authority has put forward a relative of this tainted character as director general of the tribunal.
Salem Chalabi, who studied law in the U.S. and speaks in an unaccented American English, may be a fine lawyer for all we know, but with his uncle being so directly linked to the Bush administration’s war cabinet and the controversial selling of the war to the Senate and the American public, and with Ahmed Chalabi himself such a controversial figure in Iraq, it is beyond dumb–more like idiotic–to have him be the one to direct the trial of Saddam.
If the U.S. wanted to demonstrate the workings of an honest and fair legal system, if it wanted to win the approval of the masses of people in the Arab and Islamic world, it already had an uphill battle ahead of it. The war itself, and especially the subsequent bloody occupation, have soured much of that world on America and its role in Iraq.
At least the prosecution and trial of a man who for years was widely perceived, even in the Arab world, as a monster, offered the chance for the U.S. to demonstrate the one unarguable positive of its invasion of Iraq-the removal of this man from power.
Now that unique opportunity is being squandered because nobody will trust the integrity of the proceedings if the process is headed up by such tainted goods as Salem Chalabi. It’s not just that his uncle is Ahmed. Salem himself is linked directly to the Bush administration. His business partner Mark Zell runs a law firm in partnership with U.S. Undersecretary of Defense and long-time neo-conservative Iraqi War hawk Douglas Feith-whose office oversees the graft and scandal-ridden reconstruction program in Iraq.
You have to wonder what they’re smoking over on Pennsylvania Avenue and in the Green Zone in Baghdad. If they wanted to rehabilitate Saddam Hussein on the Arab Street, they couldn’t have picked a better way to do it than to have a Chalabi run his trial.
Less shocking, but still stunning in its shabbiness, has been the American media’s complete lack of awareness of, or interest in this disastrous appointment. President Bush has been accused of being incurious, but the American media, whose job it is to ask questions, is in cases like this even worse. It’s willfully ignorant.
CNN, in an interview with Salem Chalabi back in December, when he was already being described as an "architect" of the coming tribunal, didn’t once ask him about the propriety or wisdom of his playing a key role in that tribunal. Neither did the Washington Post, which also interviewed him for a story at that time. A Google search of the mainstream media turns up no questioning of Salem Chalabi’s role as director general.
Even National Public Radio, which one might expect to show some scintilla of intellectual awareness, ran a piece this week interviewing Salem Chalabi about the tribunal without once asking him the Journalism 101 question about his conflict of interest in the case or the propriety of his serving as director general of the tribunal.
Back in December, President Bush seemed to acknowledge the importance of having a fair and public trial of the Iraqi dictator. At a White House press briefing, he said the U.S. would "work with the Iraqis to develop a way to try him that withstands international scrutiny." Uncle Chalabi, around the same time, pledged that the tribunal would "not be a kangaroo court."
Well, the Saddam tribunal seems to be surviving what passes for scrutiny in what passes for a news media in the U.S., but it’s a safe bet that any tribunal headed by Salem Chalabi will not withstand international scrutiny outside the U.S.-and particularly in the Islamic world, where it most needs to be respected.
It’s a good bet, too, that the trial will be a kangaroo court.