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Theater of the Absurd

In addition to rising violence and tension, and the postponement of the convening of its National Congress, Iraq continues to provide day-by-day drama.

Last Sunday Ayad Allawi, who has served as the Iraqi premier for the past 40 days or so, did what prime ministers do: He went to the front line. But Allawi’s front line is at home, and this week he was in the city of Najaf, which is holy to the Shiites. Accompanied and secured by dozens of United States troops–like the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai–Allawi tried again to reach a hudna (cease-fire) with a fellow member of his sect. This is the second time the country’s authorities have found themselves negotiating with the young Shiite separatist leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who continues to make a laughingstock of both the American forces and the new Iraqi government.

The previous cease-fire collapsed. Al-Sadr maintains that the Americans broke their promise by arresting his people and also attacking his movement’s offices. The Americans say that they did nothing beyond what the Iraqi government asked them to do: in other words, to restore calm to the city. The result was fierce battles, the shelling of Shiite homes in the city, shootings at U.S. troops and hundreds of casualties.

Al-Sadr is ready to offer another cease-fire if the American forces stop arresting his people and attacking targets in Najaf. Allawi, who has already adopted a style of his own, declared this week that there would be no negotiations with Al-Sadr. He stated that the cleric and his loyalists, who are organized in the so-called Mahdi Army, must lay down their weapons and appear in court to be tried. Al-Sadr has no intention of acceding to that demand. He has expanded his resistance activity to the “Al-Sadr Quarter” in Baghdad as well. It was from that neighborhood, which looks like a copy of the poor sections of south Tehran, that Shiite forces expelled the Americans shortly after the war. At that time the Americans were “accused” only of removing a black flag that had religious significance, from an antenna. Now Al-Sadr wants a great deal more.

At the end of July the Iraqi National Congress was supposed to convene to elect the provisional parliament, which would serve until the elections at the beginning of next year. In the meantime, the meeting has been postponed until Sunday– and that’s not final, either. About 1,000 representatives from all Iraq’s districts were supposed to convene, but as yet there has been no agreement between the Kurds and the Shiites, between the Sunnis and the Shiites, and between the various parties and members of the provisional Iraqi government concerning how many delegates each group will have.

Al-Sadr has been invited to come to the gathering as the representative of his followers, and he wants a commitment to receive a place in parliament commensurate with the size of his forces. That demand clashes with the claims of other Shiite parties, and especially with the loyalists of national spiritual leader, Ali al-Sistani. In fact, the entire political development was engineered by Al-Sistani: a national assembly, a provisional parliament, elections at the beginning of 2005 and the appointment of a permanent government and the formulation of a “final” constitution thereafter. That plan was intended to ensure that his Shiite stream would have a majority in all the elected institutions.

However, the 75-year-old Al-Sistani is not well. At the end of last week he was bundled off to England for heart tests. According to his spokesman, his blood pressure is not stable and his arteries are partially blocked. This week he is scheduled to undergo surgery. There is no one with a similar religious status in his “court” who could replace him. This is the opportunity Al-Sadr has been waiting for. If Al-Sistani is forced to leave the scene, Al-Sadr will be able to present himself as having a suitable background to lead the sect. So far he has been considered a youngster (he is 30), who had no religious title of his own, relying only on the reputation of his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a supreme religious figure who was murdered by Saddam Hussein, according him any sort of authority.

If Al-Sistani bows out of the political arena in Iraq, a political war is liable to erupt between the two main streams of the religious Shia, a war that has been prevented until now because of the recognized authority of Al-Sistani. In addition, this could spell the disappearance of the religious authority that has until now blocked the Shiite jihad against the coalition forces. The Al-Sadr group believes that Al-Sistani chose the timing of his trip to England so that he would be out of the country when the Americans entered Najaf in order to liquidate Al-Sadr’s forces. Thus Al-Sistani will be able to claim that he was not implicated in this development.

Smooth tongue

In addition to the tension that is accompanying the medical treatment of Al-Sistani and the postponement of the convening of the National Congress, Iraq continues to provide amusing dramas of the absurd. For example, the story of Salem Chalabi, the nephew of Ahmed Chalabi, the man who fomented the war. Ahmed Chalabi was the powerful source who, with his 10 fingers and smooth tongue, succeeded in persuading the Pentagon that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that the Shiites would welcome the American forces with flowers and rice, and that in a twinkling the Iraqis would manage their country without Saddam and would free the U.S. armed forces from their commitment.

Chalabi received hefty payments from the Pentagon to run his organization, the Iraqi National Congress–this in the event that the $250 million or so that he is suspected of stealing from Jordan’s Petra Bank, which he managed at the end of the 1980s, runs out. Chalabi is now wanted on suspicion of having transferred American secrets to Iran and of forging millions of old Iraqi dinars to convert them into new dinars, which became legal currency in October. Chalabi is now in Tehran, from where he is conducting negotiations with the Iraqi government to prevent his arrest if he returns to Iraq.

The arrest warrant against Chalabi was issued by Judge Zuhair al-Maliki, who was appointed by the former U.S. governor in Iraq, Paul Bremer. However, according to reports in the Iraqi press, Al-Maliki has no formal judicial background and his main talent lies in translation. Nevertheless, with or without formal qualifications, Al-Maliki is continuing to initiate arrests of members of the Chalabi family.

Salem Chalabi was appointed by Bremer himself as head of the judicial tribunal that will charge and try Saddam Hussein. Now Salem is suspected of having participated in, initiated, or planned the assassination of senior officials in the new Iraqi finance ministry, including an official who investigated the business affairs of the Chalabi family.

Salem Chalabi, 41, is an interesting individual. He studied law and business administration at Princeton and Yale Universities in the States, and took part in framing the new Iraqi constitution and some of the country’s new laws. At the same time, he is a businessman, and as such he is apparently responsible for the fact that the British company Irenius will get a fat contract to secure oil facilities. He represented companies and individual businessmen who wanted to do business in Iraq and needed Ahmed Chalabi’s connections or his consent, and opened an office that offers legal consultation–under the auspices of the large international law firm of Zell, Goldberg & Co.

L. Marc Zell, an Israeli citizen, and his partners have offices in Israel–in the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem–as well as in Moscow, Seattle and Washington. In a telephone conversation he refused to confirm or deny his ties with Salem Chalabi. However, until a few months ago, the home page of the Iraqi International Law Group –the name of Chalabi’s consultancy company–listed as its address the offices of Zell, Goldberg in Washington, and according to Arab sources, Salem Chalabi visited Israel a few weeks ago.

Zell, Goldberg represent Israeli defense manufacturing firms in the U.S. and in other countries. Until 2001, Douglas Feith was a senior partner in the law office, which was then known as Feith, Zell. In 2001, Feith was appointed U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy and is thought to be the progenitor of the war strategy against Saddam Hussein.

Another name has to be added to the Feith, Chalabi, Zell parallelogram of forces: businessman Abdul Huda Farouqi, owner of a company called Nour USA. Farouqi’s good connections with Ahmed Chalabi date back to 1989, when Chalabi, then the CEO of Petra Bank, helped him finance projects around the world. Farouqi was on the brink of bankruptcy, but succeeded in extricating himself, and a few years later his names cropped up on the list of donors to President Bill Clinton.

At the end of the war in Iraq, Farouqi’s firm won a huge tender to supply equipment to the new Iraqi army that the U.S. was about to establish. However, the intervention of an unseen hand, probably U.S. officers in Iraq who weren’t satisfied with the services they were getting, brought about the annulment of the tender, with other companies winning the lucrative contracts. Farouqi, though, came out of it well: He won a tender to secure oil facilities and pipelines in Iraq, for which he hired the services of some 6,000 Iraqis, naturally from Chalabi’s followers. The attorney who brokered the deal was Salem Chalabi, who still holds the title of president of the tribunal to try Saddam Hussein, but who is himself wanted by the Iraqi authorities.

ZVI BAR’EL writes for Ha’aretz, where this essay originally appeared.

 

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