WASHINGTON - President Bush says he wants the Iraqi people to pick their future leaders. But one man in particular, Ahmad Chalabi, has gotten a major boost from the United States in the scramble for power in postwar Iraq.
Other would-be political players in Iraq seized on the chaos that followed Saddam Hussein's fall to set up headquarters in choice buildings abandoned by the old regime. But only Chalabi has a stipend from the American taxpayers, a 700-member militia trained and paid for by the United States, his own liaison officer with U.S. authorities, and close ties on Capitol Hill and with senior officials in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office.
Ensconced in the Baghdad social club once owned by Hussein's son Odai, Chalabi is emerging as a big-city-style political boss, intimidating critics and potential foes while delivering services to Iraqis struggling to rebuild their lives amid rampant lawlessness, power failures and water shortages.
These actions "will serve him well" if and when, despite Chalabi's repeated disclaimers, he decides to run in Iraqi elections for a leadership post, one Bush administration official said.
"The U.S. military is very busy and can't be everyplace at once. Chalabi knows that's the case. Why not use his people to fill that void?" the official said.
To his passionate supporters in Washington, Chalabi's growing influence in Baghdad is a fitting reward for someone who labored for more than a decade to bring about the fall of Hussein and the rise of democracy in Iraq, braving personal danger, bureaucratic hostility and infighting among other Iraqi exiles.
But to his critics here and in the region, the role Chalabi has assumed is an ominous sign that the United States, contrary to its pledge to honor the Iraqi people's choice of leaders, is intent on installing a government that will advance U.S. dominance in the region.
Born into a wealthy, secular Shiite family, Chalabi, 58, went into exile as a teen-ager with his family after the 1958 coup that overthrew Iraq's Hashemite monarchy, with whom the family had close ties. With degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, he taught at the American University in Beirut and then embarked on a banking career.
An aroma of financial scandal has clung to Chalabi since 1989, when his family's banking institutions in Switzerland, Lebanon and Jordan collapsed one by one. In 1992, Chalabi was convicted and sentenced in absentia by a Jordanian security court of defrauding the Petra Bank, which he founded, in a case that he and his supporters blame on Iraqi leader Hussein's powerful influence in the kingdom.
But by then, Chalabi had already drawn the attention of the Central Intelligence Agency, which was seeking to recruit anti-Hussein exiles to destabilize the Iraqi regime. With money and equipment from the U.S. government, Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress moved into northern Iraq in October 1992, hoping to use U.S.-protected Kurdish territory to launch a series of covert actions against Hussein's regime.
Chalabi's role in an aborted anti-Hussein offensive in 1995 convinced some in the Clinton administration that the INC leader and the CIA operatives he was working with were exceeding their mandate.
A more serious breach between Chalabi and the administration came the following year, when Hussein's forces captured and executed more than 200 INC personnel in northern Iraq, causing other INC members and U.S. intelligence officers to flee northern Iraq.
The two episodes left a residue of mistrust between Chalabi and some key officials of the CIA that was compounded by skepticism about Chalabi's belief that Iraqi opposition forces could topple Hussein with only modest U.S. military support.
Feeling that the opposition forces had been betrayed by the Clinton administration, Chalabi turned his attention to Capitol Hill, teaming up with members of Congress and staffers seeking to make "regime change" in Iraq the official U.S. government policy.
Chalabi drew support not only from such congressional leaders as then-Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, but also from out-of-power conservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, now deputy secretary of defense.
Displaying the political sophistication that has become his trademark, Chalabi also forged ties with the hawkish wing of Washington's pro-Israel lobby, impressing them with his vision of a democratic government in Iraq at peace with its neighbors. But the INC ran into more problems with the State Department over accounting for its aid money, problems that have since been ironed out.
Unique among exile leaders, Chalabi was airlifted by the U.S. military into southern Iraq midway through the invasion, along with his 700-member Free Iraqi Forces.
"They came to us," INC adviser Zaab Sethna said of the Americans. "They needed an Iraqi element in the [military] campaign." While temporarily based in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, Chalabi began to distance himself from his patrons by demanding that the U.S.-led coalition move more quickly to restore services and deliver relief supplies. "Where is Jay Garner?" he asked in a CNN interview, referring to the U.S. civilian administrator, then based in Kuwait.
After Iraqi resistance in Baghdad collapsed, Chalabi, his aides and about a dozen bodyguards set out quickly for the capital - without the approval of U.S. military authorities, Sethna said. They convinced managers of the social club that it would be safer from looters if Chalabi and his men moved in, Sethna said.
From his new base, Chalabi has sent his Free Iraqi Forces on a hunt for evidence about Hussein's regime, scooping up documents in houses abandoned by fleeing Baath Party leaders and top officials of the security establishment. They stumbled upon one trove when Chalabi went to check out a house that had belonged to his sister before it was taken over by the Iraqi secret police.
In an interview from Baghdad, Sethna said the documents now total 60 tons and are being reviewed by U.S. authorities at secret locations for intelligence on Hussein's security services and the Baath Party.
But after perusing some of the documents, Chalabi has also come up with ammunition against perceived adversaries in the news media and abroad. He said in an interview on Abu Dhabi television that journalists for rival channel Al-Jazeera had been infiltrated by Iraqi agents. He told Newsweek that the files may contain incriminating information about the Jordanian royal family, saying King Abdullah II is "worried about what might come out."
The charge roiled an already-tense relationship between Chalabi and Jordan, where officials describe the exile leader as a fugitive from justice and a divisive figure.
While helping U.S. forces search for Hussein and other top members of the regime, Chalabi has also set out to confound the skeptics who suspect him of being a U.S. puppet and those, including some officials in the State Department, who feel he will be unable to build support inside the country and have criticized his ability to unite Iraqi opposition factions.
He has championed Iraqis who want to see a "de-Baathification" of Iraqi institutions and criticized U.S. officials who have encouraged Baath Party members to return to work to jump-start the Iraqi government and services.
"We don't have civil or governmental authority, but we can push ORHA," said Sethna, referring to the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. For instance, the INC relayed information from Iraqi electrical workers that the problem with the power supply was not the electrical plants but downed power lines.
Meanwhile, Chalabi is "trying to build tribal and Shia links," said Glen Rangwala, a Middle East specialist at Cambridge University.
Randy Scheunemann, a former foreign affairs adviser to Lott who now runs the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, said doubts about Chalabi in Washington stem from an entrenched belief among Arab-world specialists in the CIA and State Department that democracy can't succeed there.
"They argue against democracy. Their careers are vested in 'stability,'" Scheunemann said.
Amid the sudden blossoming of new and revived political movements in Iraq, analysts are wary of assessing Chalabi's chances of establishing himself as a durable political force.
Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service, said that "many experts see his [political] base as the U.S. military."
"As the U.S. military draws down, the ballast under Chalabi would appear to erode," Katzman said. By contrast, Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, who crossed into Iraq from his long exile in Iran this past weekend, "has a true power base that one can see and measure. It's visible and it's going to be there."
The INC's Sethna counters: "We have the best philosophy - pluralism, democracy, rule of law, and civil and political rights." Chalabi has declared he doesn't want to be prime minister or even to lead a transitional government, but, Sethna said, "If it emerges that he is a pivotal figure, that there is something he can do in pulling people together, and his presence in some job is necessary, I think he will do it."