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Dinner With Ahmed
Posted on Mar 17, 2008
By Scott Ritter
I was scheduled to fly down to Washington to meet with the CIA about ongoing intelligence support programs then underway. In my desk I had a business card for Randy Scheunemann, the national security adviser to Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who was at that time the Senate majority leader. Scheunemann had been part of a congressional staff delegation that had visited the United Nations earlier in 1998, and had met with Butler and some of the UNSCOM inspectors to discuss the situation in Iraq. I dialed the number listed and told Scheunemann I would like to meet with him while I was in Washington to discuss some new developments. He agreed to the meeting and threw in a twist of his own: Would I mind meeting with Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi expatriate who headed an opposition group called the Iraqi National Congress, or INC? Chalabi maintained offices in London and Georgetown, Va., and he shuttled back and forth between the two carrying out his various political intrigues. He was, at the time, in residence in Georgetown, and Scheunemann thought that Chalabi might be of assistance in any matter regarding Iraq.
I landed at National Airport early in the morning. In the terminal I spotted a man in a black suit holding a sign with my name on it. I assumed he was a driver of a car sent to take me to the Senate offices of Scheunemann. I was partly right. The driver was for me, but my destination was not Capitol Hill. “Mr. Chalabi sends his greetings,” the driver said as he ushered me to an awaiting town car. “I will take you to meet Mr. Chalabi now.” Ahmed Chalabi’s Washington headquarters was in a posh red-brick Georgetown town house. Chalabi himself was there to greet me.
I was ushered into Chalabi’s home, where he set out an ambitious program, including briefings to senators and their staffs. The meeting went on well into the next day. I had an open return air ticket but had not planned on spending the night, and as such had not made any hotel arrangements. “Not to worry,” Chalabi said. “You are welcome to stay with me as my guest. We’ll have dinner here tonight, and you can sleep in one of my guest rooms.”
Chalabi’s driver, who turned out to be a Shiite refugee from southern Iraq, drove me to the State Department, where my meeting with the CIA was held. Afterward, I took a cab to Capitol Hill and then made my way to the Senate office building where Randy Scheunemann had his office, right across from Sen. Lott’s. Once there, I got down to business. I handed Scheunemann a copy of the Aberdeen lab report and explained the background of the document. He immediately grasped the importance of what he was holding in his hand. “What would you like me to do with this information?” he asked. I explained the desire to get this data into the public eye, which meant bypassing both Richard Butler and the White House because I and the inspectors I had met with believed that both were seeking to suppress the data. “If it could find its way into the press in a way that removed any UNSCOM fingerprints, this would be ideal. That way the data remains uncompromised, and yet politically Butler and the White House can’t ignore it.” Scheunemann was smiling. “I think we can manage that.”
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Scheunemann and I left Lott’s office, and I took a cab back to Chalabi’s town house in Georgetown. Chalabi was out when I arrived, but I was met at the door by Francis Brooke, an American from Atlanta who was Chalabi’s principle adviser. Brooke was also a guest at Chalabi’s apartment. I changed out of my suit and made my way downstairs to relax while I waited for dinner. No sooner had I sat down than the doorbell rang. Brooke answered it, and in walked Dr. Max Singer, a noted independent consultant on public policy and a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute who specialized in what was known as “political warfare.” Singer was a busy man, but he had been asked by Scheunemann to prepare a paper titled “The Chalabi Factor,” which outlined the importance and viability of Chalabi and the INC as a realistic opposition to the rule of Saddam Hussein. “Ahmed asked me to drop this off for you to look at,” Singer said, handing me the document. “I will be interested in what you think of it.”
Singer left and I sat down with his paper. The document outlined a political scenario that had Chalabi and the INC exploiting the weakness of the regime of Saddam in northern Iraq (Kurdistan) and southern Iraq, among the Shiites, to install himself as a viable political alternative to the Iraqi dictator. The main thesis centered on gaining a physical foothold in southern Iraq and taking control of the oil fields surrounding Basra, enabling the INC to become economically viable, which in turn created the conditions for political viability. Chalabi, the paper held, was ideally suited for this role since he already had a large following inside Iraq and was widely recognized outside Iraq as a legitimate contender for the helm of post-Saddam Iraq. I was somewhat taken aback by the content of the Singer paper. I was on dangerous political ground here, a U.N. weapons inspector charged with the disarmament of Iraq, suddenly dabbling in the world of regime change. Far from advising me on issues of intelligence regarding Iraqi WMD, Ahmed Chalabi had turned the tables and had me advising him on how to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Within the hour Chalabi returned to his apartment, accompanied by a tall man in a gray suit, Stephen Rademaker. Rademaker was the husband of Danielle Pletka, the senior professional staff member for Near East and South Asia affairs on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Rademaker was the legal counsel for the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and, like his wife, an unabashed member of the right wing of the Republican Party, along with being a champion of Chalabi. Rademaker joined Francis Brooke, Chalabi and me in the comfortably laid-out living room of the town house, where we discussed not arms control but regime change. I started off with the premise that the best way to achieve regime change in Iraq was to hold Saddam accountable for his requirement to disarm, and that the focus of our discussion should therefore be how to get the U.S. government to take more seriously the work of UNSCOM, and to put the weight of America behind such smoking-gun evidence as the VX nerve agent lab report from Aberdeen. Rademaker interjected at that point. “We agree. But we all know Saddam is cheating, and that his days are numbered. What we don’t have is a plan on what we are going to do once Saddam is out of office. Mr. Chalabi represents our best hopes in that regard, which is why we’re delighted that you and he are meeting like this.”
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