June 19, 2013
Dinner With Ahmed
Posted on Mar 17, 2008
By Scott Ritter
Butler’s report to the Security Council, delivered in late June of 1998, was dramatically revamped in order to take into account the need to discuss the VX findings. The “major breakthrough” in disarmament work with the Iraqis was, as a matter of course, pushed to the sidelines. The Clinton administration, caught off guard, had to come out with public statements proclaiming its support for the work of UNSCOM at a time when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger were lobbying hard behind closed doors for the U.S. to pull back from blanket support of the inspection process.
The Republicans, led by Lott, had a new cause around which to rally in their effort to confront the Democrats: the failure of disarmament and the need to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Randy Scheunemann used the impetus created by the VX nerve agent scandal to draft legislation, the so-called Iraq Liberation Act, which was passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate in October 1998. This legislation solidified regime change in Iraq as the official policy of the United States, and certified Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress as the American choice for replacing Saddam. The Chalabi machine was on a roll, and was not to be stopped until the overthrow of Saddam in April 2003.
Ahmed Chalabi remains a controversial figure today. The U.S. case for war with Iraq was built around the notion of Iraq retaining stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Much of the case was built around so-called intelligence provided by Chalabi’s INC. All of this intelligence proved flawed. Chalabi and the INC have been singled out as the scapegoats for this failure, accused of deliberately misrepresenting data and even fabricating intelligence reports to shore up the U.S. government claim that Iraq did indeed possess proscribed weapons.
As for the Aberdeen VX lab report, the Iraqi government in the end had been telling the truth. It had not succeeded in stabilizing VX nerve agent, and it had never filled any weapons with the agent. Far from representing “incontrovertible evidence” of Iraqi duplicity, the Aberdeen lab results were flawed. Even under ideal circumstances, laboratory analysis conducted at approved facilities operating under strict protocols established in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention had an incredibly high rate of misidentification, and this occurred in known test samples. Detection of a specific chemical agent simply wasn’t a slam-dunk proposition. The Aberdeen samples were taken from metal fragments that had been subjected to explosive demolition and buried in the ground for many years. Subsequent retesting done by French and Swiss labs proved inconclusive. In the end, I was wrong to have pushed so hard to have the lab results made public.
Exploiting Iraq’s oil resources for his own benefit has always been a Chalabi goal. Prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Chalabi took a leading role in planning how the Iraqi oil sector would be managed in post-Saddam Iraq. He chaired a meeting of oil executives at London’s prestigious Royal Institute of International Affairs, the title of which was “Invading Iraq: Dangers and Opportunities for the Energy Sector.” Chalabi also took a leading role in advising the State Department’s Oil and Energy Working Group; in a conference of the group held in December 2002 he pushed for using a revitalized Iraqi oil industry to pay for the cost of the U.S. invasion (former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz relied heavily on Chalabi’s input when he testified to the U.S. Congress that Iraqi oil would more than offset the cost of invading Iraq). Chalabi argued that the best way forward for Iraq’s oil industry was to privatize as quickly as possible, and seek to free it of OPEC-imposed production quotas. Many of Chalabi’s policy positions are reflected in the stalled National Oil Law of Iraq, still pending ratification by the Iraqi parliament.
Chalabi no longer sits as Iraq’s oil czar. In the twists of fortune that mark the instability inherent in the disastrous American occupation of Iraq, Chalabi was compelled to step aside from the Oil Ministry in January 2006, replaced by former nuclear weapons scientist Hussein al-Shahristani. Chalabi’s political aspirations had fallen short in Iraq’s national elections, with his party failing to win even one seat in the Iraqi parliament. Down but not out, Chalabi continues to this day to operate on the fringes of Iraqi politics. In the fall of 2007 he was appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to be the chair of a so-called services committee, helping coordinate the provision of health care, electricity, education and other governmental services to Baghdad neighborhoods in coordination with the American military “surge.” Chalabi’s link to the ongoing “surge” is no accident, since it maintains the connection between him and those in the neoconservative establishment in American politics who have consistently advocated for him in any post-Saddam Iraq.
One of the most visible, and vocal, of these advocates was Randy Scheunemann, the former national security adviser to Trent Lott, who left his job as a Senate staffer. In 2000 he served as the foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination. In 2001 he served a short stint as a consultant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In November 2002, Scheunemann helped form a political advocacy group known as the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, whose membership included McCain, who was an honorary co-chair. With Scheunemann guiding him, McCain said in 2003 that Ahmed Chalabi was “a patriot who has the best interests of his country at heart.” Scheunemann is a key figure behind McCain’s unabashed support for staying the course in Iraq, and helped shape the “surge” strategy currently being pursued in Iraq. Today, once again, he serves as a senior foreign policy adviser to a McCain presidential campaign.
Danielle Pletka left her job with the Senate to take a position as vice president of the neoconservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, where she continues to be a vocal and unapologetic advocate of Ahmed Chalabi. In 2006, Pletka helped form AEI’s Iraq Planning Group, which authored a report released in January 2007 that advocated surging 50,000 troops into Iraq as a remedy to the ongoing impasse. This report took precedence over the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group findings, which articulated a more nuanced approach inclusive of diplomacy and reduction of forces in Iraq. She is an avid supporter of Sen. McCain’s presidential aspirations. Pletka’s husband, Stephen Rademaker, served in the Bush administration as an assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation and disarmament issues before leaving in 2006 to join the high-profile Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Barbour, Griffith and Rogers, where he actively operates in support of undermining the current Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki and advocating for Iraqi Kurdish oil autonomy. Another Pletka associate, former CIA Director James Woolsey, has been the pro bono counsel for Chalabi over the years. Woolsey, who openly advocated for the invasion of Iraq prior to March 2003, today is an adviser to McCain’s election campaign, with a primary focus on oil security policy.
Ahmed Chalabi no longer directly controls Iraq’s oil. But at one time he did, and it will be interesting to see how he chose to distribute this largess to his friends and allies. Even more interesting will be how Chalabi leveraged his control of Iraq’s economic wealth to support his continuing claim to the ultimate position of power in Iraq. With the Shiite fundamentalists in Baghdad stumbling in their effort to form a stable government, and with the U.S. balking at Maliki’s theocratic tendencies, rest assured there are many in Washington who continue to look upon Chalabi as the go-to guy to bring secular stability to Iraq. Whether he can accomplish this task is questionable. But, in the meantime, Chalabi is in a position to write many checks, a factor that today makes him so attractive to so many, especially those in the neoconservative establishment with whom he has maintained a relationship over time. Just how attractive will be determined once there is a better understanding of when, and to whom, Chalabi writes his checks, or, more important, who is writing the checks on his behalf.
Scott Ritter is a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq (1991-1998). Author of “Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein,” published by Nation Books in 2005, and “Target Iran: The Truth About the White House Plans for Regime Change,” published by Nation Books in 2006.
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