Fighting Words

Lay Off Chalabi

Iraq could do much worse.

If I was ever to volunteer for the role of American colonial puppet, I would hope to play my role with the same panache that Ahmad Chalabi has brought to the part. Denounced only last month by yet another anonymous “report” from the CIA and sneered at on a daily basis by the New York Times, he has either failed to be sufficiently biddable by the puppet-masters or (how simple it all seems when you think of it) has cleverly arranged to be the object of his own disinformation campaign.

If it’s the latter, then his stomach must be unusually strong. Maureen Dowd writes, displaying either an immense insider knowledge of day-to-day Baghdad or else no knowledge at all, that the American forces assigned to protect Chalabi would have been enough on their own to prevent the desecration of the National Museum. Since Chalabi was in Nasiriyah, far to the south, when the looting occurred, and since up until now he has provided his own security detail (I’d want my own bodyguards, too, if I’d been on Saddam’s assassination list for a decade), and since we don’t know by whom the actual plunder of the museum was actually planned or executed (or at least I don’t), Dowd might wish either to reconsider or to offer her expertise to Gen. Garner. Dowd’s bias was redressed in the New York Times on April 23, when Dilip Hiro expressed scorn for Chalabi’s presence in Baghdad at all, informing him that he should really have been on the Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala but apparently “couldn’t be bothered.” Had Chalabi doubled back on his tracks and gone south for a self-scourging, and thus been in several places at once, we would no doubt have had Thomas Friedman or Nicholas Kristof accusing him of pandering to fundamentalism and to Iran. (And how well I remember Dilip Hiro, all those years ago, trying to reassure me that, appearances to the contrary, the Ayatollah Khomeini was just the Mahatma Gandhi of Iran.)

In news stories as well as in opinion columns, it is repeatedly stated that Chalabi hasn’t been in the country for many years—or since 1958. This contradicts my own memory and that of several other better-qualified witnesses. They recall him in northern Iraq many times and for long periods in the 1990s, helping to organize opposition conferences and to broker an agreement between the opposing Kurdish factions. He frequently risked his life in this enterprise; indeed it was for criticizing the CIA’s own ham-fisted efforts in Kurdistan at the time that he incurred the lasting hatred of the agency. And since his activity on Iraqi soil was reported on several occasions in such journals of record as the New York Times, it must be something more than objectivity (or, dare I hint, something less) that informs the current animus.

Yasser Arafat hasn’t been in Jerusalem for some considerable time, after all, and before his disastrous return to Gaza, he hadn’t been on Palestinian soil for decades. The Dalai Lama hasn’t been in Tibet since the 1950s. Perhaps these leaders should be criticized more for being out of touch. But the fact remains that they are not. More important, both Arafat and His Holiness consider themselves to be axiomatic and self-evident leaders while Chalabi does not. But the fact remains that his forces provided invaluable help and intelligence in the recent campaign, and it is to the Iraqi National Congress that several senior Baathists have recently chosen to surrender. If this does not demand praise, surely it merits a little recognition?

This minor but persistent warp in the coverage is congruent (if a warp can be congruent) with another larger one. Obviously, a reporter hoping to get attention must now put due emphasis on Shiite fundamentalism. And many Shiite Iraqis are under the impression that Dilip Hiro was once under: that a society can be run out of the teachings of a holy book. However, the majority of Iranian Shiite voters have concluded in the past few years that this attempt has been a failure. The contradiction here deserves a little more attention than perhaps it has been receiving. And the contact between the Iraqi National Congress and the secular forces in Iran may be of more significance than we are being told.

Thus, the news that the Iraqi Communist Party was the first organization to start publishing and distributing a newspaper in Baghdad came as a piece of filler in the roundup section of the Times’ reporting. It didn’t really fit the collective mind-set of the press. But to produce and hand out a free eight-page paper (People’s Path—complete with old-style Communist logo) full of attacks on the fallen dictatorship is no small thing in the present circumstances. I am not all that surprised myself. The ICP was one of the largest civil-society movements in pre-Saddam Iraq and Kurdistan, and it was one of the first to feel the full horror of Baathist repression. In fact, the first human-rights reports about the situation in Iraq were produced by Communist-front groups in Western Europe in the mid-1970s. On a visit to Baghdad in 1976, I interviewed the late Rahim Ajina, a leader of the party, who gave me a list of political prisoners as soon as the official “minder” had left the room. Politically, the ICP was very stupid (it had sat in the same Cabinet as the Baath, Ajina told me, because it had been the first Arab regime to recognize East Germany), but on the ground, many of its members were very brave.

Thus, in the first few days of the vile colonial occupation, we have seen the green flag of Shiite populism and the red banner and hammer and sickle raised under the aegis of the U.S. Marine Corps. It could be that the full news of what has happened in Khomeini’s former Iran and in the former Soviet bloc has not completely penetrated Iraqi society. Clearly, history’s ironies have not exhausted themselves. But I mention this for a reason. What if one-tenth of the energy of the anti-war movement was now diverted to helping the secular and democratic forces in Iraq and Kurdistan? To giving assistance to a free press, helping to sponsor political prisoners and searches for the missing, providing money and materials for human rights and women’s groups? Maybe a few of the human shields and witnesses for peace could return and pitch in with the reconstruction? I know a few such volunteers, chiefly medical ones, but not many when compared to the amazing expenditure of time and effort that went on postponing the liberation. It’s just a thought. Maybe something will come of it.