Fighting Words

Chalabi Strikes Back

A counterfeit charge considered.

Bad for business

Today in Washington, D.C., a lawsuit was filed by Ahmad Chalabi in the District of Columbia Superior Court. Brought under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, it charges various high officials in the Jordanian government, and the Jordanian monarchy in general, with having sought to loot the Chalabi family’s Bank of Petra. The suit further alleges that several named Jordanians used their influence to try to have Chalabi forcibly returned to his native Iraq in 1989, there to be tortured and killed by Saddam Hussein.

Some people, including myself, have known for a few days that this lawsuit was impending. But over last weekend, an Iraqi judge ordered Chalabi’s arrest on a charge of counterfeiting, and further ordered the arrest of his nephew, Salem Chalabi, on the graver charge of involvement in the murder of an Iraqi official.

On May 20, furthermore, Ahmad Chalabi’s home in Baghdad was raided and he was publicly accused of passing classified information to the government of Iran. Nothing further has been heard of those charges, which struck many people at the time as highly implausible (if only because the Iranians had apparently used their “broken” code to alert their HQ that the code had been broken). So what merit might there be in the latest accusations, and should one pay any attention to their timing?

The last time I saw Dr. Chalabi, as it happens, he was telling the amusing story of the recall of the Iraqi dinar. In one of its better decisions, the Bremer regime in Baghdad had printed a new currency without the face of the dictator and told people to bring in their old bills and exchange them. According to Chalabi, a vast amount of extra currency—very much more than anticipated or known about by the Iraqi National Bank—had been turned in. The debauching and bankrupting of Iraq, he said, had been much greater even than he had feared. Some Baathist leaders had obviously been printing their own dough. We had a bit of a laugh about it: Some of the money I had seen looked as if it had been run off on an old Xerox machine.

In the interlude between the recall of the old notes and the issuance of the new ones, a few sporting types may well have tried to print a freelance version for themselves. And these became, when discovered, the property of the Finance Ministry, over which Chalabi had some jurisdiction. But on Jan. 16 the old notes became valueless. And the sudden raid on Chalabi’s home took place on May 20. So if there were any samples of dud money lying around, they would only prove, if they proved anything, that he was either a collector of curios or a fool. His worst enemy has not alleged the second charge.

However, it has been freely said for several years that Chalabi fled Jordan after the meltdown of his family’s bank, and it may seem easier to press a case of counterfeiting against someone with a reputation as a shady businessman. Hence the importance of today’s suit, which in more than 50 pages constitutes not just Chalabi’s response to the original charge, but his bringing of several charges in turn.

It always struck me as odd that Chalabi and his bank were judged, in 1989, by a specially convened Jordanian military tribunal. This is not the way that banking regulation normally takes place, even in the Levant. But it was notorious that the Jordanian military at that time was dependent on its Iraqi big brother and neighbor. And Chalabi had asserted in public that the Jordanian regime had helped Iraq violate various arms embargos by purchasing weaponry allegedly for Jordanian use and then trans-shipping it to Baghdad.

With Saddam Hussein gone (and now facing a special Iraqi tribunal that has actually been convened with great difficulty by Salem Chalabi) there are some people more willing to talk. The suit lodged in the D.C. Superior Court quotes directly from Lt. Col. Hafez Amin, the original Jordanian investigator, who seems to me to state in round terms that the investigation of the Petra Bank was politically motivated from the beginning. Now, I am not qualified to scrutinize bank records and money transfers and discover a trail, nor am I qualified to determine cryptographic evidence. But I will say that I have a slight instinct for a bogus story. We were asked to believe, last May, that a drunken CIA agent had blabbed about the Iranian codes to Chalabi, who had then hastened to warn Tehran. That’s bullshit if ever I have heard it: Chalabi doesn’t pour drinks, for one thing, and the CIA station in Baghdad hated him like poison. Furthermore, a renowned man of business like himself—he actually introduced the Visa card to the Middle East in his halcyon days—may perhaps have the Soros-like skill to alter currency rates. But he’s not going to be found holding a bundle of grubby forged dinars, for Chrissake. Perhaps the CIA is again judging its enemies by its own low-rent standards.

As I write, the Allawi government in Baghdad is trying, with American support, a version of an “iron fist” policy in the Shiite cities of the south. (“Like all weak governments,” as Disraeli once said in another connection, “it resorts to strong measures.”) Chalabi, who has spent much of this year in Najaf, thinks that this is extremely unwise. We shall be testing all these propositions, and more, as the months go by.