WASHINGTON - The man many tout as the next leader of Iraq until this week had not been in Iraq for 45 years. But Ahmed Chalabi, who founded the Iraq National Congress 11 years ago in London as an umbrella group for exiled opposition to Saddam Hussein, has never stopped plotting his return.
With the Pentagon backing his return - with 700 Iraqi fighters armed and equipped by the United States and dubbed the Free Iraqi Forces - to southern Iraq earlier this week, he has become a sort of mystery man, with a great deal of whispering about him in capital cities around the globe. Is he a savior of post-Saddam Iraq? Or is he a calculating opportunist who could undermine U.S. objectives in Iraq by making Iraqis fear he is a puppet for the U.S. military?
Charismatic, idealistic, passionate about Iraq's future, and determined to make it succeed as a democracy, Mr. Chalabi is a balding, middle-age man on a mission. A Shiite Muslim from a wealthy family, he left Iraq at the age of 13. Now he has homes in London and Washington, where he is a dinner-party favorite.
For years he has been courting American conservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary, subtly pushing himself as the natural leader for Iraq once Saddam is toppled. And now Mr. Chalabi is back in his native land in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, with the help and blessing of some - but not all - U.S. officials.
When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who knows Mr. Chalabi well, was asked at the Pentagon a few days ago if he endorses Mr. Chalabi's return to Iraq and as possible head of government there, Mr. Rumsfeld responded with one of his characteristic nondirect-answer answers: “I have not opined on that subject,'' he said, skirting the issue of what he thinks. “I have not said a word on the subject. The Iraqi people are going to make these decisions.''
But, most think, that will be with a great deal of help from the U.S. military. After the war, the country will be run by Gen. Tommy Franks, who is now in charge of the war.
Mr. Chalabi is an intellectual, a mathematician who studied both at the University of Chicago and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also is a businessman with a highly checkered past. In Jordan, after starting a bank, he was convicted of fraud and embezzlement, losing thousands of Jordanian citizens, and the government of Jordan, hundreds of millions of dollars. He points out that the indictment was handed down in 1992, the same year he founded the Iraqi National Congress and was politically orchestrated by friends of Saddam.
But American officials at the State Department who have looked into the matter say that the indictment was legitimate and that they believe Jordanian officials who charged that he cooked the books of the Petra Bank. Those officials scoff that while the indictment was brought in 1992, the bank scandal began years before that. The bank went out of business in 1989.
State Department sources, appalled at the flamboyant way Mr. Chalabi returned to Iraq under what looked to many like U.S. auspices, say that he is charming enough to make the bank's problems seem reasonable, especially at a time when Jordan was in a serious financial squeeze.
In fact, Mr. Chalabi apparently was so charming and credible, that the State Department and the CIA reportedly funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to Mr. Chalabi through the Iraqi National Congress until last year, when questions began to mount about where the money was going and who might be profiting from it.
Nonetheless, there is a lot of anger against Mr. Chalabi at the State Department. He reportedly said that the Iraqi people would rise up and welcome American soldiers with flowers and cheers, an idea his friend, Vice President Cheney, repeated on NBC's Meet the Press but has not come true.
Also, many Iraqis are said to be suspicious of Mr. Chalabi because he has ties to Iran, which fought a brutal war with Iraq, and because of his shady business past.
Many at the State Department simply think Mr. Chalabi is not strong enough to hold the various factions of Iraq together as Saddam barely did through ruthless oppression.
Officially, the United States has no position on who should govern Iraq when the war is over, except that it should be someone democratically elected. But the fight within the administration is whether the bulk of the next government should come from the ranks of exiles, such as Mr. Chalabi, or dissidents who stayed within Iraq at their own peril.