Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani Flown to London With Heart Condition

The Globe and Mail: "Charges may delay trial of Hussein

Ex-dictator's lawyer calls allegations against Chalabis a 'miracle from God'

Tuesday, August 10, 2004 - Page A9

WASHINGTON -- Murder and counterfeiting charges levelled in Baghdad against two U.S. protégés threaten to delay the trial of former dictator Saddam Hussein and could pose an obstacle to efforts aimed at holding elections in Iraq early next year.

Ahmed Chalabi, once the darling of the Pentagon hawks who pushed hardest for war against Iraq, and his nephew, Salem Chalabi, denounced the accusations against them yesterday. But Mr. Hussein's lawyer described the charges as a "miracle from God" that would aid his client.

At the same time, the interim Iraqi regime sought to distance itself from the tangled and explosive affair. And the United States tried to wash its hands of it.

"This is an Iraqi matter, and Iraqi authorities are working to address it," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters inquiring about the charges. "They're taking steps to address it. You need to address those questions to Iraqi authorities."

The United States poured millions of dollars into backing Ahmed Chalabi. For a time, some factions in Washington regarded him as a possible future leader in Iraq.

But Mr. McClellan said the former banker's difficulties were "not something that, to my knowledge, we've been involved in."

An Iraqi investigating judge issued warrants for the arrest of Ahmed Chalabi and 41-year-old Salem on Sunday. Ahmed is accused of counterfeiting old Iraqi dinars and exchanging them for new currency. Salem, who had been named to head the tribunal to try Mr. Hussein, was ordered arrested in connection with the murder of a senior Iraqi official.

A defence lawyer for Mr. Hussein, Ziad al-Khasawneh, seized on the allegation as evidence that the tribunal was illegitimate. "The court is headed by a murderer," he said in neighbouring Jordan. "It's a miracle from God to help Saddam Hussein."

Ahmed Chalabi was travelling in Iran when the warrants were issued.

In Tehran yesterday, he said counterfeit money found at his home in May had been collected under his authority as head of the finance committee of the now-dissolved Iraqi Governing Council, a post he was given during the U.S. occupation.

"The idea that I was involved in counterfeiting is ridiculous and the charges are being made for political purposes," he said.

The accusations against Salem Chalabi are more serious. They suggest he ordered or was involved in a contract killing of Haithem Fadhil, a Finance Ministry official who led an investigation into the circumstances under which the Chalabis had allegedly acquired prime properties in Baghdad.

"I don't have any recollection of meeting [Mr. Fadhil]," Salem Chalabi said in London yesterday. "I've never been in his office. I don't own any properties in Iraq. I stay at a friend's house."

Although both men vowed to return, the risk of trial in an uncertain legal environment could mean extended exile. In Salem Chalabi's case, Iraq recently reinstituted the death penalty as an optional punishment for murder.

Their absence might suit the interim government led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a sometimes bitter rival of Ahmed Chalabi. His office declined to comment on the arrest warrants yesterday.

If the Chalabis remain in exile, it would complicate an already-fragmented political mix.

After he was left out of the interim government, Ahmed Chalabi was reportedly seeking an electoral alliance with Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

The alliance was far from fruition, but it remains unclear who would draw the votes of Iraq's Shia majority in next year's election.

Leading Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, considered a powerful moderate, was flown to London on the weekend, reportedly suffering from a heart condition.

If he remains off the political landscape, it will leave a leadership vacuum for Iraqi Shiites -- a role that both Mr. Chalabi and Muqtada al-Sadr aspired to fill.

As recently as May of this year, Ahmad Chalabi was receiving $340,000 a month from Washington and remained the favourite of neo-conservatives such as Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who pushed hard for the toppling of Mr. Hussein.

He was later accused of telling the Iranian government that U.S. spies had broken its diplomatic codes and were intercepting signals between Baghdad and Tehran."


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