April 15, 2003

Former grad student leads troops in Iraq

In the 1960?s Ahmed Chalabi sat in Ryerson and Eckert halls, studying to complete his Ph.D. in mathematics; today he stands as the Pentagon?s primary candidate for leadership of postwar Iraq, currently training with hundreds of troops in southern Iraq to develop a military presence.

Chalabi?s troops, trained by U.S. Special Operations, landed in Nasiriyah last week and are steadily moving towards Baghdad, according to widespread media accounts. While Chalabi is the only possible political leader to lead U.S. armed and supervised troops, the U.S. government maintains he is not officially selected for leadership. The troops operate under the Pentagon, but their operation is not backed by the CIA or the State Department?both of which remain deeply skeptical of their overall operation to support Chalabi.

Chalabi is one of several opposition leaders who will participate in a series of regional conferences to determine the future of Iraq. The Pentagon maintains that it will leave the actual selection of officials to the Iraqi people.

The Pentagon?s backing of Chalabi reveals a discrepancy between the internationally preferred movement to allow native Iraqis to select their own postwar leader, and U.S. senior officials? drive to maintain a greater sphere of influence in the nation.

The backing of Chalabi appears to nullify the Pentagon?s effort to include sundry regional leaders in discussions about Iraq?s future and augurs the emergence of Chalabi as the eventual leader of the country.

During his time at the U of C, Chalabi became acquainted with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. He also formed a relationship with Richard Perle, an advisor to the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Both men received graduate degrees here.

Chalabi?s association with key officials in the administration is viewed by many, including Middle East studies professor Rashid Khalidi, as his only qualification for power. Chalabi is otherwise seen as out of touch with the Iraqi people and lacking a popular base for support.

Professor of Near Eastern History Fred Donner sees obstacles to Chalabi?s rule, emphasizing the need for the Iraqis to choose a leader for themselves.

?For one thing he has been out of the country for 45 years,? Donner said. ?Second, he has somewhat of a checkered financial history in Jordan. Thirdly, he has been so close to United States government and Pentagon that people would be suspicious, he would be viewed as somewhat of a stooge.?

Opposition groups based in Iraq are seen to have more credibility among the Iraqi people. Khalidi points to two mass organizations, Al-Da?wah and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which both have more mass support than ?this crook.?

?These are people who have suffered through the oppression of the Iraqi regime,? Khalidi said. ?Will it be a member of one of these groups or this guy, who has been living off the fat of Jordanian banks and American tax dollars that Iraqis would pick if given the chance?? Khalidi said.

In criticizing Chalabi?s chances for successfully governing Iraq, Graham house Resident Head Hamid Rezai, from Iran, pointed to the popular support for Ahmed Bakr al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Revolution in Iraq.

?He has money from Iran and the sympathy of the people,? Rezai said. ?They supported the Shiite groups in Iraq and as a result, have more opportunity to influence the Iraqi people.?

Following the deposition of the Hashemite monarchy in the 1950s, Chalabi fled with his family from Iraq. Gone since the age of 13, he has remained in exile for over 40 years.

The Chalabi family settled in London, and Ahmed traveled to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to earn his undergraduate degree. After studying in Boston, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1969.

Here at the University, Chalabi wrote his doctoral dissertation on the ?Jacobsonian Radical of the Group Ring,? according to mathematics professor George Glauberman, who advised his work.

Glauberman said Chalabi was a bright and hardworking math student but did not consider him to have exceptional leadership qualities. ?He did not seem that different from all the other math students,? Glauberman said.

Mathematics professor Paul Sally, who also knew Chalabi, agreed.

?He was just one of the gang, good student, fine work, blended well in the department,? Sally said. ?There was nothing in math that would set him apart one way or the other.?

Sally said that if Chalabi had aspirations for leading a country, they were not known by him.

?When you study for your Ph.D. such aspirations do not surface this way or another. If you are planning on doing something else with your life you don?t get a Ph.D. in mathematics,? he said.

After completing his Ph.D., Chalabi took a professorship at the American University at Beirut before leaving to start a chain of banks in Jordan.

Chalabi?s career in banking ended after accusations arose that he embezzled over $200 million from Jordanians. Chalabi can still be arrested if he sets foot on Jordan?s territory. He asserts that these charges were politically motivated.

On April 14, The Guardian reported some of the details of Chalabi?s checkered financial past.

?Reports compiled at the time by investigators in London and Jordan, including investigations by the accountants Arthur Andersen, describes how millions of dollars of depositors? money was transferred to other parts of the Chalabi family empire in Switzerland, Lebanon and London, and not repaid,? the article said.

After the banks in Jordan failed, Chalabi moved to London, where he founded the Iraqi National Congress, which was financed by the CIA in 1992.

Currently, both the CIA and the State Department oppose the possibility of putting Chalabi in a position of power.

For Khalidi, the long-term treatment of Chalabi is telling of the Pentagon.

?They have no shame, they have contempt for the American people, they think they can con them,? he said. ?It will make the United States the laughing stock of the world, a man like Chalabi, the thief of Baghdad, that?s what they are going to call him,? Khalidi said.

Chalabi is currently in Iraq and could not be reached for comment.