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Last Updated: Friday, 11 April, 2003, 14:17 GMT 15:17 UK
Ahmed Chalabi: Pentagon placeman?
Ahmed Chalabi
Chalabi: Described as controversial, charismatic and cunning

With the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the hunt for an Iraqi national capable of leading the country into the post-Saddam era has shifted up a gear.

This places the spotlight very much on men like Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial head of the London-based Iraqi National Congress (INC).

The airlifting of Mr Chalabi into the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriya by the Americans, just a few days before US troops moved into Baghdad, reinforced suspicions that the US regards him as one of its main allies within the Iraqi opposition.

Divisive figure

However, the Bush administration appears to be divided over whether or not to encourage Mr Chalabi's aspirations.

His backers include Vice President Dick Cheney and senior figures in the Pentagon.

Mr Cheney announced shortly after US tanks reached the centre of Baghdad that talks on forming an interim Iraqi government would be held in Nasiriya the following weekend.

He later revised this statement, saying that the date and venue were yet to be confirmed, but the impression remains that Mr Cheney and his allies within the administration are smoothing the way for Mr Chalabi to take on a leading role.

Ahmad Chalabi (left) arrives in Nasiriya on Sunday 6 April 2003
I am not seeking any positions - my job will end with the liberation of Iraq from Saddam's rule
Ahmed Chalabi

The State Department and the CIA, on the other hand, apparently mistrust Mr Chalabi.

Soon after Mr Cheney made his original statement, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that any meeting on the formation of an Iraqi Interim Authority (IIA) should definitely not be seen as a "coronation" for Mr Chalabi.

The State Department last year suspended funding to the INC - after doubts were raised over the organisation's accounting practices - and fears that a prominent role for Mr Chalabi would alienate other opposition groups.

However, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has rejected charges by other Iraqi leaders that Washington was showing favouritism towards Mr Chalabi, insisting that the US had helped "hundreds" of other opposition figures to return to Iraq to take part in the country's post-Saddam reconstruction.

Tarred by association?

Undeterred by this apparent conflict over his role, Mr Chalabi called on General Jay Garner - the man assigned the task of overseeing the formation of an Iraqi civil administration - to leave his base in Kuwait City immediately and embark on the task of restoring law, order and basic utilities to Iraq.

Unlike some other Iraqi opposition groups, the INC has welcomed the appointment of General Garner, maintaining that the United Nations is too weak to do anything more than help co-ordinate humanitarian aid.

Chalabi: Key Dates
1945 Born
1956 Leaves Iraq
1992 Founds INC
1995 INC offensive against Iraqi army fails
1996 Flees Iraq after INC base in Irbil overrun by Saddam Hussein's troops
1998 US President Bill Clinton approves plan to spend almost $100m to help the Iraqi opposition - principally the INC

Many in the Middle East are already wary of Mr Chalabi on account of his background. His close association with the Americans is bound to fuel suspicions over his intentions.

A Shia Muslim born in 1945 to a wealthy banking family, he left Iraq in 1956 and has lived mainly in the US and London ever since.

He has been accused of using the INC to further his own political ambitions, especially after a failed uprising he instigated in northern Iraq in the mid-1990s resulted in the deaths of hundreds of his followers.

In the past, he has insisted his job would end with the liberation of Iraq from Saddam's rule.

Events over the next few months will no doubt put the veracity of this claim to the test.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

The BBC's Frank Gardner
"Ahmed Chalabi has a sizeable following"

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