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Last Updated: Monday, 9 August, 2004, 11:58 GMT 12:58 UK
The Chalabis: Victims or villains?
By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

The warrants for Ahmed and Salem Chalabi mark one more twist to an extraordinary saga.

Ahmed Chalabi
The older Chalabi was once tipped as Iraq's new leader
Back in May, in the dying days of the US-led administration in Baghdad, Iraqi and American security forces raided Ahmed's home in the Iraqi capital.

It was dramatic proof of the fall from grace of the man once tipped to succeed Saddam Hussein.

He stood accused of a range of offences including embezzlement, kidnapping and the theft of government property.

Privately, senior US officials accused their former protege of misleading them about Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction - and passing sensitive intelligence to neighbouring Iran.

Old dinars for new

Now the Iraqi authorities are taking matters further.

On Sunday, an Iraqi judge issued arrest warrants for Ahmed and his nephew, Salem.

The charges against them are serious:

  • The younger Chalabi stands accused of involvement in the killing of an official who was investigating the family's property dealings

  • The uncle is charged with counterfeiting old Iraqi dinars - the implication being he made a handsome profit when they were replaced with new ones

'Patriots'

Both men are currently outside Iraq, and both have vigorously denied the charges, which they say are part of a political vendetta against them.

To their supporters, Salem and Ahmed Chalabi are Iraqi patriots who fought long and hard against the Saddam Hussein dictatorship.

According to this view, they are now being victimised by their former friends in Washington and their rivals in the new interim Iraqi government.

To their critics they are politicians who will stop at nothing to gain power in Baghdad.

Much to lose

Given the accusations of corruption which have long dogged Ahmed Chalabi, this new charge will scarcely come as a big surprise to many Iraqis.

Salem Chalabi
Salem Chalabi's place on the tribunal may be in question
But equally it is no secret that he and Iraq's new interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, are long-time rivals.

During their long years in exile, as opponents of the Saddam regime, Mr Allawi built up close ties with US and British intelligence while Mr Chalabi became the favourite of the Pentagon and the Washington hawks.

So, whatever the truth of the allegations, there will inevitably be some suspicion in Baghdad that they are designed to neutralise a troublesome political opponent.

If Salem Chalabi, currently in Britain, returns to Baghdad and is formally charged, he seems certain to be removed from his position as the head of the special tribunal.

If his uncle, who is in Iran, returns home and is charged, this would presumably disqualify him from standing in crucial parliamentary elections due to take place in January.


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