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April 23, 2004

'Iraq Expert' Perle Shills for Chalabi at Senate Panel

by Juan Cole

It was quite an experience to be on the same panel on Tuesday with Richard Perle and Toby Dodge, before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Perle wasn't added until the last minute, and it is mysterious why he was there, since ours was supposed to be an "expert" panel. Dodge has an important book on Iraq. Originally Ahmad Hashim was going to be on with us (he came Wednesday instead), and then we heard Perle had been put on. Perle, of course, is no Iraq expert. He doesn't know a word of Arabic, and has never lived anywhere in the Arab world.

Perle's entire testimony was a camouflaged piece of flakking for Ahmad Chalabi. He complained that the State Department and the CIA had not created a private army for Chalabi and had not cooperated with him. Perle did not mention Chalabi's name, but it was clear that was who he was talking about (State and CIA famously dropped Chalabi in the mid-1990s when they asked him to account for the millions they had given him, and he could not).

In fact, Perle kept talking about "the Iraqis" when it was clear he meant Chalabi. He said the US should have turned power over to "the Iraqis" long before now.

But here's an interesting contradiction. I said at one point that I thought Bremer should have acquiesced in Grand Ayatollah Sistani's request for open elections to be held this spring, and that if they had been, it might have forestalled the recent blow-up. I had in mind that Muqtada al-Sadr in particular would have been kept busy acting as a ward boss, trying to get his guys returned from East Baghdad & Kufa, etc.

Perle became alarmed and said that scheduling early elections would not have prevented the "flare-up" because the people who mounted it were enemies of freedom and uninterested in elections. Perle has this bizarre black and white view of the world and demonizes people right and left. A lot of the Mahdi Army young men who fought for Muqtada are just neighborhood youth, unemployed and despairing. Some are fanatics, but most of them don't hate freedom – most of them have no idea what it is, having never experienced democracy.

But anyway, what struck me was the contradiction between Perle's insistence that the US should have handed power over to Iraqis months ago, and his simultaneous opposition to free and fair elections. The only conclusion I can draw is that he wants power handed to Chalabi, who would then be a kind of dictator and would not go to the polls any time soon.

Perle also at one point said he didn't think the events of the first two weeks of April were a "mass uprising" and said he thought Fallujah was quiet now. (Nope).

It is indicative of the Alice in Wonderland world in which these Washington Think Tank operators live that Perle could make such an obviously false observation with a straight face. Even a child who has been watching CNN for the past three weeks would know that there was a mass uprising. (Even ten percent of the American-trained police switched sides and joined the opposition, and 40% of Iraqi security men refused to show up to fight the insurgents.)

I replied, pointing out that the US had lost control of most of Baghdad, its supply and communications lines to the south were cut, and a ragtag band of militiamen in Kut chased the Ukrainian troops off their base and occupied it. It was an uprising. I suppose Perle hopes that if he says it wasn't an uprising, at least some people who aren't paying attention will believe him. It is bizarre.

It reminded me of the scene in Ladykillers where the fraudsters set off an explosion in a lady's basement, and she hears it while outside in a car, and is alarmed, and the Tom Hanks character says in a honeyed southern accent, "Why, Ah don't believe Ah heard anything at all." I could just see Perle in a Panama hat at that point playing the character.

It is deeply shameful that Perle is still pushing Chalabi, and may well succeed in installing him. Chalabi is wanted for embezzling $300 million from a Jordanian bank. He cannot account for millions of US government money given him from 1992 to 1996. He was flown into Iraq by the Pentagon (Perle was on the Defense Advisory Board, a civilian oversight committee for the Pentagon) with a thousand of his militiamen. The US military handed over to Chalabi, a private citizen, the Baath intelligence files that showed who had been taking money from Saddam, giving Chalabi the ability to blackmail large numbers of Iraqi and regional actors. It was Chalabi who insisted that the Iraqi army be disbanded, and Perle almost certainly was an intermediary for that stupid decision. It was Chalabi who insisted on blacklisting virtually all Baath Party members, even if they had been guilty of no crimes, effectively marginalizing all the Sunni Iraqi technocrats who could compete with him for power. It was Chalabi who finagled his way onto the Interim Governing Council even though he has no grassroots support (only 0.2 percent of Iraqis say they trust him).

Now Chalabi's nephew Salem has been put in charge of the trial of Saddam Hussein. Salem is a partner in Zell and Feith, a Jerusalem-based law firm headed by a West Bank settler, in which Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of Defense for Planning, is also a senior partner when not in the US government. You can be assured that the trial will be conducted on behalf of the Bush administration and the Neocons, and on behalf of the Chalabis. Since the Chalabis have been trying to overthrow Saddam for decades, it is hard to see how this can have even the appearance of an impartial tribunal.

Anyway, Perle was just a one-note Johnny, with his whole message being "We must give away Iraq to Ahmad Chalabi yesterday! That will solve all the problems."

If the Bush administration listens to Perle and puts Chalabi in as a soft dictator, it will be the final nail in the coffin of the Iraq enterprise. The whole thing is already going very badly wrong. Chalabi will play iceberg to the Iraq/Bush Titanic.

It would be really interesting to know the list of secret promises Chalabi has given Perle (and presumably the Israelis through Perle) that would explain this Neocon fervor for the man.

By the way, that Jordanian bank that Chalabi embezzled from in the 1980s? There has been speculation that he was using it to launder Iranian money for the Khomeini war effort against Saddam. So perhaps from his point of view, he hadn't so much embezzled $300 million at the end, but rather collected his retainer from Tehran.

Since Perle was the source of most of the rotten advice that got the US into its current quagmire in Iraq, and since he was forced to resign as chairman of the Defense Advisory Board under a cloud of scandal, it was doubly inappropriate for him to be testifying before the Senate about what to do in Iraq.

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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.


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