Iraq's 'Viceroy' Meets a Contender

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Ahmed Chalabi was late. The leader of the Iraqi National Congress, recently flown into southern Iraq by the U.S. military after 45 years in exile, was due to meet retired General Jay Garner half an hour earlier. But Chalabi and his staff had yet to leave their dusty bombed-out camp three miles away. General Garner had been put in charge by the Pentagon of political and economic reconstruction in Iraq, and planned to convene a meeting of Iraqis in the ancient city of Ur the following day to discuss the transition.

Chalabi had no plans to attend Tuesday's meeting — instead, he sent a representative — and this probably suited Garner just fine. Nobody, especially Garner, wanted Chalabi to continue to be seen as the Pentagon's favorite. Still, as long as Garner was in Talil, he wanted to meet Chalabi face to face. So the U.S. official arranged a quiet meeting the night before Tuesday's conference. And to ensure the discretion of the encounter, Garner made a simple rule: no press.

Chalabi didn't seem especially concerned that he'd be late. Chalabi had expected that Garner was sending a car to pick him up for the meeting. Garner thought that Chalabi was coming to the base in his own vehicle. At last, Chalabi got into his champagne colored Nissan Maxima, a gift from a supporter in Nasiriyah, and rode off escorted by three Toyota pick-ups carrying fighters armed with Kalashnikovs. It was a beautiful night. As the convoy moved quickly through the bright desert, the moon hung large and low in the sky, just a phase away from full. Its light reflected off the ziggurat of Ur built for the Sumerian goddess of the moon, the place where tribal chiefs, exiles and religious leaders would convene the next day in air-conditioned tents and eat from well-stocked buffet tables.

Chalabi's meeting with Garner was held outside, next to the army headquarters on the base around the card table with a single swan-neck desk lamp for light. The retired general's team were set up in five blue and orange camping tents arranged in a horseshoe around the table. Garner was relaxed. He wore a royal blue button-down shirt open at the collar, with the shirtsleeves rolled up. The tip of a white cigar case peeked out of his breast pocket. An aide scurried to get sodas for the guests. Chalabi was overdressed, in a clean tie and a pressed herring-bone blazer. Seated at the table with the two men were Chalabi's daughter Tamara, Professor Kanan Makiya, and a U.S. government official close to Chalabi who asked not to be named.

The meeting got off to an awkward start. Garner clearly wanted Chalabi to feel at ease and teased him about his face being on TV so much last week. "You're better looking in person," said Garner. Chalabi didn't respond and Garner tried to recover by saying he's the same way — but Chalabi isn't one for small talk, and clearly wanted to get straight to business. Speaking quietly and deliberately, the Iraqi exile emphasized the priority of stopping the looting that broke out in the wake of the collapse of Saddam's regime, so that the citizens are made to feel safe. He warned against a situation where Iraqis turn to Americans to solve their problems, because the fact that the U.S. won't be able to resolve many civilian issues will simply create resentment. Instead, Chalabi emphasized, it would be better for Iraqis to be going to other Iraqis for help. Garner agreed. Chalabi then argued that the role his forces had played around Nasiriyah showed how helpful they could be in accelerating the search for Fedayeen weapons caches and high-ranking Baath party officials.

The meeting did not discuss the prickly question of how, and by whom the planned Iraqi Interim Authority will be run. Instead Chalabi focused on the problems it would need to address. A U.S. general stepped forward and gave a report about how in Najaf and Kerbala, a local committee is getting the police force back on the streets. "Who are they?" asked Makiya. "Do you know who they are?" The retired general didn't have an answer. "They are all Baathists!" the exiled professor insisted. Makiya was adamant that Baathists should not be returned to positions of authority, even if it means the streets will remain unsafe.

Although Garner shared Chalabi's concern about getting Iraqis involved in resolving local issues, and about the exiled group's militia playing a more active role, but there was a clear difference of opinion about "de-Baathification." Garner did not appear to have yet made up his mind on whether to bring back Baathist police officers to secure the streets, or to try to build up a new force from scratch. Chalabi ended the meeting after half an hour, respectfully shaking Garner's hand.

Back at Chalabi's camp, debate was intense. The exiled leader spent time on the phone with Princeton professor and White House adviser Bernard Lewis, and then stayed up till 3am with Makiya arguing over how far to press for "de-Baathification." Makiya believes no one who was in the Baath party should be allowed to participate in the new government at any level; Chalabi says Iraqis should weigh each individual's culpability and determine, on a case-by-case basis who is fit to return to positions of power.

The anonymous U.S. official who had accompanied Chalabi insisted that democracy is the last priority. "First must come freedom, then human rights, and only then democracy," he said. "Democracy is like icing on the cake." The official has been talking closely with Chalabi since March of 1992, when they first met for lunch in Washington, D.C. Chalabi, he explains, is committed to a secular government with equal representation from all the different ethnic groups, and also to freedom and human rights. "If this works" he said, "this area has a future." But there's a catch. "The only one who can make that happen," he said, gesturing toward Chalabi, "is this man right here."