Chalabi offers the White House an exit route from Iraqi quagmire

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The Independent US

Iraq's deputy prime minister, Ahmad Chalabi, returns to Washington today in his latest incarnation - as a secular Shia leader who could offer Washington a way out of the morass into which he helped lead it two and a half years ago.

The week-long visit, during which he will meet Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, and John Snow, the Treasury Secretary, and possibly Vice-President Dick Cheney, caps a remarkable comeback by a political operator who is probably without peer.

Before the 2003 invasion, the exiled Mr Chalabi was the favourite of Mr Cheney and the Pentagon, cherished by the neoconservatives who urged the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. He was seen as the administration's candidate for the first prime minister of the new Iraq.

Before the war, he and his Iraqi National Congress (INC) organisation supplied information, used by the Bush administration to justify the war, about Baghdad's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and assured officials that US occupying forces would be greeted as liberators. Within days of the invasion, Mr Chalabi was ferried back into the country by a special Pentagon plane.

Then everything went downhill. The WMD information soon proved to be false while, far from being welcomed by the local population, American troops are still embroiled in a war with an insurgency that if anything grows stronger.

Quickly his relations with Washington worsened, to the point where, in mid-2004, his headquarters in Baghdad were raided by US and Iraqi forces following allegations that he had leaked vital intelligence to Iran, including the information that US cryptanalysts had cracked a secret Iranian code.

But Ahmad Chalabi should never be counted out. Once again he has manoeuvred himself into a position where Washington cannot ignore him. The FBI investigation into the alleged intelligence leak has been put on a back-burner, and Mr Chalabi himself has not yet even been questioned. Instead he arrives in Washington seemingly as influential as ever.

As deputy prime minister, he controls Iraq's oil industry, on which hopes of the country's future prosperity depend. He is moreover fresh from talks last week in Tehran with Iran's new President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - indeed some speculate here that he is carrying a private message for Washington from the Tehran leadership, though US officials deny this.

Mr Chalabi has also repositioned himself in Iraq's internal politics by breaking away from the increasingly Islamist Shia coalition that dominates Iraqi politics and announcing plans to run independent candidates in the parliamentary elections set for 15 December. He will do so as a Shia, a member of the country's largest religious grouping, but also as a secularist and a technocrat - qualities the US would dearly like to see uppermost in an Iraqi government. His chances of success look slim. But taken together, these considerations make him a man the Americans cannot ignore - even though they might have preferred his visit to come at another time.

Simmering for many months, the row over Saddam's mythical WMD, whose existence was so vigorously promulgated by Mr Chalabi and his followers, has exploded into full view again with the CIA leak scandal. This led last month to the indictment and resignation of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Mr Cheney's chief of staff and a leading former champion of Mr Chalabi in the administration.

The episode has heavily discredited Mr Cheney, arguably the fiercest advocate for war within the administration, who insisted on the validity of the phoney WMD information peddled by Iraqi defectors linked to Mr Chalabi and the INC. It has also shattered the credibility of Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who wrote pre-war WMD stories based on information supplied to her, it is assumed, by Mr Chalabi and Mr Libby.