Chalabi announces intentions to play role in Iraq's political process

Mr Chalabi has launched his National Iraqi Congress alliance, List 569, for the December election in alliance with Sharif Ali, a cousin of former King Feisal II, who is running on a monarchist ticket. On a wider basis he is also making overtures to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the Shia Fadillah Party.

The manoeuvres by Mr Chalabi to become Iraq’s new prime minister will take him next to Washington, where he will meet a number of senior administration figures including Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Treasury Secretary John Snow and National Security Advisor John Snow.

Also there to welcome him back into the fold will be his influential backers among the neo-conservatives, who he had helped so much with their grand plan for starting the Iraq war by providing ‘defectors’ who ‘revealed’ that Saddam Hussein had an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.

For the short, rotund and sharply dressed Mr Chalabi, this has been a remarkable reversal of fortune. Flown into Iraq in an USAF plane as Washington’s choice as Iraq’s post-Saddam leader, he quickly fell out with his American sponsors.

As it became increasingly obvious that no weapons of mass destruction were to be found, American officials turned on Mr Chalabi. His reaction was to say: “We are heroes in error. As far as we’ve been concerned we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam has gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before was not important. The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat.”

The nadir in the relationship came when the US accused him of spying for Iran and his Baghdad offices were raided. But since then Mr Chalabi has once again reinvented himself, cutting links with the ruling Shia alliance which has strong links with Tehran and declaring that he is a moderate.

The Bush administration, buffeted by sectarian confrontations over the new constitution, has quietly reopened channels with Mr Chalabi. Its allowance of his first visit to Washington in more than two years is widely seen as America once again giving a stamp of approval to his actions.

Mr Chalabi, who was sentenced to 22 years by a Jordanian court in absentia for an alleged $ 70 million bank fraud, launched his campaign at the exclusive Hunting Club, a former haunt of the Baathist elite.

His first press conference held there, guarded by American troops, a few days after the fall of Baghdad, turned out to be something of a farce. Mr Chalabi presented his own version of a new Iraqi flag, in blue, white and yellow, but refused to say what the design or the colours stood for. As he was declaring he had broad based popular support, a lone supporter outside, a kinsman from Nassiriyah, was shot by a passing motorist who had taken umbrage at a photograph of Mr Chalabi being waved.

Yesterday’s press conference, with a backdrop of the old traditional red, white and black Iraqi flag, was far better staged, with Mr Chalabi promising more jobs, better education, better defence, women’s rights, higher pensions and an equitable share of oil revenues for the people of Iraq. When Iraqi forces were trained, Mr Chalabi said he would drastically cut the number of US troops in Iraq and confine them to barracks outside the cities.

The questions afterwards were from a series of seemingly sympathetic Iraqi ‘journalists’. As soon as the first Western reporter, an American, raised his voice, Mr Chalabi declared the press conference was over.

So there was no chance for questions about WMDs, the alleged Iranian links or alleged fraud. The issue of chemical and biological weapons was later addressed by Faisal Qaragholi, a Monarchist ally of Mr Chalabi whose group had also provided information on the subject to the US and British governments.

“We never told the Americans to concentrate just on the WMDs; we asked them to look at the issue of human rights abuse. That would have given them a much better reason for interfering in Iraq”, said Mr Qaragholi.