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Middle East

No fanfare as Chalabi returns to Iraq

His return was not quite the triumphant arrival one would have imagined for the man who would be king, or at least president, of the new Iraq.

There was no walkabout to meet the people, not even a press conference. Instead, Ahmed Chalabi spent most his first day in Baghdad, after 44 years in exile, hidden behind the iron gates of a private club.

The leader of the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC) is heavily protected by American troops who have accompanied him since he arrived on an American military flight to the southern town of Nasiriyah. Their Humvees took up positions inside the Hunting Club in Mansur, where Mr Chalabi was holding meetings with American officials. The club, whose exclusive membership included the Baath party hierarchy and senior military officers, was a particular favourite of Saddam Hussein's son, Uday.

Mr Chalabi is widely perceived as being sponsored by Washington, but while he has the backing of the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and the Pentagon, he is viewed with some scepticism and antipathy by the State Department and the CIA.

Given the widespread suspicion in the Iraqi capital about Washington's alleged long-term designs on Iraq, people close to Mr Chalabi were keen yesterday to play down his US links.

Zaib Sethna, one of his advisors, said: "We are clear that we would like to see Iraqis in charge. We are not beholden to the United States or anyone else and we would not like to be anointed by anyone. The US is not here to stay forever. If they try to, then almost every party would run in any forthcoming election on an anti-occupation platform."

Mr Chalabi's aim is to "rebuild democracy" in Iraq, the advisor said. He would work closely with the retired American general Jay Garner, named by Washington as, in effect, the shogun of an interim administration. Asked how the Chalabi camp envisaged Mr Garner's job, Mr Sethna said: "He has a very important role in reconstruction and developing the process in which Iraqis can govern themselves."

Mr Chalabi will meet leaders of four other political groups in a forum called the Iraqi Leadership Council. It will include the Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is opposed to co-operating with the United States.

Earlier this week, asked by the French newspaper Le Monde whether he wanted to run for the presidency of Iraq, Mr Chalabi said: "Absolutely not. I am not a candidate for any post." But yesterday, his officials stressed that nothing had been decided on the matter, and that Mr Chalabi would begin by meeting Iraqi civic and religious leaders.

Mr Chalabi will need to establish himself in Iraqi public opinion. Despite his relatively high international profile, most Iraqis, who have depended until now on the censored state media, know little about him. Out of a random sample of 10 people questioned in the Arasat district, eight said they had never heard of him.

Political opponents may also try to exploit his chequered past. In 1989, he was accused of fraud and embezzlement over the affairs of the Petra Bank in Amman, Jordan. He fled to Damascus in the boot of a friends car, and was subsequently convicted, in absentia, of embezzling $60m (£40m).

Mr Chalabi has always strenuously denied the charges, which he insists were politically motivated and instigated by President Saddam's regime.

About 120 members of Mr Chalabi's "Free Iraqi Forces", trained by the United States, have accompanied him to Baghdad. The INC claims the total strength of the group numbers 1,500.

In the meantime, Mohammed Mohsen Zubaidi, an INC official, declared that he had been chosen to head an interim council to run Baghdad. He announced that he had been elected vizier, or chief, of a Baghdad executive council by people representing clerics, academics, Muslim Shiites and Sunnis, Christians and the academic community.