In a classified report distributed widely within the U.S. government, the CIA argues that Chalabi, a favorite of Pentagon civilian officials, and Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, the leader of the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, have little popular support among Iraqis on the ground.
Critics of the agency have questioned the report's timing and motives.
"The CIA has been bad mouthing Chalabi and the INC for years. What is surprising is that they are still devoting resources to their character assassination effort instead of other more obvious missions," said Randy Scheunemann, a long time adviser to Chalabi and now President of the Committee to Liberate Iraq, a lobbying group formed last year to support ending Saddam Hussein's regime. "Whatever the stories the agency may be spreading it's clear Centcom Commander Tommy Franks thinks the INC has an important role to play."
The report comes at a critical time for U.S. policy as coalition forces enter Baghdad. While publicly senior American officials have said they plan to include both Iraqi opposition leaders and leaders culled from inside the country in the next government in Baghdad, behind the scenes hawks and doves in the administration are fighting a nasty battle over the leadership of the transition authority that replaces Saddam's regime. Chalabi has long been supported by a leading hawk, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other advocates of regime change in Iraq.
Last week Congressional appropriators voted to funnel $2.5 billion to the State Department for reconstructing the country even though the White House originally requested the money go to the Pentagon. Senior State Department officials deny lobbying for the money. Secretary of State Colin Powell, according to two State Department officials, called the White House from his plane returning from Brussels last week to complain about a policy memo from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld calling on the White House to name the transition authority for Iraq sooner than expected.
A U.S. official familiar with the CIA report told United Press International Monday, "This is about the Iraqi interim authority. It discusses the factors likely to affect the legitimacy and acceptability of an Iraqi transitional authority in the eyes of the Iraqi public. In part it looks at Iraqi attitudes toward the Iraqi opposition and how the INC is viewed on the inside."
A former U.S. intelligence official familiar with the report said, "They basically say that every time you mention Chalabi's name to an Iraqi, they want to puke." This official however questioned how accurate the CIA's assessment of Iraqi politics could be given the fluidity of events on the ground there.
"I think that nobody has any idea who is popular on the ground inside Iraq," said Danielle Pletka, the American Enterprise Institute's Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies told UPI. "People who say that they do, including agencies of the U.S. government, are saying so to further a political agenda."
When asked about the CIA report on CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday evening, Chalabi said it seemed to him the agency "is more focused on me than on Saddam."
The CIA has long considered Chalabi an unsuitable leader for the government that replaces Saddam. In 1992, while the agency supported Chalabi and an open strategy to spark a rebellion against Baghdad from the north, they also pursued a palace coup strategy without telling him. The agency has also held Chalabi accountable for compromising a coup attempt in 1995, when Saddam's men rounded up disloyal military officers the agency had hoped would kill the Iraqi leader.
Last year, the agency released an assessment of intelligence Chalabi's organization provided to the U.S. government, concluding that approximately 30 percent of it was accurate. However, one key piece of intelligence from Chalabi's operation was firmed up over the weekend when Marines raided a terrorist training facility outside of Baghdad in Salman Pak. Defectors slipped out of the country over a year ago by Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress said the facility trained numerous al-Qaida fighters. A spokesman for U.S. Central Command said over the weekend the U.S. military had concluded the facility was being used for terrorist training.
The agency has also blamed Chalabi for predicting Iraqis would welcome American troops in the initial phases of the war, though recent reporting from al-Najaf and Basra suggests that the opposition leader's optimism may not have been as misplaced as at first thought.