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Iraq's Chalabi Advises Protesters Abroad

Ahmed Chalabi, shown in May 2010, says Iraq should lead the way toward democratic change in the region. But some say he may be playing a dangerous game.
Ahmed Chalabi, shown in May 2010, says Iraq should lead the way toward democratic change in the region. But some say he may be playing a dangerous game.

The revolutionary fervor sweeping the Arab world is opening a new door for a familiar but controversial figure in Iraq. Ahmed Chalabi, the man who helped persuade the United States to topple Saddam Hussein, is now taking up the cause of freedom fighters around the Arab world.

Chalabi says Iraq should lead the way toward democratic change in the region. But Chalabi might have other motives as well.

Reaching Out To Bahrainis

Chalabi and his colleagues in the Iraqi National Congress are working on all kinds of issues these days. His pet cause is Bahrain, a country where mass protests that started in February have been met with a brutal crackdown.

Chalabi's group is organizing conferences featuring Bahraini opposition figures from London, like Qasim al-Hashmi.

Speaking to a handful of Iraqi journalists, Hashmi breaks down over the plight of Bahraini protesters. They went into the streets carrying flowers, he says, and they were met with tanks and rifles.

When asked why he's raising these concerns in Iraq, Hashmi says, "This is the first time we found a brother — a big brother — who is ... leading us, who's giving us guidance, who's giving us advice, who is helping us, who is putting their hand into our hand and [saying], 'Come, I'll take your case to the world together.' "

That hand is coming from Chalabi. And it's not just the Bahrainis he's helping.

Serving As An Example

Chalabi's group is talking to Egyptians who want to purge their ranks of officials once loyal to ousted leader Hosni Mubarak — just as Chalabi has done with those once loyal to Saddam.

Chalabi is talking to Libyan rebels, advising them on how to look more legitimate on TV. And he's talking to Yemenis about the possibility of offering separatist leaders shelter in Iraq.

In his modernist sitting room, Chalabi receives petitioners like a powerful sheik. He says Iraq should serve as an example to the region.

"Iraq has overthrown one of the most terrible dictatorships and bloodthirsty dictators in the 20th century," he says. "Now Iraq can claim, rightfully, that it has a democratic government, it has [an] elected Parliament and free elections, and there is a dialogue — a political dialogue — going on."

Fueling Sectarian Tensions?

But it's not quite so simple.

In Iraq, Saddam led an elite made up mostly of Sunnis. Now that he's gone, many of those in power are Shiites.

Western analysts say rather than just asserting a new Iraq, Chalabi and others are pushing for a Shiite Iraq to become a major player in the so-called Shiite crescent, which is led by Iraq's neighbor, Iran. And this, they say, is why Chalabi cares so deeply about Bahrain. The majority of people there are Shiite, but the ruling family is Sunni.

Chalabi denies he is stoking sectarian flames by extending a Shiite hand to Bahrain.

"It's like accusing Martin Luther King of being a racist. Is he a racist? He stood up for the rights of the blacks because they were oppressed as blacks. These people are oppressed as Shia," he says. "So when they stand up for their rights, it is not sectarianism, it is because they are oppressed as Shia."

A Dangerous Game

Even though Chalabi is a secular man, he has long been accused of hitching a ride with Iraq's Shiite rulers in hopes of one day securing a top position in government.

Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst with the International Crisis Group, says casting local uprisings as a regional battle between Shiites and Sunnis is a dangerous game.

"If you're a Bahraini Shiite, and you feel discriminated against, and then outsiders come in and say, 'Oh, we support you,' " it only plays into the Bahraini ruling family's narrative that the protests are being orchestrated by outsiders, Hiltermann says. "If they can cast the revolt as essentially Iranian-inspired, that would give it the ammunition it needs to suppress this revolt efficiently."

This sectarian divide is already playing out in the meeting halls of officials around the region and in the streets of Iraq, where just a few years ago, Shiites and Sunnis were locked in a bloody war.

At a recent protest, Iraqis were mostly calling for better electricity and water, as they have been every Friday for months.

Then one woman raised a Bahraini flag. Sunni protesters pushed her, then cheered as she dropped the flag.

Shiite protesters fought back.

One protester yelled out a question: Why care about Bahrain, when there are so many problems in Iraq?

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