2004.05.24: May 24, 2004: Headlines: Figures: COS - Malawi: Diplomacy: National Security: Iraq: New York Times: Robert Blackwill is becoming a kind of Wilsonian Colonel House to President Bush

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Robert Blackwill is becoming a kind of Wilsonian Colonel House to President Bush

Robert Blackwill is becoming a kind of Wilsonian Colonel House to President Bush

His mission: get us out as occupying power by the beginning of summer, and pass off the job of organizing the transition to elections to the U.N. envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. To accomplish this, Blackwill adopted a Lola policy: Whatever Brahimi wants, Brahimi gets. Robert Blackwill served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi, Ambasssador to India, and as a Deputy National Security Advisor to Condoleezza Rice.

Robert Blackwill is becoming a kind of Wilsonian Colonel House to President Bush

Tribal Warfare in Iraq

Published: May 24, 2004

The three factions controlling Iraq long suspicious of one another -- are now on the brink of open tribal warfare. Not the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds -- I mean the Pentagon, State Department and C.I.A.

The spark setting off this U.S. bureaucratic conflagration is the former Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, a sophisticated, secular Shiite who organized resistance to the Sunni despot Saddam Hussein before it was popular.

Since 1996, the C.I.A. has hated him with a passion. In that year, our spooks egged on Iraqi officers to overthrow Saddam. Chalabi claims to have warned that the plotters had been penetrated, and when the coup failed and a hundred heads rolled, he dared to blame the C.I.A. for bloody ineptitude. This is at the root of his detestation by Tenet & Company and the agency's subsequent rejection of most Iraqi sources of intelligence offered by Chalabi's group.

Less personal is the State tribe's aversion. At Foggy Bottom, a policy of pre-emption and of regime change, urged by Chalabi, was always disdained. When Baghdad fell, Arabists at State were heavily influenced by the preference of Sunni leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan for another Baathist Sunni strongman to be installed in Saddam's place for the sake of regional ''stability'' -- despite the wishes of Iraq's Shiite majority and Kurdish minority.

The Pentagon, as we know, had a quite different view of our mission. Defense wanted to set up a democratic Iraq to cut off the incubation of terror in the Middle East. It found much of Chalabi's information, as well as his contacts in potentially meddlesome Iran, to be useful; indeed, as recently as last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Richard Myers, noted that intelligence supplied by him ''saved soldiers' lives.''

Into this internecine snicker-snack was injected Robert Blackwill, a tall academician-diplomat who is becoming a kind of Wilsonian Colonel House to President Bush. His mission: get us out as occupying power by the beginning of summer, and pass off the job of organizing the transition to elections to the U.N. envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi.

To accomplish this, Blackwill adopted a Lola policy: Whatever Brahimi wants, Brahimi gets.

The U.N.'s man, an Algerian who was a top official of the Arab League, wanted first to protect the Sunnis, the group that had profited most during Saddam's reign. To accommodate Brahimi, Paul Bremer was told to welcome more Baathists into power and U.S. military commanders were prevailed upon to back away from an attack on weapons-laden Falluja, heart of pro-Saddam insurgency.

Brahimi had another demand: cut off Chalabi, who was not only complaining loudly about the end of de-Baathification, but had led the Governing Council to hire an accounting firm and lawyers to investigate the U.N.'s complicity in the $5 billion oil-for-food kickback ripoff. On orders, Bremer shut down the Iraqi attempt to recover the stolen money. Accountants were hired who were more amenable to the U.N.

Bremer then went all the way. He permitted Iraqi police to break into and trash Chalabi's political headquarters as well as his home, carting off computers and files, our way of thanking him for helping craft Iraqi constitutional protections. Gleeful C.I.A. operatives who accompanied the raid spread rumors that the troublesome Iraqi was a spy for Iran and a blackmailer of recipients of oil largess. True? Who knows? But his shattered picture made the cover of Newsweek, savagely labeled ''our con man in Iraq.''

Although the Defense Department is too battered by the prison scandal to stand up for anybody, Chalabi went on an array of Sunday morning TV shows to demand a confrontation with the C.I.A.'s George Tenet before Congress and under oath. This agile pol sees how the Brahimi-Blackwill-Bremer blunderbuss can win him popularity with anti-Americans in Iraq.

Brahimi, satisfied, is compromising on the makeup of the group assigned to hold sovereignty (like a hot potato) until elections early next year. Our staunch Iraqi allies, the Kurds, may now not be frozen out.

Bob Blackwill, a dozen years ago, nicely updated a question conservatives asked about China a half-century before, telling me ''There's the 'Who lost Russia?' problem.'' To avert the same question about Iraq in the future, I'll be listening for a strong note of steadfastness in the president's speech tonight.

E-mail: safire@nytimes.com

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