theimage By Austin English

Dublin, Ireland, 16 February, 2003

Washington has picked its candidate for the future leader of Iraq, should Saddam Hussein be toppled from power, amid criticism from United States senators and senior figures in the State Department.

George W Bush's choice for an interim leader of Iraq is Dr Ahmad Chalabi, head of the anti-Saddam, London-based Iraqi National Congress (INC). It is a choice that has raised a number of objections within the Bush administration that the 57-year-old former businessman is too controversial to make a success of the US-designed `regime change'.

Born in 1945 to a wealthy Iraqi family, Chalabi's grandfather was a minister in the Iraqi parliament during the 1920s. His father, a grain importer, is reported to have been an MP and senator. According to Chalabi, his father was head of the Iraqi senate in 1958 when King Faisal II was killed in a Republican coup d'état. Chalabi's family then fled to the West.

There, he learned perfect English in a Sussex boarding school before heading to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and gaining a PhD in mathematics from Chicago University.

But, in 1992, a Jordanian court sentenced Chalabi in absentia to 22 years in prison with hard labour, after the collapse of the businessman's Jordanian bank. Petra Bank, which he established in 1977, grew to become the second largest in Jordan. Chalabi claims the bank became too successful for Jordan's powerful business sector, and soldiers were ordered to take it over by military decree.

Chalabi's financials were questioned again in January last year when the US State Department suggested the INC had misspent $2.2 million of US funding, given to the INC as an anti-Saddam group looking to establish democracy in Iraq. Despite INC financial records proving otherwise, US funding has ceased.

Chalabi turned to politics after the Petra Bank debacle, gaining enough support from anti-Saddam Iraqis in the West to return to Iraq and attempt to overthrow the dictator. The US promised to aid the attempt and by 1995, after spending three years in the north with Iraqi Kurds, Chalabi had amassed a small army. But US support never materialised and Saddam rooted out the INC, executing 130 of its members. Chalabi still blames the US for their deaths and for Saddam's continued reign.

Senior officials in the US State Department reckon the Iraqi people would reject Chalabi as an outsider. If they did welcome him, critics suggest Chalabi's vision of Iraq -- as a haven of democracy with a federal structure representing all ethnic groups -- would alienate the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt. The neighbouring countries are fearful that their own peoples would rise up and demand the same.

Saudi Arabia especially would not welcome Chalabi's imposition after Saddam's departure. Saudi Arabia is the self-proclaimed protector of the Sunni, or `orthodox', branch of Islam, of which Saddam is also a member, whereas Chalabi is a Shi'ite.

Only 10 per cent of the world's one billion Muslims are Shi'ites, but at least 60 per cent of Iraq's 23 million people belong to the sect. Treated as an inferior minority, Iraq's Shi'ite Muslims have been excluded from Iraqi parliament and politics for over 70 years, a practice Chalabi wants to change. However, a strong Shi'ite presence in Iraq would be a cause for concern in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

Chalabi's nomination has not yet been cast in stone. But if he is installed by Bush in Baghdad, his harshest critics will be his own people.