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Pentagon favorite in Iraq ruffles U.S. feathers

But Chalabi denies he's at odds with American officials

Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi Governing Council has urged a swift return to self-rule in his country, a position the Bush administration opposes.
Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi Governing Council has urged a swift return to self-rule in his country, a position the Bush administration opposes.

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Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi appears out of sync with Washington over the issue of sovereignty. CNN's Andrea Koppel reports. (September 25)
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Paul Bremer
Ahmed Chalabi

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Some Bush administration officials have expressed irritation with Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi over the timetable for turning over power in the country.

Chalabi, part of an Iraqi delegation attending this week's opening of the U.N. General Assembly, has been lobbying Europeans and other U.N. members to transfer sovereignty in Iraq more quickly than Washington plans.

"We feel that Iraqis are capable of sovereignty quickly," Chalabi told reporters.

A Pentagon favorite who was provided millions of dollars in assistance for years as founding leader of the Iraqi National Congress, one of the foremost opposition groups, Chalabi once seemed to be in lock step with the Bush White House.

The U.S. military even airlifted him into Iraq after the war. Now he seems out of step with Washington.

"The only path to full Iraqi sovereignty is through a written constitution, ratified and followed by free, democratic elections. Shortcutting the process would be dangerous," L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, told a congressional committee Wednesday.

Chalabi, who is this month's president of the U.S.-appointed council, continues to applaud the Bush administration for its role in toppling Saddam Hussein.

"We have no disagreement with the U.S. government. We are not at odds with the U.S.," Chalabi said.

But the Bush administration is not being quite as diplomatic. One senior administration official suggested Chalabi and other council members were "biting the hand that feeds them."

Another senior administration official pointedly noted that Chalabi was just one of the members of the appointed council.

Even in Iraq, the 58-year-old Chalabi is not without his critics. Some oppose him because he left the country as a teenager in the 1950s and spent most of his life abroad.

A Shiite Muslim, he studied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, later following in his family's footsteps by becoming a banker.

In the mid-1990s, Chalabi organized an abortive uprising in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. He escaped, but hundreds were killed.

In 1992, a Jordanian court convicted him in absentia of bank fraud, sentencing him to 22 years in prison. He has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Several officials said when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice met Wednesday afternoon with the Iraqi delegation, her message was that President Bush under no circumstances would transfer billions of dollars in reconstruction aid to the nonelected governing council.

Chalabi, left, and fellow Iraqi Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi prepare for this week's opening session of the U.N. General Assembly.
Chalabi, left, and fellow Iraqi Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi prepare for this week's opening session of the U.N. General Assembly.

The administration says a transfer of power can come only after a constitution is written and free elections are held, a process Secretary of State Colin Powell says could take more than a year.

The debate over the timetable of the political transition is one of the key sticking points as Bush seeks a new U.N. Security Council resolution on postwar Iraq.

France has called for a transfer within weeks or a few months at most.

But a senior U.S. official said conversations with other leaders and officials in New York were "more realistic" and that consensus language for a new resolution is hardly out of the question.

White House officials voiced optimism they would win backing of a resolution but acknowledged discussions have not generated any immediate firm commitments for international troops or reconstruction funds.

Germany's commitment to offer humanitarian aid and to train Iraqi police or military personnel was the major progress Wednesday from the White House perspective.

"The tone could not have been better," a senior U.S. official said of the fence-mending session between Bush and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

This official said Bush did not specifically ask any leaders for troop or financial commitments, saying those discussions would come as the diplomacy intensifies over the next several weeks.

This official also said Bush had an "excellent meeting" with Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, and that Musharraf promised to redouble efforts to stop pro-Taliban elements from crossing from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

CNN's John King and Andrea Koppel contributed to this report.

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