WASHINGTON: The darling of the neoconservative hawks around Vice-President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, Ahmed Chalabi, was long touted by his champions as the future leader of a democratic Iraq, if not its "George Washington."
Indeed, he could legitimately claim credit for having been the Iraqi who influenced the Bush administration the most to oust former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Yet Thursday morning, US agents and soldiers burst into his house in a series of coordinated raids at his residence and offices by combined Iraqi police and US forces, carting away files, computers and some of his aides.
In an angry news conference conducted a short time later, Chalabi accused the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) of striking out against him for political reasons; particularly his outspoken opposition to efforts by UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to appoint a new government that is scheduled to assume formal sovereignty July 1.
But at the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher denied that politics was involved.
"Clearly there were legal and investigative reasons for this event today and not political ones," he said, stressing that the warrants for the raids were issued by an Iraqi judge and carried out by Iraqi police.
There is little doubt that Chalabi's apparent fall from grace confirms that the two-year battle for control of US policy in Iraq has reached a tipping point in favor of the realist faction in the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency that have long considered Chalabi a self-dealing opportunist and a crook.
Their view appears now to be fully shared by Robert Blackwill, the National Security Council official who heads the Iraqi Stabilization Group that was created last October when it first became clear that the US occupation was in deep trouble.
Since then, Blackwill, who has been working closely with Brahimi for several months, has been trying with increasing success to reduce the Pentagon's influence in Iraq.
Conversely, the raids also signal the loss of credibility within the administration, at least so far as Iraq is concerned, of the neoconservatives, who championed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC) for much of the past decade.
Thursday's raids came in the wake of the announcement earlier this week that the Pentagon was cutting off $335,000 in monthly payments to the INC, which it had provided for the past two years as part of a classified program to help gather intelligence in Iraq.
The decision was criticized by former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, who insisted Monday that the INC and "Chalabi in particular, are the best hope for Iraq."
However reports of wrongdoing by the former exile - including nepotism, bribery, corruption and even blackmail - have been steadily piling up in recent months.
Despite his extremely low standing in recent public opinion surveys, his position on Iraq's Governing Council, his influence over key government ministries and his control of intelligence files of Saddam Hussein's Mukhabarat, seized during the invasion, have made him a formidable power that may no longer rely entirely on his standing in Washington.
While the administration could ignore much of this, more damaging charges have recently surfaced through leaks that have made the continuing existence of a warm relationship with Chalabi increasingly untenable.
The INC-affiliated defectors, for instance, provided much of the faulty pre-war intelligence on Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction programs - which became the principal justification for the US invasion.
In addition, Congress' watchdog, the General Accounting Office, is investigating reports that some of the $18 million provided by the US to the INC since 1998 was used by the group and its US consultants to lobby the government for an invasion and plant articles in the media. Both actions would violate US law.
Recent moves by Chalabi have put strains on his relationship with the US administration.
Electronic intercepts by US intelligence agencies suggested that Chalabi was cultivating Iran's leadership a little too fervently, even to the extent of providing "sensitive" information on the US security operations next door in Iraq of the kind that, according to one source cited by Newsweek, could "get people killed."
That information, which was leaked late last month, gave even some of Chalabi's neoconservative supporters pause.
Chalabi, who as a member of the Governing Council organized a sweeping purge of Baathists from the government, was infuriated by CPA chief Paul Bremer's decision to reverse the move by hiring back thousands of former Baathists to positions in the security forces.
After the Marines permitted former senior Iraqi military offers to take control of Fallujah, Chalabi, a secular Shiite, began publicly campaigning against a "re-Baathification," which he compared to the hiring of Nazis in post-war Germany.
All of these activities represent serious threats to US plans to transfer sovereignty to a new government on July 1.
"He's trying to destabilize the process," said one official. "He's not on our team anymore."