And Heeeeeeere's Ahmad!

Oh, boy. This is good stuff. He’s back. And just in time for the country’s reexamination of the administration’s Iraq intel fiasco.

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Politically savvy and a sharp dresser with a perpetual grin, Ahmad Chalabi has gone from Washington insider, to alleged Iranian spy, to someone the Bush administration cannot afford to ignore — all in the space of two years.

Chalabi, a deputy prime minister, plans to travel this month to Washington to refurbish a reputation tainted by the since-discredited claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. At home, Chalabi has quit a Shiite political alliance criticized for its strong ties to Iran.

All this points to one thing: Chalabi is maneuvering to become Iraq’s next prime minister after elections in less than two months.

That might seem a long-shot for Chalabi, an MIT graduate and former banker who is a controversial figure at home and abroad. But his political acumen and ability to survive leave both friends and foes in awe.

The balding, cherubic-faced Chalabi, who spent most of his life abroad, had been the Pentagon’s choice to replace Saddam. But when his longtime foe was ousted, Chalabi ended up as one of 25 Iraqis picked by L. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s former U.S. governor, to sit on the largely powerless Iraqi Governing Council.

His fortunes suffered another blow last year over allegations that he leaked intelligence information to Iran. The U.S. failure to find any weapons of mass destruction further tarnished his credibility. And Bremer turned to Chalabi rival Ayad Allawi as Iraq’s first prime minister after Saddam.

Chalabi clearly hopes his visit to Washington, his first there in at least two years, will enable him to renew his ties with the Americans.

In Washington, a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make announcements to the media, said efforts were under way to arrange a meeting for Chalabi with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Chalabi’s top aide, Haider al-Mousawi, said meetings with Treasury Secretary John Snow and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley also were in the works.

The visit, which caps months of contacts between Chalabi and Bush administration officials, would signal the Iraqi politician’s rehabilitation in Washington’s eyes, providing him with considerable political capital in a country where the Americans wield vast influence.

In an interview with Newsweek, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad insisted that “Iraqis will decide” who becomes prime minister and avoided endorsing anyone. But the public perception that Chalabi has influence in Washington would be a plus.

Is this guy good or what?

In an interview after his meeting with Iranian leaders, Mr. Chalabi said he had secured a promise that they would not oppose him if he made a run at becoming Iraq’s prime minister. “Clearly I am not going to be a candidate for prime minister because they tell me to,” Mr. Chalabi said of the Iranians. “They certainly expressed support for the idea that if the process is done locally, then they would not oppose it.”

It was impossible to verify that assertion, but in an interview, Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran’s national security council and one of the senior officials who met with Mr. Chalabi, said Iranian leaders held him in high regard. “He is a very wise man and a very useful person for the future of Iraq,” Mr. Larijani said.

For their part, Iranian leaders said that they were indeed a primary force in internal Iraqi politics, and that would continue to be.

Last January, after the Shiite coalition’s selection of Ibrahim al-Jafaari as its choice to be prime minister, rumors swirled about Baghdad that the Iranians had intervened strongly on his behalf. At the time, Mr. Chalabi was one of a number of Iraqi leaders being considered for the top job.

Asked about this, Mr. Larijani said that the Iranians had indeed intervened strongly with Iraq’s Shiite leaders, but that they had not sided with a particular candidate. “We helped them to come to a unity among themselves,” he said. “America should consider this power as legitimate,” Mr. Larijani said of his country’s role in Iraqi affairs. “They should not fight it.”

The timing of Mr. Chalabi’s visit, and the acknowledgment by the Iranians that he had come on their invitation, suggested the possibility that Mr. Chalabi might have been asked to carry a message from the Iranians to Secretary of State Rice at their meeting next week. Mr. Chalabi and the Iranians denied that.

Mr. Chalabi’s move toward secular leadership appears to signal a new phase in his political maneuvering.

As an exile, he was long a favorite of the Defense Department. But after the American-led invasion, he took a harshly critical line on the efforts of foreign military forces and relations with the Bush administration soured. Last year, he aligned himself with overtly Islamist leaders, including the firebrand cleric Moktada al-Sadr. During that period, the Bush administration accused Mr. Chalabi of divulging classified information to the Iranians.

Mr. Chalabi denied that charge. The outcome of the investigation is not known.