An ultra-Zionist Israeli settler has joined forces with the nephew of the Iraqi leader Ahmad Chalabi to promote investment in Iraq. The venture - which has excellent connections with the Pentagon and the new Iraqi government - is the first joint Israeli-Iraqi business project publicly documented since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
In Iraq, where there has been much unconfirmed speculation about Israeli business involvement, news of the controversial partnership is likely to fuel suspicions. The Iraqi International Law Group (IILG) was set up in July “to provide foreign enterprise with the information and tools it needs to enter the emerging Iraq and to succeed”, according to its website. “Our clients number among the largest corporations and institutions on the planet,” IILG says.
The firm, which says it employs four Iraqi lawyers and three “international business attorneys”, is temporarily operating from rooms at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. It was established by Salem “Sam” Chalabi, the 40-year-old nephew of Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, a Pentagon favourite and now a prominent member of Iraq’s governing council.
Sam Chalabi’s “partner for international marketing” is Marc Zell, a rightwing Zionist lawyer who has offices in Jerusalem and Washington and previously ran a legal practice with Douglas Feith - now a leading Pentagon hawk with responsibility for the reconstruction of Iraq. Until recently, Mr Zell - an Israeli citizen - was the registered owner of the Iraqi firm’s website. Registration was transferred to Sam Chalabi’s name on September 25 - the day after Mr Zell’s ownership of the site was revealed by an article on Guardian Unlimited. Data buried in the “Iraqi” website’s source code has not been changed, however, and shows that the content was produced by a member of Mr Zell’s Jerusalem office staff.
American-born Mr Zell, 50, became interested in Zionism in the mid-1980s and made several trips to Israel - one of them sponsored by the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) movement, which claims the territories occupied in 1967 were given to Israel by God. In 1988, at the start of the first Palestinian uprising, Mr Zell moved with his family to the Jewish settlement of Alon Shevut on the West Bank, acquiring Israeli nationality. The settlement was surrounded by barbed wire and sometimes came under attack, but the Zells said it was an ideal place for children. “It’s like a small town in Iowa,” they told Jewish Homemaker magazine.
In the 1996 Israeli election Mr Zell campaigned for the rightwing Binyamin Netanyahu and was also at one time a member of the Likud party’s central committee and policy bureau. Since then, he has been a frequent spokesman for settlers. In a recent law journal article, written with a colleague, Mr Zell argued that the right of return for Palestinian refugees “is not only ungrounded as a matter of law, but also unjustified in historical retrospective”.
His Jerusalem-based firm, Zell Goldberg & Co, claims to be “one of Israel’s fastest-growing business-oriented law firms”. One of its main activities is to help Israeli companies to do business abroad. Mr Zell’s role in IILG, according to Sam Chalabi, is to find companies interested in doing business in Iraq.
IILG claims to be the first international law firm based inside Iraq. “Many firms outside the country purport to counsel companies about doing business in Iraq,” its website says. “The simple fact is: you cannot adequately advise about Iraq unless you are here day in and day out, working closely with officials at the CPA [coalition provisional authority] and the few functioning civilian ministries.” IILG says it acts as international counsellors to the Iraq-Baghdad Chamber of Commerce, and to the Federation of Iraqi Industrialists.
Apart from the relationship with his uncle, Sam Chalabi is well connected in his own right. A US-trained solicitor who was educated in England, he occasionally acted as a spokesman for the the INC and was a co-author of Transition to Democracy - a key document in the exiled opposition’s planning for a post-Saddam Iraq. Before the invasion he was in northern Iraq on undisclosed business and later liaised on legal matters, on behalf of the INC, with the Pentagon’s team in Kuwait. He is reportedly on two committees which advise the new Iraqi government on finance, trade and investment.
Sam Chalabi’s uncle and Mr Zell have close ties to Mr Feith at the Pentagon. Ahmad Chalabi, a former banker who was sentenced to 22 years’ jail by a Jordanian court in connection with a $200m scandal in the 1980s, worked closely with the hawk in the run-up to the invasion. Mr Feith has shown strong leanings towards the Israeli right, in his Pentagon role and earlier as Mr Zell’s partner in a Washington law firm.
Like Mr Zell, he has argued that Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land are lawful and has been promoting the idea of supplying Iraqi oil to Israel via a pipeline. In 1996 he was one of the authors of the Clean Break document which proposed overthrowing Saddam as the first step towards reshaping Israel’s “strategic environment”.
Brian Whitaker works for the Guardian newspaper in the UK.