BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi said on Wednesday meetings in Washington with senior U.S. officials this month would prove he had not been frozen out by his former mentors over information used to justify the Iraq war.
Chalabi, whose Iraqi National Congress (INC) will lead a secular coalition in the Dec. 15 parliamentary election, leaves soon for his first official visit to the United States in over a year, since a public falling out with the Bush administration over its allegation that he passed U.S. secrets to Iran.
Dates for the meetings have not yet been announced.
"I believe there was no wall of ice between me and Washington," said Chalabi, who denies breaching American confidences and has also defended intelligence he provided about Saddam Hussein's weapons programmes which critics say provided a flawed justification for the U.S. invasion.
Once seen as the U.S. choice to lead Iraq when he returned from decades of exile after Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003, the wealthy businessman has quit the Shi'ite Islamist-led United Alliance and launched his own list at a news conference on Wednesday.
Though his personal electoral base is limited he has forged links with fellow Shi'ite groups, including nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and there is speculation he will put himself forward as prime minister, as he did after January's ballot.
Some U.S. officials have played down speculation, however, that the trip to Washington indicates an American willingness to promote Chalabi in that role.
"We've invited him to the U.S. I wouldn't read more into it than that," one official in Baghdad told reporters last week, pointing out Chalabi's major operational role in handling Iraq's budget and his position as coordinator of the oil industry.
"We have operational interests to discuss with the man and we're going to do that," the official said.
U.S. forces and Iraqi police raided Chalabi's offices and home in Baghdad earlier this year to search for evidence of suspected corruption by INC members, although Chalabi himself was not a target.
Chalabi's spokesman Haider al-Mousawi said Chalabi did not see himself as Washington's preferred candidate in the December election.
"It will be up to the people of Iraq to choose a prime minister but if another country supports us, well, that's a bonus," al-Mousawi said.
Time magazine last month quoted unidentified U.S. administration officials as saying Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley both view Chalabi as "a plausible and acceptable" candidate for prime minister ahead of the current premier, Ibrahim Jaafari.
Al-Mousawi said Chalabi would meet Hadley and Rice, as well as Treasury Secretary John Snow.
A U.S. Treasury spokesman has said Snow would discuss the progress of Iraq's economic reconstruction with Chalabi. No meeting with Rice has been announced.
In announcing his new alliance, Chalabi said the December ballot was an important chance for Iraq to kick-start its economy and to rejoin the international community through trade and diplomacy, subjects likely to be discussed with Snow and Rice.
"We want to re-evaluate the legal status of Iraq in a way which enables Iraq to join traditional trade organisations," he said.
The U.S.-led war on terror would also be on the table.
"We confirm that Iraq will not be a base for terrorism and violence against any country, especially the neighbouring countries," Chalabi said.