Terra Incognita: Ahmed Chalabi, the man who would be king

The enduring legacy of the delusion of Iraqi democracy and the rise of Iran.

THEN PRESIDENT of the Iraqi National Congress Ahmed Chalabi (L) speaks with former CIA Director James Woolsey before testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Iraqi situation March 2, 1998. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THEN PRESIDENT of the Iraqi National Congress Ahmed Chalabi (L) speaks with former CIA Director James Woolsey before testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Iraqi situation March 2, 1998.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In March 1991 an Iraqi delegation came to Washington at the invitation of the Council on Foreign Relations. It wasn’t an ordinary delegation, but Iraqi opposition members who had suddenly been thrust into the limelight by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Although rebuffed by the US State Department, the delegation spoke to the House International Affairs Committee. One of the central members of the group who impressed the congressmen was Dr. Ahmed Chalabi, then 47 years old.
“So, Congress met us, encouraged us,” recalled Chalabi in a 1999 PBS interview.
“Then our relationship with the United States government developed through Congress in the summer and the autumn of 1991.”
Two and a half decades after he went before Congress Chalabi’s legacy still bitterly divides his supporters and detractors. For a marginalized Iraqi politician, widely discredited over the past decade, it is perhaps strange that he should still spark such interest. However there is a sense that history hinged on this paradoxical individual. Did one man really provide the alibi for the George W. Bush administration’s reckless drive to invade? Was he really a devoted, idealistic patriot who made pragmatic choices after the fall of Baghdad, or just a conduit for Iranian influence? The fact is that this long delusion has had a profound effect on the Middle East and America’s role in the region, mostly for what it represents: the misguided Western attachment to magicians who promise an easy fix to the region’s problems and who sell themselves as Middle Eastern versions of George Washington, but who are in fact deeply destructive to their own countries.
“Iraqi warmonger Ahmad Chalabi dies,” stated Al-Arabiya in its obituary. This was the general consensus among major eulogies: he was portrayed as the Iraqi politician who “championed the US invasion” (BBC), “helped spur US invasion” (Washington Post).
Leafing through the recollections of him, there is a clear theme.
“The neo-cons wanted to make a case for war and he was somebody...willing to provide them with information that would help,” noted Ali Khedery, a former official in Baghdad.
Lamis Andoni called him the “proud pawn for a big American law” who provided a local Arab “authenticity” for a concept of regime change, a “modernized Arab, who shared the Western values.” She charts a history whereby Chalabi was invited into a clique of “neo-cons” by historian Bernard Lewis and Washington insider Richard Perle.
Many of Chalabi’s old friends and fellow- travelers have come out in his defense.
Michael Rubin wrote at Commentary that Chalabi was made a scapegoat, when he was actually a brilliant and arrogant Iraqi patriot.
Like Andoni, Rubin also recalled Chalabi firsthand, getting to know him in 2001 before the invasion and then again after 2003. He claims that Chalabi “annoyed” the American occupiers by not “telling them what they wanted to hear.” Supposedly Chalabi wanted a short US occupation, after which he, conveniently, would be in an influential position. Rubin claims that although he might have been responsible for some of the “false intelligence that helped sway public and political opinion in favor of the war,” the Iraqi patriot was no more at fault than others. He depicts Chalabi as being taken advantage of by his friends who abused his trust, and by defectors from Saddam’s Iraq who unknowingly gave bad information. It was the CIA’s fault for believing them, argues the author, and Chalabi was a “scapegoat.”
Chalabi was a victim of everyone, apparently.
The Jordanians conspired with Saddam against him and his bank in the 1990s, and supposedly the CIA harmed his reputation with the press. Even the Americans drove him into the arms of the Iranians after 2003 by “rejecting” him.
Seth Lipsky at The Wall Street Journal also still sees an “Iraqi democrat” and accuses the Left of tarnishing his reputation. Lipsky first met Chalabi at a dinner hosted by The Jewish Daily Forward, he says, in celebration of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which had been passed in the US Congress. In this telling Chalabi shocked the mostly Jewish audience by saying in a democratic Iraq Jews would be welcomed back. “He was singular in his lack of xenophobia, as well as in his appreciation for ideas, markets and the democratic cause,” according to Lipsky.
In this narrative Chalabi was not a warmonger, to the contrary he warned of the “abysmal” planning the Bush administration put into occupying Iraq. But what about “collaborating with the Iranian regime and at times aligning with factions in Iraq that were fighting US forces”? The supporter has no answer.
Ira Stoll, another supporter, claims that Chalabi was the Samuel Adams of Iraq, a “revolutionary leader who inspired, agitated, persuaded and persevered in the face of overwhelming odds and when others lost hope.”
Stoll also met Chalabi in the 1990s when he was writing for The Forward and admired him because Chalabi “disproved the claim...that all Arabs or all Muslims were violent haters of the Jews, or Israel or of America.”
How to square these diametrically opposed perceptions? One views Chalabi as not only corrupt, but also a war monger. Another portrays him as a devoted democrat who was let down by those around him and a victim of political enemies, the press, the CIA and US State Department.
CHALABI LEARNED early on to be all things to all people. Born to a well off Shi’ite family in 1944, he left Iraq in 1956 and his family followed him into exile in 1958 when the king was overthrown.
Many friends, such as Gareth Smyth at The Guardian, remarked that he was a “link to an older, more humane Iraq.” This humane man had an adviser who was a Zoroastrian, he enjoyed the Iraq-born Jewish writer Sami Michael. He was a living embodiment of a “pluralist Iraq.”
In his 2008 book, Aram Rostom, a journalist who accuses Chalabi of being the man who “pushed America to war,” investigated how Chalabi managed to go from being a PhD in mathematics at the University of Chicago in 1970 to running guns and banks in the Middle East. Chalabi moved to Lebanon in 1971 where he married a Lebanese Shi’ite in a ceremony presided over by Iman Musa Sadr, the famed religious leader and relative of Muqtada al-Sadr. Next he discovered a talent for wining and dining journalists, like Peter Jennings, who he helped contact Mustafa Barzani, the Kurdish resistance leader. He networked with the Guardian’s David Hirst as well, convincing him that Chalabi was the man to knit together a Shi’ite-Kurdish rebellion against Saddam. Chalabi had dabbled in the rebellion in Kurdistan, and perhaps here first became acquainted with not only the CIA, but also the Israelis, who supported the Kurds via Iran. After 1976 the Chalabis relocated to Amman, Jordan, where they founded and ran Petra Bank and became close with prominent Palestinian families and prime minister Zaid al-Rifai.
After a decade in the wilderness in which he supported Iran’s war against Iraq, he appears again in 1989 when his Petra Bank collapsed.
He fled Jordan, sentenced to 22 years in prison in absentia, accused of embezzling $300 million. The Iraqi opposition figure later wove a story involving a conspiracy of Saddam Hussein and the Kingdom of Jordan against him, to earn sympathy in Washington, when in fact his prominent role in opposing Saddam came in the 1990s, after his bank had collapsed.
After the Gulf War made it seem like Saddam could be toppled, Chalabi inserted himself into Washington circles, nurturing his influence among academics, journalists and politicians. Claiming to be instrumental in recovering lost Kuwaiti bank assets seized by Iraq, he met journalist David Ignatius during this time, who concluded the Iraqi had a “well-disguised personal agenda.” Smyth recalls meeting Chalabi in 1992 in Salahuddin in northern Iraq. He had come through Iran, as he had done in the 1970s, and wanted to urge the Kurds on in their struggle. In the wake of the Gulf War Chalabi leveraged the American interest in supporting dissident groups to form the Iraqi National Congress, which would receive some $100 million in aid from the US, according to various accounts.
Smyth recalls Chalabi lecturing in 1993 at the School of Oriental and African Studies about the need for the rule of law in Iraq. Ibrahim al-Marashi, an academic, also saw the Iraqi exile leader speak in Washington in 1995 at Georgetown.
At that time Chalabi played a real role in setting up the INC’s infrastructure in northern Iraq, including claims his forces were leading attacks on Saddam. When the Kurdish region fell into civil war, Saddam’s Ba’ath moved back in, and Chalabi’s men were hunted down.
“Imagine how he might have seen the US at this point,” ponders Marashi. “Washington did nothing as Saddam’s forces eliminated the INC base.”
Chalabi’s contacts with academics like Lewis, who he first met in 1990, paid off as the neo-con infatuation with him grew after 2001. Having helped get his friends in Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act he cooled his heels for the next round. Patrick Cockburn implies that Chalabi wanted to use the US for his own ends from the beginning. “A former colleague INC member told me that Chalabi had surprised his staff by saying: ‘We had better start working on a plan to get the US out of Iraq once Saddam is gone.’” After the 2003 invasion Chalabi was named one of 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council and was briefly head of it. But Chalabi was called “intensely unpopular” and head of an “ineffectual, corrupt” organization by the American officials who had worked with him. He was soon seen as “discredited” and sidelined into the job of “de-Ba’athification” and hunting down “war criminals.” He even met Saddam in the former leader’s jail cell, showing how much the tables had turned.
He told those who knew him, like Smyth, that his loyalty was to Iraq, not the US, and that he would work with Iran and the Shi’ite militias to find dialogue. In 2004 the US raided his house and accused him of corruption and insinuated he was an Iranian spy. In 2005, as deputy prime minister, he went to meet Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinjed and encouraged Iranian involvement in Iraq to help defeat the Sunni insurgency. Some see this as “playing the political game” or not seeing Iraq in “black and white,” to explain how quickly he went from being seen as a quisling for the Americans to an Iranian interlocutor.
His political fortunes declined – he went from being interim oil minister in 2005 to deputy prime minister through May 2006 to losing his seat in parliament. By 2007 the US was accusing him of outright links to Iranian- backed Shi’ite attacks on the US. Cockburn blames Chalabi’s sidelining on Nouri al-Maliki, saying in July 2014, “The ablest candidate to be prime minister is Ahmed Chalabi on the grounds that he is intelligent, energetic, an excellent organizer and has a good understanding of what has gone wrong.” Aram Roston also thought that he might become the next prime minister, claiming that US officials were again meeting with him and saying “he’s got a decent shot.” However in July Haider Abadi beat Chalabi by 188 to 107 votes to become deputy prime minister, and soon after, prime minister.
In one of his last major interviews he told Der Spiegel in September of 2014 that Iraq should work with Syria’s Bashar Assad against Islamic State. The man who once claimed the US should leave Iraq quickly now noted that “without American support, Islamic State would have taken many more places in Iraq...effective ground troops are necessary as well.”
SO WHO was Ahmed Chalabi? First and foremost he impressed almost everyone who met him, even those who came to disagree with him. He was cultured, unlike the jihadists and Shi’ite militia commanders.
He had a genuine interest in history and intellectual pursuits.
He attracted many Jewish supporters, particularly from so-called neo-conservative circles.
He and members of his Iraqi exile group met with pro-Israel activists and also with Israelis in the 1990s, opening a channel with Saddam’s most implacable foe, which he surely felt would be amenable to his ideas and might cement his support in Congress. But it was not a one-sided affair. After the 2003 invasion Harold Rhode details how Chalabi played a key role in rescuing “a huge treasure trove” of Iraqi Jewish historical documents and items.
It is perhaps with understandable reason that some of his friends therefore look back fondly on him, whatever his failings.
Was he ineffectual and discredited? Was he a pawn of “American empire” or was America a pawn in his game to return to Iraq and be crowned ruler? When one hears about the “Samuel Adams” of Iraq, this “democrat,” it is hard to square with the reality of a man who was loathed by many Sunnis and who seemed to do little to make Iraq democratic. He was not an Iranian spy, as some claimed, but he was loyal to a Shi’ite patrimony that stretches from Qom to West Beirut. His cultural circle embraced the Sadr family as well as Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the Najaf-born cleric who became so influential in Lebanon. This “westernized” Iraqi was as much at home negotiating with Hezbollah as he was with Kurdish leaders, whose autonomy, and even quasi-independence he supported up until his death (he compared losing Kurdistan to Germany’s loss of East Prussia in a Der Spiegel interview).
Chalabi simply was not effective and herein lies the delusion. Too many Westerners embrace Middle Eastern intellectuals who pose as leaders and who tell them what they want to hear. They imagine a suit and tie means “western” because they live in a neo-orientalist world. Chalabi represents more what is wrong with present-day Iraq than the supposed “Iraq of old” that his friends imagine he belonged to. Ineffective, Shi’ite and willing to turn a blind eye to anyone, couching all of it behind pragmatism, when inviting Shi’ite militias and Iran to run the Middle East is not pragmatism, but a clear agenda.
Are we supposed to believe a man as cultured as Chalabi didn’t understand that Iran was carving out a crescent of influence from Hezbollah to Assad via Baghdad to Iran? In 2008 US General David Petraeus received a note from Qasem Soleimani, the IRGC’s Quds force commander, telling him “I control Iran policy in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan.”
Who did Soleimani choose to communicate through? Ahmed Chalabi. He wasn’t an Iranian agent dating back decades, as Saudi deputy national guard chief Abdulmohsen bin Abdulaziz Al-Tuwaijri reportedly accused him of being in a 2010 State Department cable, he was just a conduit for Iranian influence.
He was a dreamer. In 2009 he sent newly elected US President Barack Obama a letter advocating an Islamic alliance of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran to “combat extremism” within Islam. He wanted a “strategic relationship” with the US. There is no record of Obama’s response.
In Iraq Salah Hzayyen writing in 2004 in Al-Ghad claimed that “in the dustbin of history, people of the world will find many names and Chalabi is just the latest.” Despite his pretentions to power, Chalabi seemed to agree.
“The Iraqi people never had a personality that galvanized them, and around which they gathered, throughout the eight decades of Iraqi history,” he said in a 1999 interview.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman