The Resurrection of Ahmad Chalabi
The man who helped convince the United States to invade Iraq has spent the last decade in the political wilderness. But now, with his country in chaos, he could be its next leader.
BAGHDAD — Outside the steel doors and high walls of what was once a country estate on the outskirts of Baghdad, trash is piled along dusty streets marked with concrete blast barriers. In large swaths of the country, Sunni fighters intent on erasing Iraq’s borders to create a sweeping Islamic state battle Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militiamen. Inside, in the more refined world he has willed into being, Ahmad Chalabi ponders his political resurrection.
"The politicians believe this is business as usual — it is not," he says in an interview with Foreign Policy, while leaning back in the embrace of a Danish-designed chair made in Baghdad from the reclaimed teak doors of old houses. "Iraq has never faced dissolution since its creation until now. This is the first time Iraq faces dissolution on two fronts — the Kurds and the Sunnis."
Chalabi is dressed in a black T-shirt, black parachute pants, and black suede shoes with no socks. He sits surrounded by Iraqi paintings — at Baghdad’s declining number of art galleries, his purchases alone help keep some artists afloat. In the garden in the evening, fans with water reservoirs spray a cooling, rose-scented mist. He is renovating his swimming pool, where neoconservative American officials used to swim when he was still a darling of President George W. Bush’s administration. Now, the U.S. Embassy across town is evacuating its nonessential staff, and the remaining Foreign Service officers aren’t allowed even to cross the street.
To many in the West, Chalabi, 69, is still the political operator who convinced the Bush administration that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, paving the way for the U.S.-led invasion of the country. But inside an Iraq dangerously on the verge of splintering, that invasion is almost ancient history. After almost a decade of being sidelined, the man who could not win a seat in parliament in 2005 and whose name once inspired insults scrawled on Baghdad walls has emerged as a serious contender to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In fact, he believes he can save Iraq.
"The facts, you see, add cumulatively to my credibility with all sections of society," he says. "These people proposing me to be prime minister — [they are] not only among the Shiites but among the Sunnis and the Kurds."
Those "facts," as Chalabi sees them, are a proven record of reducing government corruption and the economic qualifications to repair Iraq’s bleeding economy. Now, he has his sights set on crushing the Islamic State — formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a jihadist organization that has recently seized vast areas of territory in the north and west of the country. To do that, he says the government needs to mend ties with the country’s Sunni community.
"The way to defeat ISIS, in my view the only way, is first of all — after a good government is formed — you have to issue a law of national reconciliation to win over the Sunnis in a serious way."
In June, Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, fell to ISIS, which rebranded itself as the Islamic State and declared the creation of a caliphate. With the Sunni jihadists on their doorstep, Iraqi political leaders are still wrangling over who will form a new government after elections in April. One of the only things they seem to agree on is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should not be given a third term in office.
Chalabi, a secular Shiite, has not been wasting his time while in the political wilderness. In the past decade, he has forged strong ties with hard-line Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, as well as the major Kurdish factions and key Sunni leaders. Close to Iran and apparently now tolerated by the United States, he has emerged as perhaps the ultimate compromise candidate in a country fatally lacking in political compromise.
Part of Chalabi’s proposed reconciliation would be reviewing the cases of thousands of prisoners, most of them Sunnis, who have been arrested under sweeping anti-terrorism laws and held in jail without charge, or long past orders for their release. Chalabi says he would also appoint a judicial committee to review cases where people have been sentenced on the basis of coerced confessions.
Then he would turn his attention to Iraq’s bleeding economy and combat corruption. The former banker proposes a team of forensic auditors — perhaps headed by the American former special inspector for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart Bowen — to review contracts and contracting procedures in order to reduce Iraq’s staggering corruption. Chalabi also points to his experience in government in 2005, when he says he exposed a $1.2 billion contracting scandal and proposed a committee to oversee large contracts. "For one year there was not one instance of corruption in the entire contracting process of the Iraqi government," he says — a claim difficult to verify.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic aims of a man inextricably associated with laws punishing former Baath party members would be to roll back de-Baathification, which he now argues has been perverted from its original purpose of dismantling Saddam’s party institutions to being used as retribution for political purposes.
"It became the common wisdom that Sunnis hate me because of this de-Baathification," Chalabi says. But given the even harsher crackdown that followed his departure, he claims, "They are having nostalgia about de-Baathification."
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But before Chalabi turns to the future, he has a litany of grievances against those he believes have wronged him in the past. While several former Bush administration officials still champion his political ambitions, top on his list of adversaries is the man the United States appoint to lead the occupation authority following the 2003 invasion: Paul Bremer.
"Bremer never liked me from the beginning," Chalabi says, blaming a 2003 editorial he published in the Wall Street Journal, in which he thanked the United States for toppling Saddam Hussein but warned it against staying in Iraq. He blames the United States — and U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi — of excluding him from Ayad Allawi’s interim government, formed in 2004.
Chalabi, who was paid by the CIA for six years as part of a futile covert effort to topple Saddam Hussein, also bats away claims that he was responsible for the incorrect intelligence about the Iraqi regime’s purported WMD stockpiles. He says his role was limited to putting informants in touch with the CIA for the agency to evaluate on its own. A congressionally appointed committee discounted his connection to the now-discredited source known as "Curveball," later identified as Iraqi defector Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, whose claim that Saddam was operating mobile biological weapons laboratories was used by the Bush administration to publicly make the case for war. Chalabi says the widespread claim in the media of his connection to Janabi was payback for ruffling feathers at the State Department and White House.
"What happened is that the narrative of war that Bush based his plan on fell apart," he says. "Who is at fault? I am. It’s an easy target — a foreigner in Iraq who did things in Washington with questionable methods whom they didn’t like. It’s easy."
However, Chalabi is still happy to take credit for his key role in bringing the United States to Iraq. After being cut loose by the CIA, he went to Washington in 1997 to lobby Congress to back attempts to overthrow Saddam. A year later, the Iraqi Liberation Act, which made it U.S. policy to support regime change, was signed into law.
"The main thing we did was we made the Iraq issue an American political issue inside the United States," Chalabi says. "Of course this gets me great ill will with the American bureaucrats, so every chance they get, they dump on me."
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Even by the mercurial standards of Iraqi politics, Chalabi has had a dramatic ride. Less than a year after the beginning of the war, he was given a privileged seat near first lady Laura Bush at President Bush’s 2004 State of the Union address. Four months later, U.S. Special Forces raided his office following accusations that he sent sensitive files to Iran and forged currency with plates stolen from the Iraqi mint. The charges were later dropped. He is still, however, sentenced in absentia to prison with hard labor in Jordan, where he is held responsible for the collapse of the kingdom’s second-largest bank in 1989. Chalabi maintains he was made the scapegoat for that collapse.
The passage of the years has not managed to erase everyone’s suspicions about him. As one former Western diplomat who has dealt with him put it, "I think [Chalabi’s new popularity] is part of Iraq’s long slide into the abyss."
But Chalabi believes that recent events have validated his decision in the years following the invasion — much bemoaned in Washington at the time — to pursue cooperation with Iran.
"Are they not cooperating with Iran?" Chalabi says of the United States. "Are they not accepting Iranian interference in the war against ISIS? Why was that a bad thing to do in 2003 to 2004 and why is it a great thing now? Who was right and who was wrong?"
During his years out of political power, Chalabi launched a sort of economic salon — twice-weekly seminars bringing together technical experts to thrash out economic and political issues — that has burnished his credentials as a technocrat able to rise above sectarian issues.
In what was once a grain cellar for his family’s ancestral farm — and is now lined with gleaming-white concrete and outfitted with a stage and audiovisual system amid the abstract art — a rotating cast of academics, policy makers, and industrialists still gathers for discussions of issues such as the role of the central bank, how to revive industry, and how to combat corruption.
Chalabi mostly listens — as he has been listening for the past decade.
"Every week he meets tens if not hundreds of technocrats and academics, and he tries to find the right people," says an independent Iraqi analyst who has attended his seminars and, like many, describes him as "brilliant."
"When the Americans turned against him, he became alone — he was only respected by the Kurds," says the analyst. "Everybody was ignoring him, so he used that in a very clever way — he did not want to become a puppet. I think he knows the only way to have his star shine is when there is nationwide disagreement."
Chalabi, perhaps disingenuously, says he isn’t seeking the prime minister’s job.
"What’s the point if there’s no plan?" he asks. "To put Iraq back together is very difficult. The points of this plan will be opposed violently by some Shiites because their concept is they are in power…. But we can’t conquer Sunni lands with Shiite militias. That’s one thing we need — a plan to stitch Iraq back together."
With Iraq unraveling and after a decade waiting in the wings, this might be Chalabi’s chance to implement that plan.