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Congress Shrugs Off Ahmad Chalabi’s Death

U.S. lawmakers spent more than a decade palling around with the infamous Iraq War promoter. Now they insist he was a nobody.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - JANUARY 17:  Ahmad Chalabi listens to a question during a press conference at the Ministry of De-Baathification inside the Green Zone January 17, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq. Chalabi, who heads the ministry in charge of vetting all former Baath Party officers, announced January 17 that his ministry will follow its own plan. U.S. President George W. Bush's administration has been leaning on the Iraq unity government to allow more former Baathists to participate in the country's reconstruction efforts. Chalabi said they will follow the law as it's written. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - JANUARY 17: Ahmad Chalabi listens to a question during a press conference at the Ministry of De-Baathification inside the Green Zone January 17, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq. Chalabi, who heads the ministry in charge of vetting all former Baath Party officers, announced January 17 that his ministry will follow its own plan. U.S. President George W. Bush's administration has been leaning on the Iraq unity government to allow more former Baathists to participate in the country's reconstruction efforts. Chalabi said they will follow the law as it's written. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

In life, Ahmad Chalabi cultivated close ties with powerful members of Congress in both parties. In death, few on Capitol Hill want anything to do with him or his legacy.

On Tuesday, the influential Iraqi exile, whose false claims about Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction helped justify the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, died of a heart attack in Baghdad. Despite close partnerships in Congress dating back decades, lawmakers from both parties used interviews to either distance themselves from the Shiite secularist, profess to not know who he was, or say he had little influence on their decision to authorize the use of military force against Iraq in 2002.

“I didn’t remember who he was,” said Sen. James Inhofe, a former ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who voted in support of the Iraq War resolution. “I didn’t even know he died.”

“Chalabi never had any influence on me,” added Sen. John McCain, the current chairman of the panel.

“I don’t think that he was influential to my vote, but he was part of the puzzle,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Chalabi, who left Iraq in the 1950s and received his doctorate from the University of Chicago, was a tireless force in propagating what would ultimately be discredited information about Saddam’s alleged nuclear weapons program and purported connection to al Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11. His close ties to U.S. journalists, lawmakers, and administration officials paid off in many ways over the years.

Kenneth Pollack, an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institution and a former National Security Council staffer in the Clinton administration, said that over the years, Chalabi’s influence in Congress was undeniable.

“When I was at the NSC as the Iraq guy, I got all kinds of calls from congressmen and staffers wanting to talk to me about Chalabi,” he said. “He was in the press every day. It was very clear that he was lobbying very hard.”

Pollack said the “zenith of his influence” came in 1998, when Chalabi helped persuade lawmakers to approve the Iraq Liberation Act, a bill co-sponsored by McCain that declared that America’s policy toward Iraq was predicated on replacing Saddam’s regime with a more democratic government. Between 1992 and the outset of the Iraq War, Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress received more than $100 million from the CIA and other U.S. agencies.

But after the quick overthrow of Saddam’s government in 2003 turned into a quagmire for the U.S. military, Chalabi’s reputation took a dramatic turn. Despite his promises that he could lead a liberated post-invasion Iraq, it quickly became clear he had little popular support in the country, where he was derided for living comfortably in exile while the country suffered through war, political repression, and privations caused by American sanctions.

Chalabi, a Shiite Muslim, also helped craft and implement a so-called “de-Baathification” policy for Iraq, which expelled members of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated Baath Party from most government jobs and barred them from playing a role in the country’s political transition. Chalabi is also thought to have been a major influence on then-American viceroy Paul Bremer, whose decision to disband the Iraqi military sparked the country’s insurgency by putting at least 250,000 trained, heavily armed soldiers on the street and giving them incentives to fight the United States.

The two policies helped fuel the sectarian divisions that raged throughout Iraq’s bloody civil war and directly led to the rise of the Islamic State, which took root in the Sunni areas of Iraq that had for years chafed at what they viewed as brutal treatment at the hands of a succession of Shiite-led central governments in Baghdad.

A consummate political animal, Chalabi also maintained close ties to Iran, a relationship that sparked so much concern in Washington that U.S. and Iraqi forces raided Chalabi’s Baghdad compound in 2004 looking for evidence he had passed sensitive information to Tehran. (Chalabi denied doing so, and the United States later quietly denied the allegations.) Last year, Chalabi’s name even surfaced as a candidate for prime minister. He remained active until his death as the head of the finance committee in the Iraqi parliament.

On Tuesday, a flurry of obituaries reexamining Chalabi’s role in making the case against Saddam surfaced, but lawmakers said Chalabi’s influence was widely overstated.

“What did have influence on me, and influenced my vote, was the most respected man in America, the secretary of state [Colin Powell], saying to the world and to Congress that there were weapons of mass destruction,” McCain told Foreign Policy. “It wasn’t Chalabi that brought our government to that conclusion; it was our secretary of state.”

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who also voted for the Iraq War, said Chalabi simply stated the obvious when discussing the cruelties of the Saddam regime prior to the U.S. invasion. “Saddam was a bad guy. That’s axiomatic,” he said.

While Engel agreed that Chalabi’s role was overstated, he said he still “resented” the disinformation campaign in the run-up to the Iraq War vote, which he considers “the worst vote I’ve taken in my entire career in Congress.”

“He had all kinds of grandiose promises and claims,” said Engel, recalling a meeting he had with Chalabi. “I don’t think you can blame one person, but it happened. It’s past history, and we have to move forward.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who was not in Congress during the Iraq War vote, said the invasion would’ve happened regardless of Chalabi’s role. Chalabi was just a part of it, but there was a desire in the administration to do something with Iraq, and if the evidence wasn’t there, we were going to figure out a way to claim it was there.”

Despite Chalabi’s years of close ties with members of Congress, Pollack said it is impossible to know definitively if the Iraqi exile had a decisive role in the minds of lawmakers at the time.

“Ahmad was wonderful for the Bush administration because he wanted America to believe exactly what the White House wanted to believe,” he said. “But it’s hard to know what different lawmakers were thinking. Some of them believed the intelligence about WMD. Some of them wanted to go along because Bush was president and they were Republican. Everyone was afraid of terrorists.”

Photo credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

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