By Barbara Slavin
News that Ahmed Chalabi died today in Baghdad brings back a flood of memories of the time when Chalabi was the most influential Iraqi in Washington.
Leader of a fractious exile group called the Iraqi National Congress (I.N.C.), Chalabi – who left Iraq as a teenager and lived most of his life in London — insinuated himself into the highest circles of U.S. foreign policy decision-making and lobbied successfully for a U.S. invasion to remove dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
It may be hyperbole to call Chalabi the architect of the Iraq war, as many have done. That label belongs collectively to a number of officials in the George W. Bush administration, beginning with the president himself. But it is certainly true that Chalabi-supplied informants greased the way by providing false intelligence that Saddam still had weapons of mass destruction. It is also true that Chalabi’s divisive politics helped undermine Iraq’s chances of post-Saddam success.
“He will have a very mixed legacy,” said Feisal Istrabadi, Iraq’s former deputy ambassador to the U.N. While Chalabi played an outsized role in convincing the U.S. to get rid of Saddam, Istrabadi told VOA “he will also be remembered for a zero-sum type of politics… a cut-throat politics when the country needed reconciliation.”
Two images of Chalabi stand out in this reporter’s memory. In one, the M.I.T. graduate and former banker is wearing a smart suit and regaling rapt audiences at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) – a conservative Washington think tank – at so-called black coffee briefings leading up to the U.S. invasion. Often Richard Perle, a neoconservative former Defense Department official and Washington wheeler-dealer close to then Vice President Dick Cheney, was by Chalabi’s side.
The other image is of Chalabi, pudgy in a black tee-shirt, flown into Iraq by the Pentagon after the U.S. invasion in an effort to boost his chances to lead the country post-Saddam. Chalabi never became Iraq’s prime minister, but held a series of important posts and chaired parliament’s finance committee at the time of his death from a heart attack.
Admirers marveled at the way Chalabi mastered the U.S. political system and ingratiated himself with powerful backers, many of whom outlive him, including Cheney, Perle and former deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
Bernard Lewis, renowned historian of the medieval Middle East and professor emeritus at Princeton, was one of the first to be seduced by Chalabi’s vision of Iraq as ripe for and deserving of democracy.
In Chalabi’s gauzy view, this new Iraq would not only be a model for the rest of the Middle East, but would establish relations with Israel and even reopen an old oil pipeline from Kirkuk to Haifa. Needless to say, none of this has occurred – although Israel does obtain oil from the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. If anything, Iraq and its region are more chaotic and violent than at any time in recent history. The United States has lost trillions of dollars and nearly 4,500 troops, the latest only last month.
Chalabi played successfully on pro-Israel sentiments in Washington as well as the guilt felt by some U.S. officials about their failure to remove Saddam during the 1991 Gulf War and the massacres of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds that followed.
Chalabi was a major force in the passage of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which President Bill Clinton signed. This opened the way for U.S. financial support of Chalabi’s coalition of exile groups. Over time, the I.N.C. got more than $100 million in U.S. funds.
Chalabi’s luster in Washington began to fade after the 2003 invasion when no weapons of mass destruction were found and Iraq dissolved in sectarian chaos.
A secular Shiite, he pursued a sectarian agenda that alienated millions of potential Sunni Muslim supporters of a new regime by purging the government of almost anyone who had held a position of influence under Saddam. This de-Baathification – abetted by clueless American officials – fed Sunni grievances that opened the way for al-Qaida in Iraq and its successor, the group that calls itself the Islamic State.
An equal opportunity manipulator, Chalabi also cultivated close ties to Iran, arguably the Iraq war’s biggest strategic beneficiary. In 2004, U.S. forces raided Chalabi’s compound in Baghdad looking for evidence that he shared U.S. intelligence codes with Iran. In a 2005 appearance at AEI in Washington, Chalabi offered to testify about this and other matters before Congress. That never happened and no charges were brought against him.
Reactions to Chalabi’s death focused on his powers of persuasion and the sad condition of Iraq today.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a close adviser to Hillary Clinton, who voted to authorize the Iraq war when she was a senator, tweeted:
He sold us (Iranian) snake oil but we willingly used it: Iraqi Politician Ahmed Chalabi Dead Of A Heart Attack https://t.co/ylY2h9hA7F— Martin Indyk (@Martin_Indyk) November 3, 2015
What an anti-climactic end for Ahmad Chalabi: heart failure, with Iraq still a mess. https://t.co/xwvhCd7ifw— Damien Cave (@damiencave) November 3, 2015
Paul Pillar, a former National Intelligence Officer for Iraq and long-time CIA analyst, told VOA, “Chalabi will be remembered as a charlatan who played a key role in abetting the campaign of American neocons to win support for launching the Iraq war. He became a symbol of the notion that a stable pro-Western political system was waiting to emerge if Saddam Hussein were overthrown. ”
Perle, not surprisingly had a different view. He told VOA that “the idea that Chalabi was a significant factor in the intelligence assessments [that preceded the invasion] was simply wrong.”
Perle said he had kept in touch with Chalabi over the years and that the Iraqi remained proud of his “huge contribution” to the overthrow of Saddam, a murderous dictator who invaded two countries and bombarded his own people with poison gas. “The removal of Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do and what followed was a series of disastrous missteps beginning with an occupation,” Perle said.
Istrabadi said that despite the mixed reviews in Washington, Chalabi’s death was “really bad news for Iraq,” which is going through an economic as well as a security crisis. In recent years, Istrabadi said, Chalabi had recognized that he would never rise to high office and so “became a serious parliamentarian” whose intelligence and economic skills will be missed. All in all, however, Istrabadi said Chalabi’s legacy was one of “failure and squandered potential.”