Ahmed Chalabi was a controversial Iraqi political figure known for his deep ties to U.S. neoconservatives and his efforts to promote the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A former member of the Governing Council of Iraq following the U.S. invasion, Chalabi served in the Iraqi parliament and long harbored ambitions to become the country's prime minister.
In November 2015, Chalabi passed away at his home in Baghdad at the age of 71. A McClatchy obituary said of him: "[P]erhaps no man had more lasting influence on American foreign policy than Chalabi, whose faulty intelligence Bush administration war boosters used to sell Americans on an ill-planned invasion whose legacy we see today in the Islamic State and the de facto partitioning of Iraq."
Chalabi first rose to prominence in Washington as the head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a U.S.-backed exile group founded in 1992 that agitated for regime change in Iraq. At the INC, Chalabi worked closely with U.S. neoconservatives like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and played an important role in passing fabricated intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs and ties to al-Qaeda to supporters of a U.S. invasion.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, American neoconservatives and other advocates of regime change in Iraq embraced Chalabi, who had spent most of his life outside the country, as the potential leader of a democratic Iraq. But Chalabi's relationship with Washington soured as his intelligence about Iraq proved to be false and allegations emerged that he had passed on sensitive U.S. intelligence to Iran. As his relationship with Washington deteriorated in the year after the U.S. invasion and the U.S. government cut him off its payroll, Chalabi came out against the ongoing U.S. occupation of Iraq, though he still enjoyed warm relations with some Beltway neoconservatives.
Although he had little in the way of a popular constituency in Iraq, in 2014 Chalabi was promoted in some circles as a potential compromise candidate to replace the embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose sectarian Shiite government had alienated Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds and helped fuel a massive insurgency by militants linked to the extremist group ISIS and its allies. "Chalabi, a secular Shiite, has not been wasting his time while in the political wilderness," reported Foreign Policy. "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."
Chalabi's reemergence was lauded by his longtime benefactor Perle, who praised Chalabi as "far and away the most competent and the most capable [candidate] of salvaging this situation," as well as by Wolfowitz, who called the Iraqi politician a "survivor." Others, however, were more critical. "I think [Chalabi's new popularity] is part of Iraq's long slide into the abyss," said one Western diplomat quoted by Foreign Policy. Wrote Adam Taylor in the Washington Post, "It seems a sad indication of the absurdity of the past 11 years of Iraqi history that the man who helped dupe U.S. officials into that invasion should now be backed in his bid for leadership by those very same people."
For his part, Chalabi denied deliberately misleading the United States about Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but he remained defiantly supportive of his role in conveying the false intelligence. "We are heroes in error," he notoriously told the Telegraph in 2004. "As far as we're concerned, we've been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone, and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important."
Trajectory and Iraq War Advocacy
A secular Shiite born to a wealthy Iraqi banking family, Chalabi left Iraq with his family when he was 12 years old. He grew up largely in the United States and the United Kingdom before receiving a PhD from the University of Chicago and taking a teaching post at the American University in Beirut. In 1977 he established Jordan's Petra Bank, which eventually collapsed, resulting in Chalabi's conviction in absentia by a Jordanian tribunal of fraud and embezzlement charges. For his part, Chalabi blamed the bank's collapse and his conviction on a Baathist conspiracy.
Chalabi also remained active in the exile politics of his home country. He became a key member of the anti-Saddam exile community in the late 1970s and began establishing relationships with key U.S. neoconservatives in the 1980s. In 1992 he founded the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which became a favored vehicle for U.S. supporters of regime change in Iraq.
By the time of the Iraq War, recalled scholars Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke in their book America Alone, "Chalabi was an established neoconservative ally of some two decades. He met [Albert] Wohlstetter while studying mathematics at the University of Chicago, who introduced him to [Richard] Perle in 1985." In the following decade, "Chalabi gained political favor with Washington's staunch pro-Israeli think tanks, the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs and JINSA. He became a frequent guest at their symposia and drew wide support from key figures with neoconservative connections, such as [Dick] Cheney, [Donald] Rumsfeld, [Paul] Wolfowitz, and [James] Woolsey."
Even before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Chalabi proved capable of securing the U.S. government's support for his attempts at subterfuge in the country. In the mid-1990s, Chalabi returned to Iraq and, with U.S. backing, tried to organize an uprising in Kurdish areas of Iraq through the INC. The effort failed and hundreds of supporters were killed as Chalabi and many of his INC cohorts fled the country.
Despite this failure, Chalabi retained the confidence of his neoconservative allies, with Perle and Wolfowitz proving to be his biggest boosters. As early as 1998, Wolfowitz testified in front of the House International Relations Committee that regime change in Iraq was the "only way to rescue the region and the world from the threat" posed by Saddam Hussein. Wolfowitz added that the United States should recognize "a provisional government of free Iraq" and that the best place to look for such a government was within the INC.
Eventually, under pressure from a Republican-controlled Congress and heavy lobbying by neoconservative groups like the Project for the New American Century, then-President Bill Clinton signed into law the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which made the overthrow of Saddam an official U.S. policy goal and supplied funds for the INC. Commenting on the money the INC received from the U.S., the New Yorker's Jane Meyer wrote in 2004: "Between 1992 and [May 2004], the U.S. government funneled more than $100 million to the Iraqi National Congress. The current Bush administration gave Chalabi's group at least $39 million. Exactly what the INC provided in exchange for these sums has yet to be fully explained."
Bush administration hawks placed Chalabi at the forefront of efforts to build support for invading Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, to which Saddam Hussein's government was never linked. In the days immediately following the attacks, Perle invited Chalabi to a meeting of the Defense Policy Board (DPB), the Pentagon's in-house advisory board Perle then chaired, to discuss responses to the terrorist attacks. According to Meyer of the New Yorker, "Chalabi's message [to the DPB] … was to skip any intervention in Afghanistan, where the Taliban had harbored al-Qaida, and to proceed immediately with targeting Iraq. A participant at the meeting, who asked not to be named, recalled that Chalabi made a compelling case that the Americans would have an easy victory there: 'He said there'd be no resistance, no guerrilla warfare from the Baathists, and a quick matter of establishing a government.'"
To bolster his case for the war, Chalabi channeled erroneous information about Iraq to the Bush administration and its allies, who used the information to help justify the U.S invasion. As Meyer reported, Chalabi "helped the Bush administration make its case against Saddam, in part by disseminating the notion that the Baathist regime had maintained stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, and was poised to become a nuclear power. Although Chalabi developed enemies at the CIA who disputed his intelligence data and questioned his ethics, he forged a close bond with Vice President Dick Cheney and many of the top civilians at the Pentagon."
According to the Washington Post, the Bush-era Pentagon's faith in Chalabi, despite his 45-year absence from Iraq, caused war planners to ignore State Department warnings about the lack of Iraqi public support for Chalabi and to overlook the emergence of a radical, fundamentalist Shiite political base in the country. Said one unnamed official: "They really did believe he is a Shiite leader. ... They thought, 'We're set, we've got a Shiite—check the box here.'" Walter P. Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency specialist in Middle East affairs, told the Post, "We're flying blind on this. It's a classic case of politics and intelligence. In this case, the political community have [sic] absolutely whipped the intel community, or denigrated it so much.
In a November 2003 profile, the Post contrasted the views about Chalabi expressed by Bush administration critics like Lang with those of supporters like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and former CIA director James Woolsey. Lang opined that Chalabi was "a fake, one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated on the American people"; McCain called him "a patriot who has the best interests of his country at heart"; and Woolsey said, "He's a class act." (McCain would later turn on Chalabi over his "close relations with the Iranians.")
Chalabi also aggressively courted hawkish members of the U.S. media, who promoted him as a future leader of Iraq and echoed his claims about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons programs. In their 2003 book the War over Iraq, for example, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and New Republic writer Lawrence Kaplan argued that "the exile umbrella group, the Iraqi National Congress, is already working on the shape of Baghdad's postwar government." The hawkish New York Times journalist Judith Miller was also a steadfast ally, and was later criticized in the Washington Post for "over and over basically retyping Chalabi without fact checking."
After the invasion, Chalabi was airlifted to Iraq by the U.S. military. But his efforts to establish himself as a leader of the Shiite community were largely frustrated. According to NBC News, Chalabi "found that role largely taken by the religious leaders who had guided their population through the Saddam dictatorship."
Nonetheless, even as he denied any interest in seeking political office, Chalabi began shaping himself as a future leader of Iraq, becoming a member of the postwar Iraqi Governing Council and overseeing U.S. pro-consul L. Paul Bremer's extremely controversial "de-Baathification" program to purge the Iraqi government of former Baath Party members. The policy resulted in the firing of thousands of officials, including schoolteachers and other low-level officials who had become Baath Party members simply to keep their jobs. The Washington Post reported in 2010 that "the hasty, wholesale purge that the commission conducted is now widely seen as a catalyst of the insurgency and Iraq's sectarian war."
Chalabi continued to promote himself to both Iraqis and the Bush administration as a potential Iraqi president. In 2004, the Bush administration even invited him as a "special guest" of First Lady Laura Bush to attend the president's State of the Union address.
But Chalabi faced significant hurdles, the most import being his lack of support in Iraq. As the Post reported in late 2003: "Chalabi's ultimate goal, almost everyone agrees, is to be president of Iraq. But as a politician, he has some grave liabilities. He is an extremely polarizing personality: people tend to love him or hate him. A recent poll of Iraqis showed a 35 percent unfavorable rating and a 26 percent favorable rating. Many Iraqis regard him as an outsider, someone who stayed away too long. When he returned with U.S. troops at the start of the war, he had not been to Baghdad since 1958."
Shortly after being invited to George W. Bush's 2004 State of the Union Address, Chalabi's relationship with Washington deteriorated rapidly as his claims about Saddam Hussein's government turned out to be false and allegations emerged that he had passed sensitive U.S. military information on to Iran. In May 2004, Chalabi's home and office were raided by the U.S. military and Iraqi police began investigating his ties to Iran. Chalabi blamed the raid on foes within the U.S. government and quipped to one reporter: "It's customary when great events happen that the U.S. punishes its friends and rewards its enemies." He also renounced his support for the ongoing U.S. occupation of Iraq, telling the New York Times, ''We are grateful to President Bush for liberating Iraq, but it is time for the Iraqi people to run their affairs.''
Undaunted, in 2005, Chalabi—who had served brief stints as Iraq's interim oil minister and deputy prime minister and was still a leader of the INC—presented himself as a candidate for prime minister of Iraq. He eventually dropped out of the race, which was won by Ibrahim Jaafari.
Chalabi was less visible in subsequent years, but he re-emerged in early 2010 in an apparent reprise of his role as the head of the de-Baathification process. In February of that year, the Washington Post reported that Chalabi was behind the disqualification of several hundred candidates during the run up to Iraqi elections in March 2010. The disqualifications were announced by Chalabi's Justice and Accountability Commission, which according to critics targeted "candidates from Sunni-led and mixed secular coalitions" who were "rivals of Chalabi's bloc."
According to the Post, the disqualifications not only threatened to widen the sectarian divide in the country, they also were upsetting Iraq's neighbors, who worried about the increasing influence of Iran. An unnamed U.S. military official said, "They will try to get rid of pro-U.S. generals, but more importantly, they are stacking the deck with pro-Iranian officers, which will damage U.S. long-term interests in the long run. This is why many neighboring Arab countries aren't so happy about us modernizing the Iraqi military with some of the latest equipment."
Ironically, in 2014, Chalabi attempted to bolster his appeal to Sunnis by promising to roll back de-Baathification and review the charges against Sunni prisoners in Iraq. "It became the common wisdom that Sunnis hate me because of this de-Baathification," Chalabi told Foreign Policy. But following years of sectarian rule by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Chalabi said, "They are having nostalgia about de-Baathification."