Ahmad Chalabi is a controversial Iraqi political figure who first rose to prominence in the year's before the U.S. led invasion of Iraq because of his U.S.-backed exile group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which played an important role pushing the ouster of Saddam Hussein, including by passing allegedly false intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs. Long a favorite of many neoconservative figures—including, most notably, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle—Chalabi fell out of official favor (if not that of the neocons) in 2004 when he was accused of spying for Iran. In early 2010, Chalabi again made headlines as a result of his continuing ties to Iran and his efforts to sideline Sunni politicians in Iraq (Chalabi is Shiite).
In late February 2010, the Washington Post reported that Chalabi was behind the disqualification of several hundred candidates during the run up to Iraqi elections in March 2010 because of having alleged ties to the Baath Party. The disqualifications were announced by Chalabi's Justice and Accountability Commission, which according to critics targeted "candidates from Sunni-led and mixed secular coalitions. … Many of those ousted were rivals of Chalabi's bloc. A court impaneled to review the cases carried out a cursory review behind closed doors. Candidates were allowed to submit written appeals but were never told the specific nature of the allegations against them."
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."
Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, echoed these concerns during an interview with the Nation's Robert Dreyfuss in mid-2010. He said that Chalabi and his colleague on the anti-Baath commission, Ali al-Lami, "clearly are influenced by Iran. We have direct intelligence that tells us that. They've had several meetings in Iran, meeting with a man named Mohandas … who was on the terrorist watch list for a bombing in Kuwait in the 1980s. They are tied to him. He sits at the right-hand side of the [Iranian] Quds Force commandant, Qassem Soleimani."
Chalabi previously served as head of Iraq's Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification, a controversial body created after then-U.S. proconsul in Iraq Paul Bremer issued a 2003 decree that was meant to remove thousands of Baath Party members from office. The Washington Post reported: "The one-and-a-half-page decree, which was drafted in the Pentagon office of then-Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, banned anyone who had been in the party's top four ranks; it also banned hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file members from holding senior management positions in government ministries. Bremer's stated goal was to cleanse Iraq's government of the former president's cronies."
The de-Baathification 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 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."
Background, Trajectory, and Neocon Support
A Shiite Muslim born to a wealthy Iraqi banking family, Chalabi left Iraq with his family when he was 12 years old. Although he spent most of his life in the West, he remained closely involved in Mideast affairs. In 1977 he founded the scandal-plagued Petra Bank in Jordan (which collapsed in 1990), and in the late 1970s he also became a key member of the anti-Saddam exile community.
In the mid-1990s, Chalabi returned to Iraq and through the INC tried to organize an uprising in Kurdish areas of Iraq. The effort failed and hundreds of supporters were killed; Chalabi and many of his INC cohorts fled the country. In 1992, after his Petra Bank folded, Chalabi was sentenced in absentia by a Jordanian court for bank fraud. Chalabi has repeatedly insisted that he is innocent and that Petra's failure was orchestrated by Saddam Hussein.
In the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon—under the sway of neoconservatives like Perle and Wolfowitz—favored Chalabi as a potential new leader for Iraq. According to the Washington Post, the 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 administrative 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."
The efforts of Chalabi and his INCnto pass along dubious intelligence to the United States, as well as the INC's plank of supporters among neoconservatives, also helped drive criticism of Chalabi and his group in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion.
In his 2005 book Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, journalist George Packer highlights the case of Chalabi when describing the relationship that developed between neoconservatives and high profile Iraqi Shiite exiles during the years leading up to the Iraq War, focusing special attention on high-placed neoconservatives in the Pentagon who were responsible for culling Iraq intelligence at the Office of Special Plans. Arguing that the "convergence of ideas, interests, and affections between certain American Jews and Iraqi Shiites was one of the more curious subplots of the Iraq War," Packer relates how Pentagon neoconservatives like Douglas Feith, William Luti, Abram Shulsky, and Michael Rubin actively courted exiles in an effort to build a coalition of like-minded anti-Sunni and anti-Saddam intellectuals—allies who would eventually supply convenient, if erroneous, intelligence channeled through contacts in the INC, in particular Chalabi. Packer quotes Feith, who once told Kanan Makiya, an influential Iraqi exile associated with the INC: "You Shiites in Iraq have a historical opportunity. Do whatever you can—but don't speak about it." Comments Packer: "Not speaking about it fit the Shiite concept of taqiya—dissembling in defense of faith, the sanctioned lying to outsiders that allowed a persecuted religious sect to survive. Taqiya also explained the decoy name and hidden work of the Office of Special Plans, home of that other persecuted sect newly arrived in power, the neoconservatives."
Outside government, writers at neoconservative outlets like the Weekly Standard also heavily promoted Chalabi and the INC shortly after 9/11 as a potential source for a post-Saddam government. In their 2003 book the War over Iraq, William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, and Lawrence Kaplan, a writer for the New Republic, argued that "the exile umbrella group, the Iraqi National Congress, is already working on the shape of Baghdad's postwar government." Commenting on this support, the conservative scholars Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke write: "If [Kristol and Kaplan] meant people such as the INC's leader, Ahmad Chalabi, they were talking about a man who had spent more than four decades in exile, whose power base inside the country was untested, and who was entirely dependent on Western patronage." By "Western patronage," Halper and Clarke were referring specifically to the neoconservatives. "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 Perle in 1985. … In the 1990s, Chalabi gained political favor with Washington's staunch pro-Israeli think tanks, the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs and JINSA [the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs]. He became a frequent guest at their symposia and drew wide support from key figures with neoconservative connections, such as [Dick] Cheney, [Donald] Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Woolsey."
Perle and Wolfowitz proved to be Chalabi's 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. 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 lobbied heavily by neoconservative groups like the Project for the New American Century, then-President Bill Clinton signed into law the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which for the time made the overthrow of Saddam official U.S. policy and supplied funds for the INC. Commenting on the money the INC received from the U.S., the New Yorker's Jane Meyer wrote: "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."
In the days immediately following 9/11, Perle stepped in to give Chalabi another boost when he convened a meeting of the Defense Policy Board (DPB), the Pentagon's in-house quasi-think tank then chaired by Perle, to discuss alternative responses to the terrorist attacks. Wrote Jim Lobe and Michael Flynn, "Extraordinarily, [Perle] invited Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi to take part in the highly classified proceedings." 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.'"
During the lead-up to the war, Chalabi was able to use his many contacts within government to channel erroneous information—which was often disputed by the Central Intelligence Agency—to Bush administration allies who used the information to help justify the invasion of Iraq. 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."
U.S. journalists, in particular former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, also helped disseminate the bad intel supplied by INC and Chalabi. Miller had sustained close ties with Chalabi for several years, a point she made during a dispute with one of her Times bosses. Recalling the incident, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz wrote: "In 2003, I reported on Miller's spat with the Times's Baghdad bureau chief, who scolded her for writing about Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi after being notified that someone else would handle the assignment. 'I've been covering Chalabi for about 10 years, and have done most of the stories about him for our paper, including the long takeout we recently did on him. He has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper,' Miller wrote in an email."
This relationship, however, eventually cast serious doubt on the objectivity and quality of Miller's work. Reported the Post's Marc Fisher: "Judith Miller was caught over and over basically retyping Chalabi without fact checking. The NYT and the profession blew off the complaints [about Miller's reports], even though they were heavily researched and annotated."
After the invasion, Chalabi quickly installed himself in Iraq with the help of the U.S. military. As Meyer reported: "In early April, 2003, Chalabi was stranded in the desert shortly after U.S. forces airlifted him and several hundred followers into southern Iraq, leaving them without adequate water, food, or transportation." Although he repeatedly denied that he was interested in seeking political office, he began shaping himself as a future leader of the country once Saddam was overthrown. In late 2003, Chalabi visited the United States as a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. Although his ostensible goal was to lobby for grants to help Iraq, many observers saw the trip as an effort to boost his profile as a potential Iraqi president. The Bush administration also did its part to boost Chalabi's standing, inviting him as a "special guest" of First Lady Laura Bush to attend the president' January 2004 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."
Chalabi's self-promotion hit a major snag in May 2004 when his home and office were raided by the U.S. military and Iraqi police in repose to allegations that he was spying for 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." Undaunted, in 2005, Chalabi, then still an INC leader, presented himself as a candidate for prime minister of Iraq. He eventually dropped out of the race, which was one won by Ibrahim Jaafari.