Ahmed Chalabi, Iraqi Who Lobbied The West In Favor Of 2003 War, Dies At 71

Ahmad Chalabi

Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi politician who played a crucial war in convincing the United States and other western nations to go to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, has died in Baghdad at the age of 71:

Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi politician who from exile helped persuade the United States to invade Iraq in 2003, and then unsuccessfully tried to attain power as his country was nearly torn apart by sectarian violence, died at his home in Baghdad on Tuesday. He was 71.

The cause was heart failure, Iraqi officials said.

Mr. Chalabi is the Iraqi perhaps most associated with President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and topple its longtime dictator, Saddam Hussein.

A mathematician with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Mr. Chalabi, the son of a prominent Shiite family, cultivated close ties with journalists in Washington and London; American lawmakers; the neoconservative advisers who helped shape Mr. Bush’s foreign policy; and a wide network of Iraqi exiles, many of whom were paid for intelligence about Mr. Hussein’s government.

Mr. Chalabi’s relationship with the Americans stretched over decades. In 1998, he helped persuade Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act, which was signed by President Bill Clinton and declared it the policy of the United States to replace Mr. Hussein’s government with a democratic one.

His group, the Iraqi National Congress, would get more than $100 million from the C.I.A. and other agencies between its founding in 1992 and the start of the war. He cultivated friendships with a circle of hawkish Republicans — Dick Cheney, Douglas J. Feith, William J. Luti, Richard N. Perle and Paul D. Wolfowitz — who were central in the United States’ march to war, Mr. Cheney as vice president and the others as top Pentagon officials.

Mr. Chalabi’s contention, broadly shared by United States intelligence agencies, was that Mr. Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Hussein had fatally gassed Kurds and slaughtered Shiites and other Iraqis, and he had refused to fully cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors.

But most of the case for war was predicated on faulty intelligence, including the testimony of defectors. As it became clear that Iraq did not have an active chemical, biological or nuclear weapons program and as the occupying American forces did not receive the welcome that the Iraqi opposition had predicted, the Bush administration distanced itself from him.

One year after the invasion, American special forces raided his home in Baghdad, apparently searching for evidence that he was sharing intelligence with Iran. (Although Mr. Chalabi kept close ties to Shiite Iran’s clerical leadership and had lived in Tehran before the invasion, no such evidence was found.)

He was the target of an assassination attempt at least once, in 2008, when a suicide bomber narrowly missed him, killing six of his bodyguards.

Spurned by the Americans, Mr. Chalabi allied himself with Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite leader and ally of Iran whose Mahdi Army led two bloody uprisings, and who remains a significant force in Iraqi politics.

“Chalabi’s life work, an Iraq liberated from Saddam Hussein, a modern and democratic Iraq, is spiraling toward disintegration,” Dexter Filkins wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2006, after interviewing Mr. Chalabi at his home in London, where he was on vacation. “Indeed, for many in the West, Chalabi has become the personification of all that has gone wrong in Iraq: the lies, the arrogance, the occupation as disaster.

As recently as last year, Mr. Chalabi’s name was floated as a candidate for prime minister, and at the time of his death he was the head of the finance committee in Parliament.

Chalabi’s relationship with the West was a long and complicated one, and it was never really apparent that he was someone who could, or should, be trusted:

The disastrous Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, Mr. Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the American-led war that ousted his forces from Kuwait in 1991 galvanized Iraqi exiles. In 1992, Mr. Chalabi and other exiles founded the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based umbrella coalition for groups seeking to oust Mr. Hussein.

By now, Mr. Chalabi was in regular contact with the Americans, though his actions were often unwelcome. In 1995, while receiving pay from the C.I.A. in the Kurdish city of Erbil, Mr. Chalabi began an unauthorized — and unsuccessful — attack on Mr. Hussein’s forces.

The fiasco led to nothing except a decision by Turkey to send troops into northern Iraq. The next year, Mr. Chalabi interfered with a C.I.A. plot to topple Mr. Hussein. The coup attempt failed, about 150 fighters for the Iraqi National Congress were killed and Mr. Chalabi’s relationship with the C.I.A. never recovered.

In 2001, Mr. Chalabi again came under fire. A State Department audit found that the group had misspent $113,794, including $2,000 on membership fees for a Washington gym and $6,314 for oil paintings to decorate its offices. (A follow-up audit last year found that the group had made considerable progress in tightening controls.)

The American-led overthrow of Mr. Hussein’s government in 2003 gave Mr. Chalabi a chance to re-enter politics. The Americans named him to the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council. But images of toppled statues and cheering Iraqis quickly gave way to scenes of violent resistance to the occupying authorities, led by former members of the government, and to increasing sectarian violence.

Within a year of the war, the Americans cut off Mr. Chalabi. In May 2004, they stopped $335,000 monthly payments to the Iraqi National Congress, and days later they raided his Baghdad home.

Mr. Chalabi, for his part, attributed the problems in Iraq to the Americans for staying too long and for failing to immediately turn over power to Iraqis — even though most observers doubted that exiles like Mr. Chalabi, who had been away for 45 years, could have kept the country together on their own.

Moreover, Mr. Chalabi never developed a significant political base. In the December 2005 parliamentary elections, the first held under the country’s new Constitution, his Iraqi National Congress received about 30,000 votes, one-quarter of 1 percent of the 12 million ballots cast — not enough to put even a single lawmaker in the new Iraqi Parliament.

Mr. Chalabi was never widely trusted nor liked by ordinary Iraqis, for whom it was common knowledge that he had been convicted in absentia for fraud in Jordan in 1992, and sentenced to 22 years in prison, for embezzling almost $300 million from Petra Bank, which he had founded. (Mr. Chalabi, who fled Jordan before he could be arrested, said the charges were concocted by the Jordanian government under pressure from Mr. Hussein.)

As noted, Chalabi’s name came up against, seemingly out of nowhere, a year ago when Iraq was struggling to find someone who could serve as Prime Minister even while the nation was facing an onslaught from ISIS. In the end, of course, Chalabi’s past and the fact that Iraqis didn’t trust him made the whole idea seem silly. As for his role in the run up to the Iraq War, it certainly is the case that he played a role in lobbying the United States and other Western nations in favor of invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein, but the reality is that the Bush Administration really didn’t need much convincing on that point. If anything, one could say that Chalabi was used by the White House to bolster its domestic political case for war by pointing to him as an example of the argument that Iraqis were in favor of getting rid of Hussein as much as Chalabi was using the West for his own purposes. Given the consequences of the ill-advised decision to go to war, who used whom is basically just an academic point that historians of the future can debate among themselves.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, National Security, Obituaries, Quick Takes, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    …. but the reality is that the Bush Administration really didn’t need much convincing on that point. If anything, one could say that Chalabi was used by the White House to bolster its domestic political case for war by pointing to him as an example of the argument that Iraqis were in favor of getting rid of Hussein as much as Chalabi was using the West for his own purposes. Given the consequences of the ill-advised decision to go to war, who used whom is basically just an academic point that historians of the future can debate among themselves.

    Dead on, Doug.

    I think the Bush Administration was pleased to have Chalabi there for some cover, but really, I’m of the opinion that the fix was in and the Administration was going to war in Iraq no matter what.

  2. Modulo Myself says:

    If anything, one could say that Chalabi was used by the White House to bolster its domestic political case for war by pointing to him as an example of the argument that Iraqis were in favor of getting rid of Hussein as much as Chalabi was using the West for his own purposes.

    The Bush regime alternated between pure credulity and cynical manipulation five times a day. What they believed vs what they wanted others to believe was irrelevent; they wanted war and would deceive to get it and then they believed these deceptions, and would fire or ignore anybody who did not believe them. Hence the fact that their post-war planning matched the case set by all of what Chalabi said.

  3. Davebo says:

    If anything, one could say that Chalabi was used by the White House to bolster its domestic political case for war by pointing to him as an example of the argument that Iraqis Iranians were in favor of getting rid of Hussein as much as Chalabi was using the West for his own purposes.

    Mission Accomplished. With the added bonus of classified US Intel!

  4. Inside the Beltway says:

    Unlike most errors in governance, which tend to slowly erode away from the public’s conscience, this fiasco seems to only keep manifesting itself in various ways.

    When the dust settles, future generations will lack words to describe the waste of money and political resources that these adventures took. And what were the fruits of these labors? I’m still trying to determine that…