A familiar and controversial name is reappearing in official American discussions of Iraq’s political future.
The New York Times is reporting that Ahmed Chalabi, the former leader of the exile Iraqi National Congress (INC), has met with the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and the senior state department official responsible for Iraq and Iran policy in recent days.
Chalabi, who has remained active in Iraqi politics, is viewed as “one of the several potential Shiite candidates for prime minister.”
By some accounts, Chalabi, a secular Shi’ite from one of the most prominent Iraqi families of the pre-Saddam Hussein period, is a central figure in the U.S.’s decision to remove the Iraqi dictator over a decade ago. An MIT and University of Chicago-trained mathematics PhD, Chalabi spent decades cultivating contacts in the U.S. government during a long and occasionally tumultuous career as a banker and academic. As Jane Meyer recounted in a 2004 New Yorker profile of Chalabi, he had the almost single-minded goal of convincing the U.S. to unseat Saddam Hussein from power.
His advocacy paid off: Chalabi helped get the Iraq Liberation Act passed through Congress in 1998, a law that made regime change in Baghdad an official U.S. policy. Chalabi’s claims that Saddam was an imminent threat to the U.S., and was both holding and developing a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, became the view of the intelligence community and eventually the majority of the U.S. congress. In the first four years of the Bush administration, Chalabi’s INC recieved $US39 million from the U.S. government.
Meyer explains that in the decade leading up to the invasion, Chalabi became a highly-valued point-person for U.S. policy. He fed information to the U.S. government on Saddam’s regime and the country’s potential political landscape if he were ever overthrown. In exchange, Chalabi got exactly what he wanted, even if it might have meant misleading U.S. officials, or at least manipulating the policymaking process to suit his ends. Meyer’s profile includes an illuminating quote from American diplomat Peter Galbraith, a one-time friend of Chalabi’s:
As Galbraith put it, Chalabi “figured out in the eighties that the road to Baghdad ran through Washington. He cultivated whom he needed to know. If he didn’t get what he wanted from State, he went to Capitol Hill. It’s a sign of being effective. It’s not his fault that his strategy succeeded. It’s not his fault that the Bush Administration believed everything he said. Should they have? Of course not. They should have looked critically. He’s not a liar; he believed the information he was purveying, and part of it was valuable. But his goal was to get the U.S. to invade Iraq.”
After the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Chalabi’s name became a kind of byeword for the alleged distortions and rampant misplacement of trust that allegedly resulted in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “Iceman,” the secretive intelligence source whose information pushes the U.S. and Great Britain to war in “In The Loop,” filmmaker Armando Iannucci’s 2009 satire about the run-up to the Iraq war, is likely a winking reference to Chalabi.
An open rift with the Bush administration over the INC’s usefulness and Chalabi’s alleged embezzlement of U.S. financial support left the ever-opportunistic former exile looking for a new patron. So Chalabi “disclosed to an Iranian official that the United States had broken the secret communications code of Iran’s intelligence service” according to a 2004 New York Times report.
The fact that Chalabi’s name has resurfaced, and that American policymakers think of a dubiously-trustful Iranian intelligence source as a credible replacement for Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, reveals the near total lack of good U.S. policy options in Iraq at the moment. It’s increasingly apparent that the Obama administration wants Maliki gone. The price of that policy could be having to deal with Chalabi a second time around.
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