Ahmed Chalabi: Right man, wrong time for Iraq's once-exiled opposition leader?

He is being touted as country's next prime minister. But could his controversial record rule him out?

The enemy is at the gates of Baghdad. A small insurgent force has humiliatingly defeated an enormous Iraqi army. The government has no authority in that half of Iraq lying north and west of the capital. The Syrian civil war has spread and capsized the Iraqi state. In his eight years in power Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki created a dysfunctional and corrupt dictatorship that alienated two out of three of Iraq’s main communities.

In other words, the situation is desperate and new competent leadership is immediately required if further disasters are to be avoided. It should, therefore, not surprise anybody who follows Iraqi politics to learn that the formation of a new government may take three or four weeks unless the Shia religious hierarchy, its sense of responsibility greater than that of the Shia political leadership, intervenes. Kurds, Shia and Sunni have not decided who their candidates will be for the top jobs. After the last election in 2010, negotiations on forming a government took 10 months.

The ablest candidate to be prime minister is Ahmed Chalabi on the grounds that he is intelligent, energetic, an excellent organiser and has a good understanding of what has gone wrong. Several times in the past couple of years he told me with complete accuracy that the Iraqi security services were so rotted by corruption that they would speedily disintegrate if they had to fight a real war.

The very fact that Chalabi would be good as prime minister of Iraq does not mean that he will get the job. Listening to conversations among politically active Iraqis about the next prime minister, I notice that they all focus on how many players each candidate gets on with – the different power centres in the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities and foreign states such as the US, Iran and the Sunni neighbours – and not whether a new PM could reorganise the army before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) attacks Baghdad.

Commending Chalabi and his abilities invariably causes dismay in the West – though not in Iraq these days – because he has acquired an impressive array of enemies. At different moments Chalabi has been high up on the most-hated lists of the US State Department, the CIA, Saddam Hussein, the British Foreign Office, Democrats and all those, mostly but by no means exclusively on the left and centre, who opposed the invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain in 2003.

The demonisation of Chalabi is revealing because it is rooted in misunderstandings about Iraq, the opposition to Saddam Hussein, the US occupation and the role of Iran. Born in 1944, he comes from a prominent Shia family in Baghdad which became active in banking throughout the Middle East and in Europe. Highly educated, he specialised in mathematics doing his PhD at the University of Chicago and taught mathematics at the American University of Beirut. In 1977, he set up the Petra Bank in Jordan, which crashed in 1989, something for which Chalabi’s critics blame him and for which he has always denied wrongdoing.

Always opposed to Saddam Hussein and Baath party rule, Chalabi became an active opposition leader as Iraq invaded and was driven out of Kuwait and the Shia and Kurdish uprisings were crushed. As an exiled opposition leader, Chalabi had priorities that were not much different from other opponents of Saddam. They recognised soon after 1990 that he could not be overthrown by domestic rebellion, which had just failed, and he was too well guarded to be displaced by a coup d’état by his own army. The only way to get rid of him was to get the US to do so.

Chalabi’s view on this was no different from anybody else’s in the opposition. Where he differed from them was that he was more professional and energetic in pursuing these ends. He spent time in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was outside Baghdad’s control, trying to foment mutinies in the Iraqi army, with the ultimate objective of dragging in the US. He went to Washington, hired a PR company, cultivated journalists and Republicans who were out of power and looking for a stick with which to beat the administration.

All this is the stuff of the politics of an exiled opposition which is inevitably weaker than the government it opposes, and to survive has to obtain the support of foreign governments and intelligence services. As Lenin and De Gaulle both showed, political skill is required for an exiled leader to win this co-operation without becoming the pawn of the outside power, which will have its own agenda.

Chalabi’s actions in exile (he’s been back in Iraq since 2003) would be a useful topic for a PhD thesis since they are a good guide for any exile seeking to overthrow the home government. There is something absurd about journalists, who later complained that information supplied by Chalabi and his Iraqi National Council group about Saddam possessing WMD turned out to be untrue or misleading. Would the journalists have really expected De Gaulle in London in 1941 to have suppressed a damaging story about Marshal Pétain in Vichy because it had not been fully checked out? Complaints about being misled by Chalabi are rooted in the self-serving journalistic myth that people tell them things because of their love of truth and justice and not because they want to serve their own interests.

In fact, Chalabi’s propaganda campaign would not have worked if it had not been for 9/11. Suddenly, he was the friend, ally and adviser Washington had been looking for. But, even in 2002, as the US invasion became inevitable, a former colleague INC member told me that Chalabi had surprised his staff by saying: “We had better start working on a plan to get the US out of Iraq once Saddam is gone.”

The dilemma of the US was that it wanted to get rid of Saddam but without benefiting Iran, a difficult policy to pursue because a democratic election in Iraq would be won by the Shia religious parties which had links to Iran. Chalabi himself had always been fairly open about his communications with the Iranians, who were bound to play a central role in stabilising or destabilising a new Iraq. After the invasion, the US badly needed an accommodation with Iran and Syria, but never admitted this to itself and was deeply suspicious of Chalabi’s Iranian links. It began to cut him loose, raided his offices and threatened him with arrest through Iraqi judges working for it.

After 2006, Maliki sought to sideline Chalabi as he did almost every independent-minded Iraqi who opposed his growing monopoly of power. But, as one foreign diplomat put it recently, Maliki “tried to control everything and ended up controlling nothing”. The Prime Minister is today back to his old strategy of prolonged delay so his opponents will fall out, fail to find a credible candidate to replace him or will be bought off. Chalabi is the only Iraqi politician in contention for the top job with real ability, but the multitude of interests that choose Iraq’s next leader will probably look for somebody more pliant and accommodating.

A life in brief

Born: 30 October 1944, in Kadhimiya, Iraq.

Family: Father, Abdul Hadi, was Iraqi senate president before exile in the US after the fall of the monarchy in 1958. Married Lebanese politician’s daughter Leila Osseiran in 1971. They have two sons and two daughters.

Education: Maths PhD from the University of Chicago.

Career: Interim oil minister in Iraq in April-May 2005 and December-January 2006 and deputy prime minister from May 2005 until May 2006.

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