Ahmed Chalabi: Death of a Salesman

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs 
November 6, 2015

ChalabiAhmed Chalabi is lucky he died this week. Had he lived even a few months longer he would have had to face yet more charges that he is personally responsible for the death and destruction that has wrenched the Middle East for nearly 15 years.

It is already well established that false information fed by Chalabi to the neo-conservative triumphalists around President George W. Bush about Saddam Hussein’s alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction provided the excuse for the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In the run-up to the March 18 assault on Iraq it was not just the justification for the invasion that the urbane and by all accounts charming and stimulating Chalabi, exiled head of the anti-Saddam Iraqi National Congress (INC), gave the Bush administration. The fantasists around President Bush imagined that after Saddam was deposed, Chalabi would be “the George Washington of Iraq.” The notion that the country would speed seamlessly from Saddam’s dictatorship to a Chalabi-led stellar Middle Eastern democracy was one reason why the post-invasion period received so little attention and went so disastrously wrong.

This grim history and Chalabi’s part in it is likely to be chewed over again early next year. That’s when the long-delayed publication is due of the British parliamentary inquiry into the so-called “dodgy dossier” of Chalabi’s fabricated “intelligence” that led Prime Minister Tony Blair to send British troops to join the invasion and occupation.

Ahmed Chalabi in discussion with Paul Bremer and Donald Rumsfeld. Photo by MSgt. James Bowman
Ahmed Chalabi in discussion with Paul Bremer and Donald Rumsfeld. Photo by MSgt. James Bowman


Even before publication of that much anticipated report, however, Chalabi has been back under the microscope. The program he administered after the invasion to remove all senior and middle-rank members of Saddam’s Baath Party from the Iraqi military, government and judiciary is widely blamed for the administrative collapse of the country and the unsuccessful efforts to rebuild a functioning state.

The charges go further. Chalabi’s duping of the Bush clique and his post-invasion cleansing of all functioning administration in Iraq are being widely portrayed as causes for the rise of the Islamic State group and its successful occupation of northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria. Indeed, there is evidence that the Islamic State has attracted recruits from among former Baathists ousted in Chalabi’s purges of the old Baghdad regime.

So what Chalabi did 10 years ago is even being stretched to blaming him for the U.S. and allies having to mount an air war against the consummately brutal Islamic State jihadists. (New Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to swiftly withdraw Canada’s six CF18 fighter-bombers from this campaign.) Chalabi’s actions are also held ultimately responsible for Russia’s military intervention in Syria to protect Moscow’s ally, besieged President Bashar al-Assad. Washington is responding to Moscow’s air attacks, which are mostly aimed at what is dubbed the moderate opposition to Assad of the Free Syrian Army, by putting its own military boots on the ground. U.S. special forces soldiers are being sent to “advise” Free Syrian Army fighters.

President Barack Obama has made this decision through gritted teeth. A central theme of Obama’s nearly completed eight-year administration has been to get the U.S. out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan he inherited from George W. Bush.

That’s heaping far more guilt on Chalabi’s shoulders than can be justified. But if even half the allegations against him are true, the relatives of many hundreds of thousands of people who have died or suffered dislocated lives in the last 15 years could wish him dead. But so far as is now known, Chalabi died on Tuesday of a heart attack at his home in Baghdad, aged 71.

There is no doubt that Chalabi was a world-class con artist and a man supremely adept at manipulating other people’s fixations and weaknesses. But as one follows his story, what stands out is that he was without a clear philosophical or ideological purpose. He undoubtedly hated Saddam and the Baath Party, who he blamed for robbing his aristocratic family of its historic rights and stature. But there is no sense of a large objective behind his duplicity and chicanery. It often seems as though it was the confidence trick itself, not its repercussions, that gave him the most pleasure and sense of accomplishment.

That has also made him the perfect scapegoat for those in the administrations of George W. Bush and Tony Blair on whom the full blame for what has happened in the Middle East since 2003 should fall.

Only Blair, with the Chilcot report looming, has made a qualified apology for the Iraq debacle. He said in an interview with CNN recently that he was sorry for not appreciating that the intelligence on which the reason for the invasion was based was false, and that insufficient thought was given to how to reconstruct Iraq after the invasion.

Chalabi spent most of his life in exile. His family left Iraq when he was 12 years old and his early years were spent in the U.S. and Britain. After gaining a bachelor of science degree in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he went on to win a Ph.D in mathematics at the University of Chicago, and then took up a teaching position at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.

Notoriety began to gather around Chalabi after he founded the Petra Bank in Jordan in 1977. In 1989 he had a falling out with the Central Bank of Jordan, which accused him of embezzlement and false accounting. Chalabi fled the country, but was tried in absentia and convicted.

After the First Gulf War, when the U.S. and its allies liberated Kuwait from Saddam’s occupation, but did not follow through to depose the Baghdadi dictator, the Iraqi National Congress was founded in 1992. Chalabi became head of the INC’s executive council and quickly worked at getting funding from the U.S. to pursue the overthrow of Saddam. For a while in the mid-1990s Chalabi was in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, fomenting an uprising against Saddam, but when that was crushed he fled back to the U.S.

During this period Chalabi came to the attention of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and for a while was on the Langley payroll. But they had a very acrimonious falling out in the mid-1990s with the CIA suspecting Chalabi of compromising the agency’s covert action program in Iraq. All the CIA’s agents were exposed and a lucky few escaped. The CIA never trusted Chalabi again.

One of Chalabi’s first coups was to successfully lobby the U.S. Congress to pass the 1998 Iraqi Liberation Act. This allocated $97 million to support Iraqi opposition groups, of which the INC got a large chunk, including $33 million between March 2000 and September 2003.

Chalabi’s stock in Washington rose even higher in 2000 with the coming to power of George W. Bush and his coterie. Chalabi had already ingratiated himself with the conservative wing of the Republican Party, especially Richard Perle, chairman of Bush’s Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee. But most importantly for Chalabi was his association with Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Defense Secretary, who was consumed by personal guilt at the failure to overthrow Saddam in the First Gulf War. After the September, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, Wolfowitz was one of the first members of the administration intent on making the link between Saddam and al-Qaida. He persistently complained that the CIA was not looking diligently enough for this link.

After being repeatedly rebuffed by the CIA, Wolfowitz and his immediate colleagues set up their own special intelligence unit called the Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group. This group turned increasingly to Chalabi and the INC for its information as did the Pentagon under their guidance. The CIA warned repeatedly that Chalabi was unreliable and not to be trusted, but this only reinforced Wolfowitz and his team in their conviction that the information they were receiving from Chalabi and the INC was pure intelligence gold. In the end, the Bush White House came down on Wolfowitz’ side and instructed the CIA to back off, which it did.

The result was that Chalabi was given an unobstructed channel to feed his stories into the White House decision-making system. All this information was aimed at propelling the U.S. into an invasion of Iraq.

Key to achieving that aim, of course, was for Chalabi and the INC to provide the evidence of links between Saddam and al-Qaida and Saddam’s development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that Wolfowitz and his team were avid to discover. Information fabricated by Chalabi and the INC became central to the public justifications for the invasion, made famously by Secretary of State Colin Powell before the United Nations Security Council in February, 2003, a month before the invasion, and by Blair in the British Parliament as the invasion began.

It was only after the invasion, the ouster of Saddam and destruction of the country’s administration that Washington and London discovered there were no WMD and no links between Saddam and Osama bin Laden. The conviction, especially in the Bush White House, that Chalabi would be welcomed by Iraqis as the savour and founding father of a democratic Iraq was equally fanciful. Chalabi was appointed to the Coalition Provisional Authority and briefly served as president of the body. He was also put in charge of the “de-Baathification” program under which all senior officials of the Saddam regime in the government, military and judiciary were removed. This purge left Iraq without any effective administration. That in turn ignited sectarianism and the decade of chaos that followed.

A few months after the invasion, Chalabi fell out with the Americans over their democratization plans, which didn’t, as he had hoped, amount to simply putting him in charge. Washingotn soured on Chalabi equally swiftly as his pre-invasion duplicity became more and more evident. The parting of the ways took concrete form in May, 2004, when the U.S. government announced it was ending the $330,000 a month it had being paying Chalabi since 1998, ostensibly to fund the INC.

Since then Chalabi has been an on-again, off-again presence in Iraqi politics. He briefly held a few senior posts, Deputy Prime Minister and interim Oil Minister among them. But the Iraqi voting public remained resolutely opposed to giving him its support for any major job in his own right.

In recent years Chalabi became a marginal, but divisive figure, recasting himself as an intemperate champion of the Shi’ia Muslim majority in opposition to the minority Sunnis. He has even been accused to reviving the “de-Baathification” program to eliminate his Sunni political enemies.

When he died this week, Chalabi was still a member of the Iraqi parliament and chairman of its finance committee. But George Washington he wasn’t and never could be.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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