Ahmad Chalabi is loyal to just one cause: his own ambition.
During the same interview, he said that a new Iraqi constitution must "safeguard minority rights," especially for the Kurds but also for such smaller ethnic groups as the Turkmen and Assyrians. He advocated a federated state organized along geographic lines—which, though he didn't say so explicitly, would allow a certain degree of autonomy to the Kurds, who are concentrated in northern Iraq. (It is worth noting that, in the 1990s, Chalabi visited Kurdish leaders in Iraq's northern enclave and expressed solidarity with their opposition to Saddam.)
Yet last week, Chalabi's main objection to the interim constitution was its provision stating that a two-thirds majority in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces could veto a national law. (The Kurdish enclave consists of three provinces.) This objection was in keeping with Sistani's demand for strict majority rule—the majority being Shiites. (Chalabi and the other four assented to the wishes of the rest of the Governing Council today and participated in the signing of the interim constitution. But he emphasized that their objections still stand and might be raised again when a permanent constitution is discussed.)
An example of Chalabi's contrary behavior in the much more recent past: Just last November he supported the Bush administration's plan to hold caucus-style elections for a new Iraqi parliament, to which the United States would transfer sovereignty. Sistani objected to this plan, calling instead for direct elections. Chalabi voted, in effect, against Sistani's wishes.
Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan and an invaluable blogger on Iraqi politics, speculates that a turning point came this past Jan. 19, when 100,000 Shiites turned out on the streets of Baghdad to protest the U.S. plan for elections. Iraq had never seen a street protest of anything like this magnitude, and it had happened entirely because Sistani called for it. Just as important, a few days later, some Shiites started rallying for a second protest, but Sistani issued a statement against a sequel—and, as a result, nobody turned out on the streets. "Not only could he turn it on," Cole said in a telephone interview today, "he could also turn it off."
At that point, the Bush administration realized no political plan could go forth without Sistani's approval. And Chalabi realized none of his political ambitions could be fulfilled without deferring to Sistani.
Public opinion polls taken by the occupation authority were indicating that, of the 25 members of the Governing Council, Chalabi was by far the least popular. He had been airlifted into Iraq by a U.S. military plane and was seen as a tool of U.S. interests. If he was to gain power, his tune would have to change. And so it has.
Chalabi has amassed a fair amount of power he would like to preserve. In Newsweek, Christopher Dickey reports the staggering array of positions that Chalabi has come to control within the Governing Council. He is head of the economics and finance committees, which oversee the ministries of oil, finance, and trade, as well as the central bank and several private banks. He also runs the De-Baathification Commission, and thus—if he manages to hang on to the post—holds potentially vast control over the flow of personnel into, or out of, any future Iraqi government.
A conclusion is becoming clear: Whether massaging Wolfowitz or bowing to Sistani, Ahmad Chalabi has consistently been serving one cause—that of Ahmad Chalabi.
Only now are we beginning to understand Chalabi's full role in the campaign to convince the "coalition" that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. His cadre of dubious defectors, willing to say whatever their listeners wanted to hear about WMD, has long been documented. Last week, the indefatigable Walter Pincus provided another piece of evidence in the Washington Post. It turns out that allegations about Saddam's "mobile bio-weapons labs"—which have since been dismissed within the intelligence community (and were seriously doubted all along)—were made by a defector who never spoke to anyone in the U.S. government. Moreover, Pincus reveals, the defector was related to a senior official in Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. And the one defector who did speak to U.S. analysts, and who confirmed the report about mobile biolabs, was made available by the INC—and was, for that reason, believed, even though the Defense Intelligence Agency "red-tagged" the defector as a known dissembler.
Last month, Britain's DailyTelegraph asked Chalabi about the recent reports, especially by David Kay, that Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction—which Chalabi and his boys had been heralding—after all. His reply was, or should have been, instructive:
We are heroes in error. As far as we're concerned we've been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important. The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat. We're ready to fall on our swords if he wants.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Ahmad Chalabi by Jeff Christensen/Reuters.