What is going on with Ahmad Chalabi? The Iraqi exile, MIT-trained mathematician, and wealthy businessman who plotted with high-level U.S. officials to return to Baghdad and grab the reins in a post-Saddam government—to bring to his homeland the virtues of modernization and Western-style democracy—has now joined forces with Iraq's most prominent anti-American theocrats.
His is a mysterious saga and an instructive one to any future American politicians who might feel tempted to believe that overthrowing a rogue regime is easy, as long as an eager expat rides along to do our bidding in the aftermath. Even the most compliant quislings sometimes go native.
Chalabi, as is by now well-known, was all set to play the part. As president of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group set up in 1992 (in part with CIA money), Chalabi pushed persistently for an armed overthrow of Saddam, especially after George W. Bush was elected and some of Chalabi's chief sympathizers—most notably Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle—gained high posts in the Pentagon.
As the Bush officials stoked the war flames, for several convergent reasons, Chalabi played a key role. He found defectors who affirmed suspicions that Saddam was building weapons of mass destruction. He assured Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney that the Iraqi people would greet American liberators with flowers; that his militia, the Free Iraqi Fighters, would restore order; and that, after a few months, the vast majority of U.S. troops could go home, leaving behind a small, inconspicuous force—25,000 to 50,000 soldiers—at bases to be set up well outside the cities. The new Chalabi government would then be a vehicle for economic modernization, Western-style democracy, and—by the force of its example—the transformation of the entire Middle East.
Of course, it didn't turn out that way. The only surprise is that people in positions of vast responsibility thought it would. And now some of those people profess surprise at the turn that Chalabi himself has taken.
Last week, Chalabi was among the five Shiites on Iraq's Governing Council who refused to sign the interim constitution, which the council had hammered out with the mediation of Paul Bremer, the administrator of the U.S. occupation authority.
A few days earlier, Chalabi's nephew, at his behest, had been one of seven Shiites who walked out of a session, in protest, after several women persuaded the council to drop a provision of the constitution that would have imposed religious rulings on family life.
Chalabi and the others took this obstructionist action at the directive of the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani, the country's most powerful—and utterly unsecular—Shiite authority.
The contrast with Chalabi's earlier behavior could not be more glaring.
Last June, at an interview conducted by Tom Brokaw at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Chalabi spoke of Iraq's Shiites as if he were an observer, not a member of the tribe. Speaking of a post-Saddam regime, Chalabi said its leaders must have "a strategy to deal with the Shias," adding, "After all, the Shias of Iraq are at least 65 percent of the population, and they are not in the main fundamentalists." (Italics added.) Note the pronoun that he used to refer to the Shiites: not "we," but "they."