Ahmad Chalabi is loyal to just one cause: his own ambition.
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."
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.
Whose sword is Chalabi swishing now? Sistani's? His own? Or possibly (could our guys be this clever?) still America's? The thing about eager exiles is that nobody really knows.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Ahmad Chalabi by Jeff Christensen/Reuters.