Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: His Own Man

Ahmad Chalabi: self-seeking agent of American imperialism or genuine champion of freedom?
By Julie Flint

In the middle of March, as opposition figures in northern Iraq were arguing over who should sit on what committee in anticipation of a provisional government, Ahmad Chalabi was quietly solving the Heine-Borel theorem. The meeting over, he faxed his proof to his former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also has a neat little solution to the Pythagoras' theorem. Pythagoras' own proof covers two pages; Chalabi's, four lines.


Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and the most visible of Iraq's exile leaders, will not be among the would-be post-Saddam politicians meeting Gen. Jay Garner in the southern town of Nasiriya this Tuesday, April 15, to discuss establishing an interim authority to help run Iraq until a democratic government is elected. His many critics will no doubt portray his decision to absent himself, and his claim that he wants no political role in Iraq, as an attempt to distance himself from Iraq's "liberators", a tactical move on his way to the top.


Chibli Mallat, who in 1991 helped Chalabi found the International Committee for a Free Iraq, disagrees. He says Chalabi's "inclination" has always been not to have an official position in the new Iraq.


"It was hard to convince Ahmad to appear with the delegation that made the first high-level INC visit to Washington in August 1992," he said. "He did not want to take a prominent position. In any case, he is absolutely right to stay away from Nasiriya. This is no time for fig leaves: General Garner has no business running Iraq. His office is for reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. Politics is the business of Iraqis. Iraqis must run Iraq now."


Chalabi's critics say his long struggle against Saddam's cruel regime boils down to personal ambition. But many of those who know him well believe that nothing could be further from the truth. As with his mathematics, Chalabi believes that to every problem there is a solution - and has been seeking democracy for Iraq single-mindedly, without regard for his comfort or safety, for much of his life.


The INC he established more than a decade ago was the first opposition group to unite a wide spectrum of Iraqi political and religious groups. Despite this - or perhaps because of it - he has been vilified in the West and in the Arab world as, respectively, a corrupt chancer and an instrument of US-Israeli designs upon the Middle East.


At this point I have to come clean: Ahmad Chalabi is a friend, and has been for more than 15 years. He is alternately exasperating and charming; patient and impatient; dismissive and attentive. He is more widely read than anyone I know. He doesn't suffer fools. He is seldom modest, always late for dinner and has questionable taste in suits. Most importantly, much of what is being said about him is simply wrong.


While Chalabi enjoys strong support from key figures in the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and the US State Department have lobbied hard against him, using the media to level a range of political and personal accusations against him, including:


* "Convicted felon": Chalabi's Jordanian bank, Petra Bank, collapsed in 1989 amid allegations of financial impropriety and Chalabi was convicted in absentia of embezzlement and fraud. At the time, the late King Hussein was Saddam's closest Arab ally and Chalabi, based in Jordan, his most creative Iraqi opponent. A few weeks before the bank was closed - oddly, by military law - a major American auditing firm gave it a clean bill of health. In the same year Chalabi was convicted, King Hussein paid him the first of several secret visits and asked him what was the cause of his anger towards an old friend. Chalabi replied: "Because you made me out to be a thief and my family a family of thieves." He refused a royal pardon, since pardon implies guilt.


The Wall Street Journal recently produced evidence that the State Department has attempted to perpetuate this "bank robber" image by putting pressure on government auditors to produce evidence that would enable it to "shut down the INC". The auditors gave the INC a clean bill of health and said it was "impossible" for them to comply with various State Department demands.


* "A long-time exile with no real ties to Iraq." Chalabi, alone among exile leaders, has fought against Saddam from Iraqi soil. In 1993 he left the comforts of a home in London - a modest home, by Arab banker standards - to be ambushed and almost killed in the liberated Kurdish area of northern Iraq and to see his headquarters there blown up and colleagues killed. His sources in the heart of the Iraqi regime consistently provided important, and ultimately validated, inside information. Most high-level defectors from the regime defected to him. He said defeating the Iraqi army would be relatively easy, and he was right.


* "A tool of US 'neo-conservatives' with a pro-Israeli, anti-Arab agenda." For years Chalabi sought Arab backing to remove Saddam and end his atrocities. Saudi Arabia, typically, promised much, delivered nothing and finally said: "Our leadership wants to help you. The condition is you abandon democracy and human rights." So Chalabi looked outside the Arab world - and found supporters in Vice President Dick Cheney, the Pentagon and among some "neo-cons". He knows what this costs him in the Arab world, but has been seeking to remove Saddam - not to win a popularity contest.


* "Has made visits to Israel". He has never visited Israel. Like many Arab liberals, he has Jewish friends and would certainly prefer peace to war, at the right time and in the right conditions.


* "He has no support on the Iraq street." No support has been permitted on the Iraqi street, for anyone but Saddam, for 35 years. Most Iraqis know only those who Saddam permitted them to know. In Nasiriya, Chalabi was welcomed by a crowd of thousands. Hundreds of tribal chiefs, clerics and others have been coming to see him in the crowded warehouse where he is living without running water or toilets. Anyone wanting to run for public office in the new Iraq will have to build a support base. Chalabi's chances of getting that support were reduced the moment he hitched his wagon to America's army, and he knew it.


* In supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq, he has shown no respect for UN legitimacy. Chalabi would argue that the need would not have arisen had the UN been respectful of its mission of freedom and democracy in Iraq; had member states like France and Germany supported decisive action, in line with long-standing UN resolutions, against one of the worst dictatorships on earth.


* "A catspaw of Washington". A catspaw, however, who is loathed by the CIA and the State Department. Not only because he has consistently pushed for action rather than words - and action by Iraqis rather than, as now, by Americans. But also because, as his friend, the American columnist Anthony Lewis, says: "When you hear Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage maligning Chalabi, you hear the institutional voices of Saudi Arabia and Egypt speaking through him." Many in the US administration would prefer to see Saddam replaced by former Ba'athists, who would get along just fine with their friends in Riyadh and Cairo.


It is here that Chalabi's problems will lie if he ever emerges, or wants to emerge, as a successor to Saddam. He is a Shia Muslim, a majority in Iraq but a minority in the wider Arab world. Even before the US-led war on Iraq, Sunni-ruled Egypt refused to allow him to visit Egypt for a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak. It is not his secular Shi'ism that most scares Iraq's Sunni neighbours, however. It is his vision of a liberal, democratic state that would be nothing like theirs.


"If I would put Ahmad's qualities on one side of a scale, and his defects on the other side, I have no doubt the former will far outweigh the latter," says Kamran Karadaghi, a respected independent Iraqi journalist who knows Chalabi well. "True he lives on a different planet, but it is the better one. Ahmad Chalabi towers among other opposition leaders when it comes to supporting Kurdish rights. As a Kurd I say this: If the Americans decide to enforce an Arab leader of their own choosing in Baghdad, the Kurds will pray that it will be Ahmad."


On the eve of the war, Chalabi and a colleague, the writer Kanan Makiya, succeeded almost single-handedly in obliging Washington to modify its plans for the post-Saddam, thundering in the US press about the "unworkable and unwise" concept of military governorship.


"It forces American officers to make difficult decisions about Iraqi society and culture with very little knowledge," Chalabi wrote. "Will an American colonel at the Ministry of Education decide on the role of Islam in school curricula? The US does not need to handpick a successor to Saddam, nor does it need to predetermine every single step in the post-Saddam era. We expect the US to make a full commitment to accepting the will of the Iraqi people and not fail us in our desire for justice."


Whether he asks for, or accepts, a direct political role, do not expect Ahmad Chalabi to fall silent.


Julie Flint is Iraqi Crisis Report co-ordinating editor and a former IWPR trustee.


More IWPR's Global Voices