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Bad reason to invade Iraq No. 3: 'We can trust Ahmed Chalabi'

Ahmed Chalabi poured sweet words into the ears of powerful Washington insiders for years. For some reason, they thought it was a good idea to believe him.

By Staff writer / March 19, 2013

Ahmed Chalabi pictured in 2010.

Saad Shalash/Reuters/File

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I covered the Iraq war from the summer of 2003 until 2008, and saw at first hand the consequences of the decision to invade. Skeptical of the wisdom of the war before the invasion, living and working in Iraq solidified that into certainty. I'll be putting out some of my thoughts on the war in a series of posts in the next few days. Click here for bad reason No. 1 and bad reason No. 2.

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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Ahmed Chalabi – charmer, convicted embezzler, inveterate political schemer – was the Bush administration's go-to Iraqi exile in the run up to the Iraq war.

He'd spent years urging the US to take direct action to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, and in the atmosphere of fear that swept the US after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, he finally found the opportunity he'd been dreaming of. Almost anything he said, any promise he made, was treated as gospel by an official Washington that had found in Chalabi an Iraqi who could wave away warnings about the difficulty of invasion.

"Won't Iraq's people resent a US invasion?"

"Iraqi people will welcome U.S. troops in Iraq," Chalabi said in February 2003. "They would see them as liberators. They believe they are liberators."

"But what about the chance for sectarian bloodshed?"

Chalabi, a Shiite, reassured questioners that Iraq had no major sectarian tensions and that the people would be united after Saddam fell.

"How can we be sure there are really lots of chemical weapons?"

Chalabi repeatedly trotted out "informants" or claims of "informants" that asserted over, and over, that Saddam had vast chemical weapons stockpiles and he was preparing to use them (In 2004, when the US finally came to the official conclusion that there were no WMD's in Iraq, Chalabi was unapologetic. "We are heroes in error," he told the UK's Daily Telegraph. "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."

Etcetera.

It's hard to blame Chalabi for his line of palaver. After all, he had no loyalty to the US, his interests and objectives were not ours, and you can't fault the guy for trying to get what he wants out of gullible foreigners. The problem was that he was given so much credence by US officials and war boosters, who failed to recognize (or pretended they failed to recognize) why he shouldn't be trusted.

His Iraqi National Congress opposition umbrella group was heavily financed by the US, receiving at least $100 million between 1991 and 2003 and he was a prime influence on the views and arguments of Iraq war architects like Doug Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle. These men, eager for war, argued that Chalabi was a reliably pro-American Iraqi whose family background (his father was a senior aide to the Iraqi monarch overthrown in 1958) would lead him to the top of the heap at home.

There were many in official Washington – at the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Defense Intelligence Agency – who warned against trusting Chalabi because of his apparent ties to Iran and the apparently fraudulent WMD sources he fed to the US, like Curveball. As far back as 1995, CIA case officers were warning that he seemed to have too-cozy relations with Iran. Their concerns were brushed aside.

Typical of the tone of his supporters was Danielle Pletka, a neocon war supporter at the American Enterprise Institute, who was asked by Robert Dreyfus of The American Prospect in Oct. 2002 if the large number of Middle East experts, and Middle East residents, who warned Chalabi was not to be trusted, gave her pause. "I don't think their point of view is relevant to the debate any longer," she told him."Sor-ry!"

At the time of the invasion, the Pentagon had Chalabi on a $340,000 monthly retainer and sought to shepherd an "army" of his into southern Iraq (Chalabi had informed the US that he was a wildly popular figure in his homeland, and the US had visions of installing him as the country's new leader). His hapless followers brandished guns for show as US forces drove on to Baghdad, and were then ushered into the capital.

He was given a seat in the US-created governing council, but it didn't take long for things to sour. The below paragraphs are from the top of a story I wrote about Chalabi on June 15, 2004:

A year ago, he was the man who could be president of the new Iraq. For decades, Ahmed Chalabi had crafted and pursued a vision – an exile's dream – of ousting Saddam Hussein with Washington's help.

Now, Mr. Chalabi has fallen far from the graces of his American backers. His home and office in Baghdad were raided by coalition forces, and he is excluded from Iraq's transitional government...

The story of how Chalabi charmed his way to the top and became the Iraq guru to key advisers around President Bush goes a long way to explaining why the administration both overestimated Mr. Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs and underestimated the difficulties of occupation.

Indeed, a template for the experience that US officials now say they've undergone with Chalabi can be found in the 500-year-old words of Machiavelli. "How dangerous a thing it is to believe" exiles, he wrote. "Such is their extreme desire to return home, that they naturally believe many things that are false."

After the end of Chalabi's financial relationship with the US – prompted by concerns Chalabi was passing information to Iran – his ties to the neighboring country deepened. While he never obtained the kind of power he predicted for himself in his homeland, Chalabi has continued to pop up now and again, pursuing his interests. 

In 2010, Gen. Ray Odierno complained that both Chalabi and his close aide Ali al-Lami, who had been held by the US for a year on suspicion of directing an attack against US forces by members of the militia loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, were collaborating closely with Iranian intelligence agencies. Chalabi, meanwhile, was advocating a regional alliance between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.

The US was unwise to outsource its own interests to him.

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