Ahmed Chalabi, the man who helped convince former President George W. Bush that invading Iraq would transform the Arab world into a haven of democracy at peace with Israel, is back as a key player in the Iraqi election.
Mr. Chalabi, a member of a slate of electoral candidates mostly drawn from Islamist Shiite parties, was deeply involved in a de-Baathification committee that disqualified about 500 secular candidates from running in the election and briefly had some Sunni politicians inside Iraq considering a boycott.
While the boycott won't happen, Chalabi's role in the disqualification of candidates from rival parties – even as he runs on a slate the includes men alleged to have participated in the sectarian violence of Iraq's civil war – increases the sectarian tension around Sunday's election. It's also a symbol of the gains Iran has made thanks to the removal of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's secular Sunni dictator and an avowed enemy of the regime in Tehran. Chalabi has cordial relations with the leaders of the Shiite theocracy next door, as do most of the senior crop of Shiite politicians in Iraq.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of US forces in Iraq, said at a conference hosted by the Institute for the Study of War in Washington in late February that the disqualifications were "clearly planned very carefully by certain individuals, Ahmed Chalabi and others who ... I would argue are getting support by other nations who in fact are trying to push very specific agendas inside Iraq."
An inveterate political survivor
Though it seems unlikely Chalabi will lead the next Iraqi government – a poll released in Baghdad last week showed his electoral slate, which has him as its third most senior candidate, drawing 17 percent support – he has reaffirmed once again that he remains a powerful player inside the new Iraq.
That perhaps shouldn't be surprising. Chalabi is an inveterate political survivor. In the 1980s, his Petra Bank was a powerful player in Jordan and he was close to that country's ruling family. In 1989, when his bank collapsed after a series of dubious loans to companies connected to him were uncovered, he fled the country just days before an arrest warrant. In 1992, he was sentenced in absentia by a Jordanian court to 22 years in jail for embezzlement.
He fell out with the US – which had mulled installing Chalabi as interim ruler following the ouster of President Hussein – almost immediately after the US invasion. US commanders were chagrined to learn that rather than thousands of Iraqis flocking to his standard, as promised, few average citizens had ever heard of the man. The failure to find the chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction that Chalabi had assured them Hussein was hoarding added to their frustration.
US forces raided his offices in Baghdad in early 2004 on suspicion he was passing US intelligence to Iran. That's a charge Chalabi denied, though the US cut ties. But even then, people who knew him well said it would be a mistake to write his political obituary.
"The one thing you can say for sure about Chalabi is that you can never count him out,'' Ghassan Attiya, a former political ally of Chalabi's in the Iraqi National Congress, the US-supported exile organization that Chalabi led during Hussein's rule, told the Monitor in 2004. "He's an incredible political survivor ... an incredible charmer."
Odierno: Chalabi 'clearly influenced by Iran'
Just how much of a survivor has been on display in the run-up to the election? Ali al-Lami, a close aide to Chalabi, led the commission that disqualified the candidates for their alleged ties to Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. Mr. Lami, who is also close to anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, spent a year in US detention on suspicion that he had directed an attack on US soldiers and civilians in Sadr City, a Baghdad suburb, in August 2008.
Odierno, speaking at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington conference, said Lami was released in August 2009 "as part of the drawdown of our detention facilities, because we did not have the actual prosecutorial evidence in order to bring him in front of a court of law in Iraq. All we had was intelligence that linked him to this attack."
Odierno also charged that Both Chalabi and and Lami are coordinating their activities with the regime in Tehran. "It is disappointing that somebody like him was in fact put in charge or has been able to run this commission inside of Iraq," Odierno said. Al-Lami and Chalabi "clearly are influenced by Iran. We have direct intelligence that tells us that," Odierno said. "They've had several meetings in Iran, meeting with a man named [Mahdi] Mohandas ... who was on the terrorist watch list for a bombing in Kuwait in the 1980s. They are tied to him. He sits at the right-hand side of the Quds Force commandant, Qassem Soleimani. And we believe they're absolutely involved in influencing the outcome of the election. Chalabi, who you know, has been involved in Iraqi politics in many different ways over the last seven years, mostly bad."
Chalabi denied Odierno's charges in an interview with McClatchy news service in late February. "I deny that we're under the influence of Iran. I deny that we do Iran's bidding. I confirm that we're friends with Iran, just as we wanted to be friends with the US," he said.
Chalabi calls for closer ties with Iran, Syria
Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, Chalabi took an oblique shot at Odierno, referring to "recent intemperate comments and interventions by some senior American officials," but also outlined a vision for Iraq and its role in the region that is sharply different from the one he painted in 2003, of a post-Hussein Iraq that would trigger a tidal wave of democracy and partnership with the US across the Middle East and that would quickly recognize and normalize relations with Israel.
Today, the rhetoric of friendship with Israel is long gone. Instead, he's calling for closer Iraqi ties with nations like Iran and Syria, the first an Islamist regime that is an avowed enemy of the US, the second a dictatorship also at odds with the US.
"We are proposing the creation of a regional alliance among Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran to bring together our geographic, economic, water, and oil resources into a coherent framework," Chalabi wrote, arguing that's the best chance of peace and stability in the region. "This alliance would be of benefit to the entire Middle East and a strong bastion against Islamic extremism."
He also promised, now as then, that his vision would transform the region. The alliance "could be an effective vehicle in resolving the Iranian nuclear energy issue as well, opening a new phase in international politics that could profoundly change the mindset of Middle East decisionmakers, especially in Iran. It is in the interest of the US to look favorably on such an alliance, despite the fears that some may have of such a structure."
Monitor editorial: Iraq elections on March 7: high stakes, shaky hopes