War Stories

Ahmad Chalabi’s House of Games

His con is up.

Chalabi works an angle

Can anyone still doubt Ahmad Chalabi’s place among history’s great con men? Last week’s police raid on his Baghdad offices—following reports that he’d supplied U.S. intelligence secrets to Iran—signaled the collapse of his once-mighty power base in Washington.

But con men tend to thrive when their marks want to be conned. And President George W. Bush’s national-security team was rife with the most gullible marks imaginable. As long as Chalabi’s interests converged with the Bush team’s interests, he was their man. Once it became clear that he was diddling others, too, including Iraqis and Iranians whose interests opposed ours, the game was up, the con exposed, the alliance shattered.

That’s what happened last week. The only surprise is that it didn’t happen months ago.

For over a decade, Chalabi’s chief goal in life had been to get Saddam Hussein overthrown and replace him as the leader of Iraq. In 1992, shortly after the first Gulf War, which expelled Saddam from Kuwait but left him in power, Chalabi formed the Iraqi National Congress, which he built into the savviest of the several exile organizations. He briefly convinced the CIA that he could mount a coup, received tons of money to that end, but fell out of favor when the operation proved hollow. He then cultivated the rising neocons, who assumed key positions in the Bush administration.

Chalabi was a banker and a businessman who had spent his adulthood in America; he was multilingual, smooth in all currencies of power and influence. He targeted his pitch to his audience. To the neocons who had strong feelings for Israel (Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith, in particular), he pledged, once in power, to open up friendly relations with Jerusalem and to build an Iraqi oil pipeline to Haifa. To more strictly pragmatic conservatives, he offered the appealing prospect of a westernized Iraq, which would alter the balance of power in the entire Middle East. To liberals and human-rights activists, he pointed to his support in the mid-’90s of the Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. All in all, he seemed a dream come true: an Americanized Iraqi, a capitalist tribesman, a beacon of freedom, and a secular Shiite.

While cultivating these impressions, Chalabi was also, it now seems clear, working a different angle for the Iranians—particularly the intelligence service of the extremely anti-American Iranian Republican Guard. (For the full extent of this connection, read Andrew Cockburn’s enlightening piece in Counterpunch.)

Things went swimmingly for Chalabi as long as his marks shared a common interest—to overthrow Saddam Hussein and install a friendly replacement. Chalabi’s network of “defectors” supplied a stream of cooked intelligence to his American clients, telling them whatever they wanted to hear about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and his alliances with al-Qaida. (Much later, after David Kay, the CIA’s chief weapons inspector, declared that Iraq didn’t have such weapons after all, Chalabi shrugged, telling one reporter: “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.” The ends justified the means. His Washington allies agreed. Not till this month did Bush cut off the INC’s $340,000-a-month paycheck.)

But once Saddam fell, Chalabi’s game became more complicated. The plan had been for Chalabi to take power immediately; the Pentagon flew him and his “militia” into Baghdad for that purpose. Then it became clear that he had little political support in the real Iraq. Even so, the Pentagon helped him establish a base. The Coalition Provisional Authority, which reported to the Defense Department, installed him in the 25-member Governing Council, where he gained control of the finance ministry, the de-Baathification commission, and other positions of potential power over money, intelligence, and personnel. But Bush’s failure to plan for the war’s aftermath—a failure caused, in part, by a naive belief in Chalabi’s fantasies—created a power vacuum. In that vacuum, the internal dynamics and conflicts of Iraq’s own politics—which Saddam had suppressed for decades—began to explode. Rather than riding American tanks to the presidency, Chalabi had to carve his own path to power.

Before Saddam fell, Chalabi appeared to be a secular Shiite. (During a public forum last June at the Council on Foreign Relations, he referred to Iraq’s Shiites as not “we,” but “they.”) Now, as power gravitated toward the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Chalabi formed a pact with the most militant of Shiite sects, even leading a walkout when the Governing Council took up a measure to secularize family law.

Once a champion of the Kurds, Chalabi now fiercely opposed a U.S.-backed resolution that would give Kurds minority-rights’ veto power over particular clauses of a new Iraqi constitution.

The crucial rupture took place last month, when Chalabi started actively resisting Bush’s plan for transferring sovereignty to Iraq on June 30. A central element of this plan is to turn the transition planning over to the United Nations’ envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. Such a move threw off Chalabi. Brahimi has turned out to be Chalabi’s most formidable rival. Chalabi has bitterly antagonized the United Nations by criticizing their involvement in the Saddam-era food-for-oil program. Brahimi is a Sunni Arab. Chalabi thought that would make him unacceptable to Shiites. But Brahimi has wisely done his own cultivating, sitting over tea with Sistani, listening to all factions, making himself the mediator that Chalabi never was. Brahimi seems certain, among other things, to disband the Governing Council, which has been Chalabi’s vehicle. So Chalabi has been mobilizing opposition to Brahimi before his plan for governance even begins.

The problem is that Bush, who once heaved contempt on the United Nations, now realizes that Brahimi is his only hope for an exit strategy or a coherent Iraqi strategy of any sort—which he desperately needs before the November election. Chalabi’s hostility to Brahimi is, in Bush’s eyes, hostility to Bush. Chalabi had already alienated Paul Bremer, the head of the U.S.-led occupation authority. He long ago earned the distrust of the CIA, the DIA, and the State Department. With Bush grinding his teeth, the Pentagon’s neocons had to surrender. Last month, the National Security Council decided to cut ties with Chalabi, according to the current Time. His allowance was pulled a few weeks later.

The discovery of Chalabi’s Iranian dealings provided an opportunity to portray the final cut-off as matter of national security, not political security. It is unsurprising that Chalabi has been leaking American secrets to Iranian intelligence. Does the news mean Chalabi is an Iranian spy? Probably not. Iran wanted Saddam overthrown, and Chalabi seemed a useful tool. Likewise, once in power, Chalabi would want peace with Iran, to protect his flank if not to form a genuine partnership. One can imagine the Iranians demanding some quid pro quo for their backing—a token of respect—and one can imagine Chalabi supplying them with intelligence, just as he supplied the Americans with intelligence. One question: Is the stuff he gave Iran real—or is it as fake as the stuff he gave us? We’ll soon find out. The FBI is on the trail of how he got the secrets to begin with. If the hunt leads back to his pals in the Pentagon, we may soon see a scandal that dwarfs Abu Ghraib.

Meanwhile, this may not be the last of Ahmad Chalabi. Now that he’s on Bush’s enemies list, he’ll find a new game. He used to play the American puppet, now he’ll play the anti-American martyr.