Ahmed Chalabi stands on the bank of the Tigris river within easy sniper range of the opposite side and surveys the twisted steel girders of the al-Sarafiyah bridge in Baghdad, its central spans torn apart by a massive truck bomb last month. The force of the blast impresses him. “I am surprised that the explosion managed to bring down three spans,” he says as he looks at the wreckage.
It is a placid enough scene but nothing in Baghdad is truly safe. I supposed that Mr Chalabi’s numerous and heavily armed police and army guards knew their business but I was hoping that we would not dawdle too long. The al-Sarafiyah bridge, once one of the sights of Baghdad, connected the Shia district where we were standing with Wazzariyah, where there had been clashes with Sunni insurgents. I selected a reassuringly vast concrete plinth of the bridge to dodge behind if there was any shooting.
Conspicuous in a dark business suit, Mr Chalabi seemed uncaring about our possible vulnerability to hostile fire and was talking with some of the men in charge of rebuilding the bridge. There were no signs of reconstruction. He stepped into a small, dark, river police patrol boat which circled below the bridge for a few moments. Returning to the bank he remarked that one of the policemen on the boat had told him that “five out of 16 river policemen in his unit had been killed”. “Snipers at Taji,” one of his aides commented. As for the bridge, Mr Chalabi said reconstruction was “very slow – they should be working now”.
The broken remains of the al-Safariyah bridge was a strange place to meet the man whom opponents of the invasion of Iraq regard as a hate figure who gulled the US into a bloody and unnecessary war by concocting evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He has always had an impressive array of enemies. Demonised by Saddam as a creature of the Americans, he was simultaneously loathed by the CIA and the US State Department mainly because he would not obey American orders.
Whatever his political future, Mr Chalabi is one of the great survivors of Iraqi politics. “Never ever write him off,” Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, said to me last year. For a start he is still alive despite numerous assassination attempts. Aged 62 he has seen extraordinary reversals of fortune. He comes from a wealthy Shia family that flourished in Baghdad until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958. Always an opponent of Saddam Hussein, he became a banker in Jordan only to see his bank collapse in controversial circumstances in the late 1980s. In the 1990s he was in Iraqi Kurdistan vainly seeking to use it as a platform to overthrow Saddam. Forced to flee again in 1996 he seemed to have failed, but 10 years later Saddam is in his grave and Mr Chalabi sits in his heavily fortified house in Baghdad.
Meeting political leaders in Baghdad is different than in other countries, where the difficulty is generally in securing the interview in the first place. Getting to it is just a matter of calling a taxi.
In Baghdad the main problem may be covering the last 500 yards to see the person to be interviewed without undue danger. It is quite evident meeting Iraqis and foreigners in the Green Zone in Baghdad that few have the slightest idea of the risk involved in coming to see them. One ambassador happily gave a party starting at 9pm and invited people from outside the zone when not a cat is stirring in the streets of Baghdad.
I had called Mr Chalabi’s office in the morning. I was in fact in the Green Zone seeing Kurdish friends when the reply came that he could see me almost immediately. He does not live in the Green Zone but in a fortress-like villa not far away. Two vehicles filled with armed men were sent to pick me up. We drove through the desolate streets of west Baghdad, which these days look like a war zone, at great speed, zig-zagging around concrete blast walls and rolls of razor wire.
Mr Chalabi was waiting at the house in the al-Mansur district, once known as the embassy quarter of Baghdad but now a lethally dangerous place.
There were few cars about and by early evening those shops that had opened were closing. There were nervous-looking soldiers and police everywhere. We were to go on to another house, known as The Farm, that had once belonged to his father. For a man who is not officially a member of the government his police and army escort boasted significant firepower.
I had met Mr Chalabi in the early 1990s and had always been impressed by his skill as an operator and his ability to bounce back from defeat. He also had an ability to irritate his friends and attract the loathing of his enemies to a degree which seemed beyond reason. A few days before I met him in al-Mansur an official in the Green Zone had told me with feeling that he considered Mr Chalabi to be “evil”.
Yet much of what he had done during the 1990s was what all exiled oppositions do when trying to overthrow an authoritarian regime. They try to foment unrest, coups or mutinies inside their country and look for the backing of neighbouring states and the great powers. Mr Chalabi did what others in the Iraqi opposition did but with greater success. The US had failed to go on to Baghdad to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 1991. The opposition always wanted to lure it to try again. Attempted coups and mutinies had all failed by 1996. This was probably inevitable. Mr Chalabi once said to me that people “outside Iraq did not realise how difficult it was to try to overthrow a government with a violent and pro-active security service.”
Did he invent evidence of weapons of mass destruction or prompt witnesses to do so? In fact all the opposition, particularly the Kurdish security services, were doing this. But it was absurd for the CIA and assorted American services and newspapers along with MI6 to later claim that they were misled. They knew what President George Bush and Tony Blair wanted and gave it to them.
Mr Chalabi’s own justification for encouraging the US to invade is simple. He says he favoured the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the US but not the subsequent occupation of Iraq to which he attributes all the disasters that followed. It is not an argument that goes down well in Washington or London. In April 2004 a meeting in the White House discussed a memo drawn up by the National Security Council entitled “Marginalising Chalabi”.
Action swiftly followed. Mr Chalabi was accused of being too close to the Iranians and of telling their intelligence station chief in Baghdad that the USA had broken Iranian codes. The FBI was told to investigate. A few days later, on 20 May, US-led forces raided his headquarters in Baghdad. His fortunes waned. After the parliamentary elections in December 2005 he was part of the Shia alliance that triumphed. He became deputy prime minister. At the election at the end of the year he stood outside the Shia alliance and did not win a single seat.
Sitting in his garden, Mr Chalabi is sceptical about the success of the security plan for Baghdad. He says that “there are less sectarian killings and places that were expected to be difficult like Sadr City [the Shia slum that houses two million people] were not.” But he says the latter success was only possible because of successful negotiations that led to the Mehdi Army, the main Shia militia body, being stood down, through the influence of its leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iranians and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He does not think that US-Iraqi army plan to seal off areas, the so-called gated communities, is going to work. He points out that in a Sunni commercial area such as al-Adhamiyah, most people who work there live outside the enclave. “In any case it is consecrating division in the city. There is nothing so permanent as a temporary solution.”
At the same time he says firmly that “the Sunnis have lost the battle for Baghdad. They were encouraged to go on the offensive by Arab states that did nothing for them.” He identifies one factor in the weakness of the Sunni that is confirmed by election results. They are far less numerous in Baghdad than they had supposed. Some had spoken of Baghdad being equally divided but Mr Chalabi thinks that the proportions in the capital are 80 per cent Shia and 20 per cent Sunni.
He sees the most immediate problem in Baghdad as being the return of people driven from their homes and detainees. “Efforts must be made to bring them back otherwise security is reversible. The displaced people are very angry and want to go home.” Through popular committees he is trying to get mosques returned to their original community.
His judgement is different from that of many Iraqi and American officials in the Green Zone. He does not think that the Sadrists, the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr, is disintegrating: “A lot of it is wishful thinking. Their local leaders will all comply with what Muqtada al-Sadr says.” A key element in ending the war is bringing in the Iranians: “An understanding through the Iraqi government between the US and Iran.”
He does not think that Washington’s famous “benchmarks” are more than slogans in Iraq. Giving Saddam Hussein’s security services back their old jobs is just not acceptable. He does not add that the Shia and Kurds will veto such an idea but they certainly will. On US threats to withdraw he says “many Iraqis are asking if this is a promise or a threat” but he wants an agreement on the limits of the authority of the multinational forces, essentially the Americans and the British.
At this stage Mr Chalabi sees a US withdrawal as something that will be a function of US politics and not what is happening in Iraq. Essentially he sees the US and Britain as having unwittingly committed a revolutionary act in the Middle East by overthrowing Saddam Hussein. “The US found that it had dismantled the cornerstone of the Arab security order.”
The US and Britain have been trying ever since to fill the vacuum left by the fall of the Baath party. They wanted “to prevent Shia control and limit Iranian influence in Iraq and in this they have not succeeded.” And that is why they will leave.
His influence on Bush
Ahmed Chalabi was one of the key figures in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq as a leading Iraqi exile in Washington, where he lobbied the US government to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He supplied intelligence from Iraqi exiles and defectors to his backers in the Pentagon and the White House – and to The New York Times – on Saddam Hussein’s alleged arsenal of WMDs which was later proved to be unreliable. He was also accused of working for Iranian intelligence. Backed by the Pentagon as a future leader of Iraq, he returned home after the 2003 invasion at the head of a small fighting force in hopes of building political legitimacy.
In the early 1990s, his Iraqi National Congress was funded by the CIA which subsequently distanced itself from him after a failed uprising in Kurdish Iraq. Chalabi was also convicted in absentia by a Jordanian court of embezzlement, theft, forgery and currency speculation over the collapse of the private Petra Bank, and sentenced to 22 years in prison. He has always maintained his innocence.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.