Meeting

The first stop on his itinerary this day is the compound of Sheik Nadeem Hatim Sultan, the leader of the Tamimi tribe in the Taji region north of the capital. (Saad khalaf / Los Angeles Times)

Ahmad Chalabi sits in the conference room of his compound in the Green Zone preparing to meet with Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. military officer in Iraq.

Sunlight streams over expensive Persian carpets and modern Iraqi furniture. Chalabi wears a sober charcoal suit, but there's a touch of the dandy in his lime-colored polka-dot tie.

Chalabi professes not to even know what the meeting is about. The general, he says nonchalantly, requested it.

As advertised, an imposing figure sporting fatigues and a shaved head strides through the door a few minutes later. "Thank you for seeing me," Odierno says.

Ahmad Chalabi, it would appear, is back.

Three years ago when the U.S. military came calling on the onetime darling of Washington's neoconservatives, it raided 11 of his properties and left his compound in ruins.Chalabi, who helped the Bush administration make the case for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq,denounced the American occupation of Iraq. It was the denouement to an increasingly fractured relationship between Washington and Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who provided intelligence about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction program that proved to be false.

The Pentagon, which had provided millions of dollars to Chalabi's group, the Iraqi National Congress, cut off funding and accused him of passing sensitive U.S. secrets to Iran. His prospects appeared to reach a nadir last year, after his party failed to win a single seat in Iraq's 2005 parliamentary elections and he was later excluded from the government.

A pivotal position

Now the 63-year-old Chalabi, ever the political chameleon, has maneuvered back into prominence and power. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki appointed him to a pivotal position last month overseeing the restoration of vital services to Baghdad residents such as electricity, potable water, healthcare and education. The U.S. and Iraqi governments say the job is crucial to cement security gains of recent months -- and that failure could cause the country to backslide into chaos.

Although he was among the leaders of the Iraqi Governing Council after the 2003 invasion and served as deputy prime minister for a year, Chalabi's new post in some ways will be his most high-profile role yet, making him the public face and point man in the Iraqi government's effort to meet its people's needs.

It is also one that will have him working hand in hand with troops and diplomats from the country that once closely embraced and then openly scorned him.

The purpose of Odierno's visit was to discuss strategy for restoring services to Baghdad neighborhoods. Although Chalabi is in a position to play a key role in U.S. strategy to rebuild Iraq, American officials appear loath to acknowledge their revived relationship with him.

Mirembe Nantongo, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, declined to make diplomats available for an interview on the subject and would not discuss how Chalabi repaired his relationship with the U.S.

"We're not going to get into discussing individual people who work for the Iraqi government," she said. "The point is to build institutions and not focus on personalities."

Ali Dabbagh, the national government spokesman, said the prime minister nominated Chalabi after working with him on a previous committee dealing with the new security plan. Asked why Maliki chose Chalabi, Dabbagh offered reasons that could have been true of almost any official in the new Iraq.

"Why not?" Dabbagh said. "He's an Iraqi, he's a politician, he's been a deputy prime minister and he's capable of running such a committee."

In part, Chalabi's reemergence has come about through his willingness to step into a void that desperately needed to be filled. After more than four years of war, many Iraqis get just a few hours of electricity a day. Water isn't clean. Trash is piled along streets. Healthcare and education have languished.

In no small part, this is because insurgents regularly threaten and kill municipal workers, bureaucrats and government employees, whom they view as U.S. collaborators. Residents in outlying areas say they can't get the government to come help them because it is too dangerous.

Making a road trip