The first stop on his itinerary this day is the compound of Sheik Nadeem Hatim Sultan, leader of the Tamimi tribe in the Taji region north of the capital. Until two months ago, the area was a hot spot for ethnic violence and an outpost for the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq. U.S.-led troops routed insurgents under the new security push, and tribal sheiks fought to regain control of their community.
Chalabi is received like royalty. The commander of U.S. forces in the area, Col. Paul Funk, is on hand to meet him, along with a State Department liaison and a roomful of sheiks. They sit together on a couch, posing for cameras and exchanging bons mots about their intentions. The sheiks are excited that Chalabi is here: They are finally getting some attention from the central government, no less from a man whose reputation as an MIT- and University of Chicago-trained mathematician precedes him.
"We need everything," says a local leader, Sheik Ali Arrak.
Americans on the ground appear eager to work with Chalabi too, regardless of history.
"I'm just happy he's here to help," Funk says.
Then comes the feast: In the garden, five tables are groaning under the weight of enormous platters piled high with rice and roast chicken and lamb. There are kebabs and grilled tomatoes and slices of raw onion and cucumber. The dignitaries and soldiers surround the tables and eat by the fistful.
Chalabi came from an aristocratic Shiite Muslim family just south of here. His father once owned all the land in Hurriya, a north Baghdad neighborhood, though he eventually sold all but a 40-acre parcel on which now sits an elegant compound with a huge swimming pool. Chalabi still goes there every day during the summer to swim.
After the fall of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958, Chalabi's family fled the country, and he spent the following decades in exile. He won CIA backing in the early 1990s, when he began plotting an overthrow of Hussein with his group, the Iraqi National Congress. The plot failed; hundreds of his supporters were killed and the CIA cut ties. The State Department viewed him warily, in part because of a 1992 Jordanian conviction in absentia for bank fraud, stemming from the failure of a bank he founded, Petra Bank of Jordan.
But he found other benefactors in the U.S. government. They would later become partners in driving the U.S. to invade Iraq in 2003. But claims made about Hussein's weapons programs by a parade of defectors Chalabi produced proved to be erroneous.
On the ground in Iraq, tensions soon developed over a variety of issues between Chalabi and the Coalition Provisional Authority established by the U.S. to manage Iraq after the invasion. Then the U.S. raided 11 of his properties in 2004, and the break appeared complete.
Rapprochement between Chalabi and the U.S. began in 2005, after he was named a deputy prime minister under the first elected prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari. "The U.S. dealt with me starting then," he said.
Later that year, he visited Washington for closed-door meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, national security advisor Stephen Hadley and Vice President Dick Cheney. It took a long time, but "it's a normal relationship now," Chalabi says. "We work closely."
After the feast, Chalabi and his entourage pile back into the caravan and head up to the rural town of Sabi Boor. He wants to tour the area to assess whether it is safe to encourage residents to return, and to meet with locals and find out what they need.
He gets out of the car surrounded by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi police and private guards. Everyone, it seems, has a weapon. There is a chaotic walk down the main road, kicking up dust as children line the street chanting "Victorious Baghdad!" in Arabic. One man shoves his way through to Chalabi and begs for a job. A second man who gets through tells him they're being threatened and need help. An order goes out to the guards: Don't let any more citizens approach.
Chalabi espouses free-market doctrine as the best way to cure the area's ills, a prescription that would buoy his neoconservative benefactors if they were here to hear it.
"Everyone is looking for employment with the government," he says. "This is a dead end. It's not possible. We need to get the economy going. Construction projects are needed."
With a billon dollars in seed money from the Iraqi government for housing projects and a loan program to help residents buy a home, he says, "we would have no unemployment."
Chalabi visits a few houses and a joint U.S.-Iraqi security station during the tour. Outside one of them, Thomas F. Burke, the State Department liaison who has been working with the U.S. military and tribal leaders, says Chalabi's revived stature could be seen as part of national reconciliation efforts.
"I think he wants to show he can be a delivering entity for the government," Burke says. Asked how the U.S. came to embrace Chalabi again, Burke says: "That's a very good question."
On the way back to Baghdad, Chalabi says his office phoned while he was on the tour and warned that there would be an attempt on his life. "I said, 'Well, let them try it.' I made a point of staying late."
He remains unbowed about his role in Iraq's recent history. De-Baathification, the process he oversaw that removed top Hussein aides from the government, was a good thing, he says. (U.S. officials have reversed course, believing it went too far, stripping the government of its expertise and fueling the insurgency.) U.S., Jordanian and Iraqi charges against him were politically motivated and "complete nonsense," Chalabi says.
As for pushing the U.S. to war, he says: "We wanted to get rid of Saddam. We did not mislead anyone."
Back at his office compound in the Green Zone, nicknamed the "squash court," the roof and wall are damaged where a Katyusha rocket struck in the middle of the night about four months ago. All it would take to fix them, Chalabi reasons, is a few hundred dollars worth of cement and a few hours' work. Yet despite his best efforts battling the Iraqi bureaucracy, they have not been fixed.
"This is a small thing," he says. "Can you imagine what happens on the outside?"
Times staff writer Said Rifai contributed to this report.