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Chalabi returns to prominence and power

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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

Chalabi's caravan hurtles through the streets of Baghdad at speeds of up to 100 mph. It is an awesome show of force. There are perhaps 20 vehicles in the convoy, many of them armored trucks bristling with armed guards. The trucks block traffic at intersections so Chalabi's white Suburban can barrel through; then the trucks race past the convoy to block the next intersection.

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.

Sectarian fires have cooled now and residents are eager to rebuild the area's economy, fueled by lush farmland and about 15 textile factories, and to restore its public services.

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.

Free-market prescription

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?"

christian.berthelsen

@latimes.com

Times staff writer Said Rifai contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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