It takes some nerve to set yourself up as the No. 1 enemy of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. To do so while living openly just 200 miles north of Baghdad would seem to be inviting an assassin's bullet, if not a Scud missile.
But a smile never seems to be far from the lips of Ahmed Chalabi, who takes in stride his many roles as brilliant mathematician, fallen Jordanian banker and principal opposition coordinator against the Arab world's most ruthless regime.
"We're not in exile. We're here," the 49-year-old Chalabi said proudly, relaxing at midnight in designer trousers and a sweat shirt in his luxurious home in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, picking fruit from a low table piled high with fresh watermelons, peaches and cucumbers.
Chalabi has indeed made his mark in Iraq. He is credited with a major role in averting civil war in May between factions of the 3.5 million ethnic Kurds living in the north. An all-out conflict would have wrecked their democratic experiment and gravely embarrassed the United States and Western allies who have protected them from Hussein's forces since the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991.
Chalabi did not act alone; foreign relief agencies also mediated between the rival Kurdish leaderships. But both sides testify to his bravery in heading into front lines where battles were in progress.
"You have to have the strength of your convictions. You can't ask people to risk lives unless they see you are ready to do it," Chalabi said.
Along the way, Chalabi's peacemaking efforts made a name for the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the otherwise obscure umbrella group of organizations fighting to oust Hussein. Their white-and-green flag is now a common sight on peacekeeping checkpoints, its three interlocking circles symbolizing the three main communities of Iraq: Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and the Kurds.
Three well-known leaders of these communities were elected as a leadership council at the INC's first congress in the old mountain resort town of Salahuddin in 1992. Chalabi, the INC's mentor, was appointed president of the executive council to run the group from day to day.
"Chalabi started the (intra-Kurdish) mediation initiative. There was nobody else. Everybody was listening to him," said Ferman Jabbar, a military leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a member of the INC and also one of the two main factions feuding for power in Iraqi Kurdistan. (Kurdistan spans parts of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and territories of the former Soviet Union but hasn't achieved independence in modern times.)
"Arab radios are now talking about the INC. The mediation showed they can do something," said Sami Abdulrahman, who leads the other faction, the Kurdish Democratic Party, also an INC founding group.
There is no doubting Chalabi's winning mix of intelligence, charm and organizational ability. He commands the same warm respect from a beefy warlord like Jabbar, who favors a Serb-style forage cap and keeps pet eagles, as from bearded Muslim activists in charge of groups like the Revolutionary Kurdish Hezbollah.
Integrity is a more slippery subject in this atmosphere, where all have a gun in their belt and an enemy not far away. Chalabi declines to answer questions about how he funds an organization with photocopiers, TV studios and walkie-talkie radios on the hip of every staffer. He denied the widespread belief that he gets covert U.S. funding.
His intra-Kurdish mediation, however, has won him official Western approval. Chalabi proudly showed off faxed letters from Britain's Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department. The INC's mediation was "a welcome contribution," said Peter Tarnoff, the State Department's undersecretary of state for political affairs.
Chalabi has come a long way in winning trust from the West since 1989, when Petra Bank, the second-biggest bank in Jordan with $1.4 billion in loans, came spectacularly unglued under his presidency. A year later it was closed down. Jordanian Central Bank Gov. Muhammed Said Nabulsi accused Chalabi of "fraud, embezzlement and illicit transactions."
Chalabi fled Jordan but was never formally charged. The bank affair remains mysterious. Chalabi says he had been feeding information to the West about Saddam Hussein's arms-buying ploys, and he maintains the bankruptcy was all an Iraqi plot mixed with Jordanian palace politics.
"In the end, it was too hard to have one's own country against one," he said.
He should know. Chalabi was born into a prominent Baghdad Shiite Muslim family: His father was president of the old Iraqi Senate, and his grandfather was a long-serving education minister. But the family was forced to leave Iraq in the 1950s during the revolutionary ferment that eventually led to Saddam Hussein's takeover.
Chalabi then studied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before earning his doctorate at the University of Chicago. He was teaching at the American University of Beirut, he says, when the Jordanian crown prince invited him to Amman to found Petra Bank.
Today, Chalabi appears to enjoy and excel in the high-stakes skills of Middle Eastern leadership: coaxing feuding factions into making peace and, failing that, dealing with war.
Travel, for instance, is never without a cavalcade of four-wheel-drive battlewagons loaded with weaponry. His chief aide was an Iraqi secret agent in Paris before changing sides. The INC's offices, a television studio bristling with antennas and an INC guest house, have gradually moved into more and more houses in Salahuddin.
The INC has set up two training camps to receive groups of Iraqi army defectors and local Kurdish recruits, who total perhaps 750 soldiers. Some are now serving on checkpoints dividing the front lines, but many are new to the job.
Even more unusual is Chalabi's headquarters. His warren of offices is packed with armed retainers, satellite telephones, the latest computers and schematic flow-charts of Iraqi army divisions in the north. Chalabi claims some of the best inside knowledge of the Iraqi officer corps.
He is particularly delighted with one prank cooked up in Salahuddin: the publication and distribution in Baghdad of a spoof edition of the Iraqi newspaper Babel. Looking superficially just like the original, the news columns gave details of Hussein's human-rights violations.
The INC staff members are young, bright and enthusiastic, but for all their energy, the organization remains something of a one-man show. Masoud Barzani, chief of the Kurdish Democratic Party and tribal leader of hundreds of thousands of Kurds, noted: "The INC's role is very great, but it alone cannot do very much."
Kamran Karadaghi, a leading commentator on Iraqi affairs for the London newspaper Al Hayat, said Chalabi's very success was generating jealousy within the INC. At the best of times, the group can only just hold together rival wings that range from Islamists to Communists, backed by all the feuding states in the Middle Eastern kaleidoscope.
Chalabi denies that he is after Hussein's job or anything more than the INC's official aim--to oust Hussein and bring democracy to Baghdad.
The former banker did a quick calculation: Iraq owes $100 billion to Western banks and governments, faces claims of $240 billion in war indemnities from Kuwait, and Iran claims $900 billion more in damages for the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
"That's as much as all the oil in Iraq is worth," Chalabi said. "Anyone who wants to take power in Baghdad is crazy. I am just in this to get rid of Saddam."
Name: Ahmed Chalabi
Title: President of the Executive Council of the Iraqi National Congress.
Personal: Born into a prominent Baghdad family, which fled in the 1950s during revolution that led to Saddam Hussein's takeover. Earned doctorate at University of Chicago. Taught at the American University of Beirut until Jordan invited him to Amman to found Petra Bank, which failed in 1989. Lives in Salahuddin, Iraq. Wife and three children live in London.
Quote: "You have to have the strength of your convictions. You can't ask people to risk lives unless they see you are ready to do it."