It’s not clear what role Ahmed Chalabi will play in post-Saddam Iraq but you can bet the dapper 57-year-old exile won’t be too far from the levers of power. After all, he’s been itching for the job since his patrician family fled the country more than 40 years ago. The US-trained mathematician and ex-banker currently heads up the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a high-profile group of noisy dissidents with powerful backers in the current Bush administration. Chalabi counts among his influential friends such White House hawks as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, a key advocate of ‘regime change’ who chairs the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. Other Chalabi boosters include Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald (‘Rummy’) Rumsfeld and former CIA Director Jim Woolsey. That’s the same Woolsey who told a NATO conference last November that ‘Iraq can be seen as the first battle in the fourth world war’ which will be fought in the Middle East.
For the oil-obsessed neocons who currently stage-manage US policy in that part of the world Chalabi is the perfect ‘manchurian candidate’. A secular Muslim and the scion of a wealthy Shi’a family, Chalabi is dismissed by critics as a ‘limousine insurgent’ with neither support nor credibility inside Iraq. Former head of Central Command of US forces in the Middle East, General Anthony Zinni, has described Chalabi’s INC as ‘silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London’. Chalabi’s family had strong connections to Iraq’s Hashemite monarchy and both his father and grandfather were key members of the country’s political élite. The family scattered when King Faisal II was toppled in a 1958 coup.
Chalabi eventually drifted to the US where he earned a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Chicago. He then spent some time teaching at the American University in Beirut before being invited in 1977 to set up the Petra Bank in Jordan by Crown Prince Hassan. Twelve years later the bank was seized by the Jordanian authorities and Chalabi was on the move again – this time to avoid arrest. He was tried in absentia, found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to 22 years of hard labour. Critics say he stashed away as much as $70 million in overseas accounts. But his buddies in Washington don’t buy it. They believe Chalabi was using his position to funnel cash to anti-Saddam groups in Iraq and information on Jordan-Iraq trade to the CIA and as a result he was set up by the Jordanians.
In fact none of the charges are incompatible. The CIA was certainly in his corner. In 1992 Chalabi convinced several fractious exile groups to form the Iraqi National Congress – with a $100-million sweetener from the US spy agency. Chalabi used the money to fund newspapers, radio stations and a small army of mercenaries in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. He was convinced that his small band of insurgents would spark a mass revolt and that the Baathist regime would disintegrate like a wet tissue. No such luck. The INC’s 1996 uprising was a spectacular flop: Chalabi’s men were soundly thrashed and he beat an ignominious retreat to London. The CIA was not impressed, dismissing the would-be politician as an inept bumbler.
All that changed with the events of 11 September 2001, which boosted his stock considerably. Funding for the Iraqi National congress was restored and Chalabi was touted by the Bushites as a credible leader in post-Saddam Iraq – not surprisingly given the cozy relationship with the US oil industry which he has been building for decades. Iraq has the world’s second-largest oil reserves next to Saudi Arabia and it’s no secret that US firms are anxious to corner a piece of the action. Chalabi is obliging. He held a series of meetings with industry officials soon after 11 September and recently told the Washington Post that ‘American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil’. Economists allied with the INC and the extreme-right American Enterprise Institute advocate the ‘denationalization’ of the Iraqi industry as the first step to US companies regaining direct control of the country’s oilfields.
But friends in high places may not be enough. The ex-banker is virtually unknown by ordinary Iraqis and he is widely reviled by anti-Saddam forces inside the country. The Kurds can’t forget his botched uprising in the mid-1990s and the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution – based in the Shi’a south – sees him as a secular outsider and a shameless self-promoter. Even as the war wound down, Chalabi and his INC had set up a base in Nasiriyah, ready for Washington’s call to join the Interim Iraqi Authority.
Chalabi, though, insists he is no more than an honest broker. ‘Personally, I will not run for any office and I am not seeking any position,’ he once said. ‘My job will end with the liberation of Iraq from Saddam’s rule.’ Sure, Ahmed – anything you say.