Ahmad Chalabi, Iraqi Politician Who Helped Persuade U.S. to Invade, Dies at 71


Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi politician who from exile helped persuade the United States to invade Iraq in 2003, and then unsuccessfully tried to attain power as his country was nearly torn apart by sectarian violence, died at his home in Baghdad on Tuesday. He was 71.

The cause was heart failure, Iraqi officials said.

Mr. Chalabi is the Iraqi perhaps most associated with President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and topple its longtime dictator, Saddam Hussein. A mathematician with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Mr. Chalabi, the son of a prominent Shiite family, cultivated close ties with journalists in Washington and London; the neoconservative advisers who helped shape Mr. Bush’s foreign policy; American lawmakers; and a wide network of Iraqi exiles, many of whom were paid for intelligence about Mr. Hussein’s government.

Mr. Chalabi’s relationship with the Americans stretched over decades. In 1998, he helped persuade Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act, which was signed by President Bill Clinton and stated that it was the position of the United States to replace Mr. Hussein’s government with a democratic one.

His group, the Iraqi National Congress, would get more than $100 million from the C.I.A. and other agencies from its founding in 1992 to the start of the war. He cultivated close friendships with a circle of hawkish Republicans — Dick Cheney, Douglas J. Feith, William J. Luti, Richard N. Perle and Paul D. Wolfowitz — who were central participants in the United States’ march to war, Mr. Cheney as vice president and the others as top Pentagon officials.

Mr. Chalabi’s contention, broadly shared by United States intelligence agencies, was that Mr. Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Hussein had fatally gassed Kurds and slaughtered Shiites and other Iraqis, and he had refused to fully cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors. But most of the case for war was predicated on faulty intelligence, including the testimony of defectors. As it became clear that Iraq did not have an active chemical, biological or nuclear weaponsprogram and as the occupying American forces did not receive the welcome that the Iraqi opposition had predicted, the Bush administration distanced itself from him.

One year after the invasion, American special forces raided his home in Baghdad, apparently searching for evidence that he was sharing intelligence with Iran. (Although Mr. Chalabi kept close ties to Shiite Iran’s clerical leadership, no such evidence was found.)

He was the target of an assassination attempt at least once, in 2008, when a suicide bomber narrowly missed him, killing six of his bodyguards. Spurned by the Americans, Mr. Chalabi allied himself with Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite leader and ally of Iran whose Mahdi Army led two bloody uprisings, and who remains a significant force in Iraqi politics.

“Chalabi’s life work, an Iraq liberated from Saddam Hussein, a modern and democratic Iraq, is spiraling toward disintegration,” Dexter Filkins wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2006, after interviewing Mr. Chalabi at his home in London, where he was on vacation. “Indeed, for many in the West, Chalabi has become the personification of all that has gone wrong in Iraq: the lies, the arrogance, the occupation as disaster.”

As recently as last year, Mr. Chalabi’s name was floated as a candidate for prime minister, and at the time of his death he was the head of finance committee in Parliament.

On Tuesday, Iraqi leaders issued statements that emphasized Mr. Chalabi’s role in ousting Mr. Hussein, who was captured in 2003 and executed in 2006.

“We mourn regretfully the death of Dr. Ahmad Chalabi,” President Fuad Masum said in a statement. “Chalabi had a pivotal role with many Iraqi leaders in fighting the dictatorship.”

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement, “He dedicated his life to opposing the dictatorial regime, and he a great role in building a democratic process in Iraq.”

Ahmad Chalabi was born in Baghdad in October 1944. His family was part of a tiny, secular Shiite elite that had prospered under the Ottoman Turks and then, after World War I, the Hashemite monarchy installed by the British. Mr. Chalabi attended an elite Jesuit high school, Baghdad College, where his schoolmates included fellow Shiites like Ayad Allawi, who would later become a relative by marriage and serve as an acting prime minister, and Adel Abdul Mahdi, who would later become a finance minister, a vice president and, now, the oil minister.

In 1958, the same year that army officers overthrew the monarchy, the Chalabi family went into exile. Mr. Chalabi studied math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before studying for his doctorate at the University of Chicago. He later taught at the American University of Beirut and published several mathematical papers. During his time overseas, the Baath Party staged a coup, in 1968, and by 1979, Mr. Hussein had managed to consolidate power.

The disastrous Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, Mr. Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the American-led war that ousted his forces from Kuwait in 1991 galvanized Iraqi exiles. In 1992, Mr. Chalabi and other exiles founded the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based umbrella coalition for groups seeking to oust Mr. Hussein.

By now, Mr. Chalabi was in regular contact with the Americans, though his interventions were often unwelcome. In 1995, while receiving pay from the C.I.A. in the Kurdish city of Erbil, Mr. Chalabi began an unauthorized — and unsuccessful — attack on Mr. Hussein’s forces.

The fiasco led to nothing except a decision by Turkey to send troops into northern Iraq. The next year, Mr. Chalabi interfered with a C.I.A. plot to topple Mr. Hussein. The coup attempt failed, about 150 fighters for the Iraqi National Congress were killed and Mr. Chalabi’s relationship with the C.I.A. never recovered.

In 2001, Mr. Chalabi again came under fire. A State Department audit found that the group had misspent $113,794, including $2,000 on membership fees for a Washington gym and $6,314 for oil paintings to decorate its offices. (A follow-up audit last year found that the group had made considerable progress in tightening controls.)

The American-led overthrow of Mr. Hussein’s government in 2003 gave Mr. Chalabi a chance to re-enter politics. The Americans named him to the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council. But images of toppled statues and cheering Iraqis quickly gave way to scenes of violent resistance to the occupying authorities, led by former members of the government, and to increasing sectarian violence.

Within a year of the war, the Americans cut off Mr. Chalabi. In May 2004, they stopped $335,000 monthly payments to the Iraqi National Congress, and days later they raided his Baghdad home.

Mr. Chalabi, for his part, attributed the problems in Iraq to the Americans for staying too long and for failing to immediately turn over power to Iraqis — even though most observers doubted that exiles like Mr. Chalabi, who had been away for 45 years, could have kept the country together on their own.

Moreover, Mr. Chalabi never developed a significant political base. In the December 2005 parliamentary elections, the first held under the country’s new Constitution, his Iraqi National Congress received about 30,000 votes, one-quarter of 1 percent of the 12 million ballots cast — not enough to put even a single lawmaker in the new Iraqi Parliament.

Mr. Chalabi was never widely trusted nor liked by ordinary Iraqis, for whom it was common knowledge that he had been convicted in absentia for fraud in Jordan in 1992, and sentenced to 22 years in prison, for embezzling almost $300 million from Petra Bank, which he had founded. (Mr. Chalabi, who fled Jordan before he could be arrested, said the charges were concocted by the Jordanian government under pressure from Mr. Hussein.)

Mr. Chalabi may be remembered above all for a certain quality of relentlessness. As the Times journalist Michael R. Gordon and a retired general, Bernard E. Trainor, related in a 2012 book, members of the Iraqi Governing Council traveled to Washington in January 2004 for Mr. Bush’sState of the Union address, his first since the invasion. Seated in the Senate gallery, near the first lady, Laura Bush, was Mr. Chalabi.

The next morning, at a meeting of the National Security Council, Mr. Bush turned to Richard L. Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, and asked how Mr. Chalabi had managed to get in. No one could say.

NY Times


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