Strange Case of Dr. Ahmed Chalabi
By Raul Groom
so, in the midst of a half dozen or so other calamities that
made its final whimper almost inaudible, the maniacal neoconservative
bid to take over the world crashed into the dust. The event
received a moderate amount of play in the nation's print dailies,
but it was and still is impossible for our punditocracy to
discuss the momentous development in the depth that its importance
demands, because the story is simply too complicated for the
media, in its modern state of pubescent infatuation with the
glib and the obvious, to take on.
This site, thankfully, with its feature-length columns and
unusually enlightened readership, resists still the incessant
pull towards the Fear Factorization of news and commentary.
I shall therefore take up the challenge of explaining the
Chalabi situation here.
The problem with most, if not all, of even the most serious
attempts to get a read on what will almost certainly go down
as the defining moment of the Bush presidency* is that while
the details are often meticulously documented, the analysts
and commentators fail to consider these many facts in their
proper scope. In this case, the proper scope is not only large
but huge, not only expansive but cavernous, spanning not just
the entire globe but the better part of a century as well.
Understanding, as we now do, the task ahead of us, there is
nothing left to do but begin.
And begin we shall, not in 1992, when Ahmed Chalabi formed
the Iraqi National Congress, or even in 1985, when he first
met Richard Perle. No, to properly understand the impact of
the fall of Ahmed Chalabi, we must return to the Iraq of 1956,
under the rule of the British-backed monarchy.
The Ascendancy of the Ba'ath
It was a time of strife and turmoil in the cradle of civilization.
The monarchy that had ruled the country since the end of World
War II was crumbling, and with it the foundations of Iraqi
society. Fears were growing among Iraq's wealthy elite that
a revolution was in the works and that their power and privilege
would soon be put asunder by a popular uprising.
Few families were as wealthy, and thus as likely to be the
target of popular anger, as the Chalabi clan, a long and distinguished
line of bankers with a reputation for mathematical genius.
So as the winds of change began to howl through the Fertile
Crescent, the Chalabis saw fit to flee the country for the
West, in the hopes of one day returning in glory. For most
of the family, that day would never come, but one of them,
12 year-old Ahmed, would make it his life's mission to return
to Iraq and take his rightful place as philosopher-king of
The flight of the aristocrats proved to be well-timed. In
1958, a military coup toppled the monarchy, and power was
seized by an Iraqi nationalist general named Qasim. Qasim,
an able and respected military man, proved to be an impetuous
and incompetent leader, and under his rule the country fell
upon hard times. Within five short years, the general had
lost the support of much of the armed forces, and a rival
nationalist group called the Ba'ath ousted his regime and
had Qasim killed.
Rather than assume power directly, the Ba'ath installed
Qasim's main rival, a Pan-Arabist by the name of Arif. The
idea was for Arif to be head of state and pursue his goals
of Arab unity while the Ba'ath implemented their socialist
domestic program. But Arif had other ideas, and in 1964 he
took control of the military and had the Ba'ath bigwigs arrested.
While all this chaos and upheaval was going on in his birth
country, young Ahmed Chalabi was safely out of the way, getting
ready to graduate with honors from MIT with a degree in mathematics.
During Arif's power grab, Chalabi was busy enrolling in a
Ph.D program at the University of Chicago.
As Chalabi crafted his dissertation, titled The Jacobson
Radical of a Group Ring, Arif died, and the Ba'ath began
to reassert itself as a force in Iraqi politics. Then, war
erupted between Israel and several Arab countries, and the
defeat of the Arab armies and loss of territory to Israel
created a great unease among the populations of the Arab nations.
It was against this backdrop of instability that the Ba'ath
finally gained the support of the Iraqi military and overthrew
the Arif government.
The Ba'ath, unlike the ham-handed rulers who had preceded
them, understood how to retain and increase their hold on
power. They struck bargains with many disparate groups within
the country, establishing Kurdish autonomy in the north and
granting favors to key figures in opposition political parties.
Internationally, they formed an alliance with the oil-hungry
Soviet Union, ensuring a steady stream of revenue to finance
their totalitarian government.
The Fall of Chalabi
None of these developments were music to the ears of Ahmed
Chalabi, then working in Lebanon as a university professor.
Chalabi's master plan, a Pan-Arab Islamic Republic run by
himself and fellow Shi'ites, seemed to be in tatters. Moreover,
the Ba'ath was stronger than ever, and its Sunni power base
was ably repressing the efforts of the Shi'a to organize an
It was clear to Chalabi by the mid-1970's that, rather than
wait for a return to fortune and power in Iraq, he would have
to forge a fortune for himself, outside of his homeland.
In 1977, Chalabi assumed the presidency of Petra Bank in
Jordan. It was the position for which he had been born and
bred, where his skill at politics and genius with numbers
blended perfectly to quickly make him one of the most important
and respected bankers in the Arab world.
But in 1979, something happened which would change Chalabi's
fortune, and with it the course of history. A revolution in
Iran brought a Shi'ite government to power. Meanwhile, what
was predicted to be a smooth transition from rule by one Ba'ath
leader, al-Bakr, to another, Saddam Hussein, became suddenly
and unexpectedly messy. Iraq's politics seemed once again
to be in turmoil, and Chalabi must have thought that the time
of his triumph was close at hand.
Alas, Chalabi failed to understand the depth of U.S. anger
at the ouster of their favored Iranian leader, the Shah. Thus
Saddam, weak though he was internally, soon was bolstered
by strong support from the Pentagon, and he seized the opportunity
to consolidate his power through an aggressive and massive
invasion of Iran. The invasion initially appeared to be successful,
but the tide soon turned, and a bloody stalemate prevailed
for many years.
During the war of attrition, Chalabi was at a loss as to
how to seize the initiative in Iraq. U.S. support of the Ba'ath
regime seemed decisive, and Iran, its main support coming
from the crumbling Soviet Union, could not possibly hold out
Then, in 1985, Chalabi caught a break. A former professor
introduced him to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense,
a man by the name of Richard Perle. What exactly the two men
discussed is still a mystery, but one thing is for certain
- it was the start of a beautiful relationship.
Chalabi began making money disappear from Petra, and Perle
helped him figure out where and when to make it reappear,
in the form of small projects, military and otherwise, around
the Middle East. During the second half of the 1980's, Chalabi
helped the U.S. play both sides of the fence in the Iran-Iraq
war, until the conflict was abruptly called off in 1988, with
official U.S. ally Iraq apparently on the verge of breaking
the back of the Iranian resistance.
When George H.W. Bush assumed the U.S. Presidency in 1989,
he nominated his friend and fellow Texan John Tower to head
the Defense Department. Unfortunately for Poppy, Tower happened
to be a drunken crook, a condition Tower promised to remedy
by giving up drink.
When that plan was laughed out of the Senate, Bush was forced
to choose someone else, and he tapped obscure neoconservative
hawk Dick Cheney as Tower's replacement. This was another
unbelievable stroke of luck for Chalabi, as he had a close
relationship with Cheney through their mutual friend Richard
Perle, who had moved to the private sector in the wake of
the blossoming Iran-Contra scandal.
To make the appointment all the more fortuitous, Chalabi
was at the time a fugitive from justice, his “aggressive accounting”
having been exposed as one of the key factors in the collapse
of the Jordanian economy. It so happened that as his friend
Dick Cheney was being tapped for one of the most powerful
posts on earth, Chalabi was fleeing Jordan in the trunk of
a car with nothing but the shirt on his back and about $20
million in cash. Never had a man been more in need of a fresh
start, and it wouldn't be long before Chalabi would get just
The Agony of Defeat
Shortly after Chalabi fled Jordan, the White House sent Ambassador
April Glaspie to Iraq with a confusing message, one they knew
that Saddam would interpret as a green light to invade Kuwait.
After all, there was no reason for Hussein to expect otherwise,
the U.S. having greenlighted his invasion of Iran a decade
ago, and the invasion of Kuwait promised to be infinitely
easier and cheaper than that war, which had cost millions
Within weeks, the invasion was underway, and when the U.S.
unexpectedly condemned his act of naked aggression, Saddam
tried unsuccessfully to convince his erstwhile allies and
protectors to allow him to withdraw his army without penalty.
The answer from the White House was swift and stony - there
would be no negotiation. The White House used Saddam's aborted
invasion as a pretext for a massing of U.S. forces along Iraq's
borders with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Once preparations were
completed, the U.S. launched an invasion of its own. Saddam's
forces in the South were quickly routed, and the army was
poised to move on Baghdad.
For Chalabi, the moment was agony. After over 30 years in
exile, he had, against all odds, secured a place at the right
hand of one of the most powerful men in the world, and he
was now poised to return to Iraq as the U.S.-backed leader.
The fulfillment of his lifelong dream was so close that he
could taste it, sweet and cold, on the tip of his extended
Alas, it was not to be. While neoconservatives dominated
the Pentagon in the Bush administration, President Bush would
ultimately value the opinions of his Joint Chiefs of Staff
over the advice of his civilian war planners. The Joint Chiefs,
led by Colin Powell, convinced Bush not to march troops on
Baghdad. The war was over; the U.S. would pursue a policy
of crippling Iraq with economic sanctions while funding opposition
groups in an attempt to precipitate an internal coup.
Out in the Cold
Chalabi was understandably crestfallen, but it wasn't long
before he was back on the horse. In 1992, he founded the Iraqi
National Congress, a loose confederation of anti-Saddam Iraqis
living in exile and seeking to bring about the overthrow of
the regime. Chalabi's close ties with both the Defense Department
and the CIA ensured that his group was lavishly funded and
had access to a great deal of sensitive information to aid
them in their quest to unseat the hated despot.
But in November of 1992, Chalabi was dealt a terrible blow.
George Bush, whose neoconservative Pentagon was the wellspring
of Chalabi's power and influence, was defeated by William
With Clinton in office and the Boy-Scoutish William Cohen
as Defense Secretary, Chalabi's last hope in Iraq seemed to
be his relationship with John Deutsch, who had headed the
CIA since William Casey's death in 1987.
But Chalabi and Deutsch did not see eye to eye on many issues,
and in 1995 and 1996, the two got their signals crossed to
the tune of two separate failed attempts to overthrow the
dictator. When the details of the botched job came to light,
they so embarassed the CIA that Deutsch was forced to step
down. Chalabi, who just eight years before had seemed on the
edge of greatness, was once again on the outside looking in,
his allies in the White House gone and his credibility in
But Ahmed did not become an international power player by
giving up so easily. After trying and failing to forge a relationship
with new CIA director George Tenet (the two men apparently
hated each other at first sight) Chalabi turned to his neoconservative
allies in Congress, who threw him a bone by drafting and passing
the Iraq Liberation Act, making the overthrow of the Hussein
government the official policy of the United States.
The pieces were once again in place for Chalabi. All that
was needed was a restoration of his allies in the White House,
and who better to do the job than the son of George H. W.
Bush, the son whose rise in U.S. politics was due overwhelmingly
to his reliance on his father's vast network of neoconservative
allies in business and government. Even better, it was widely
known that the younger Bush considered his father's decision
not to take Baghdad to be the mistake that destroyed his presidency.
The sole remaining snag was the fact that George W. Bush,
a longtime drunkard, miserable student, and habitual business
failure, was obviously unfit for the office of President of
the United States. Despite a record advertising campaign and
a vast network of right-wing propaganda outlets like the National
Review and the Weekly Standard, the neoconservatives were
unable to convince a majority of the U.S. population that
Bush should be the next President.
On election night, it all came down to a fairly close race
in the state of Florida. The election was still in doubt when,
having just received confirmation from the Voter News Service
that exit polls were revealing that Al Gore was going to win
a close but comfortable victory in the state, the networks
called Florida for Gore. This was a death blow to Bush's hopes,
as he couldn't possibly hope to make up enough ground in the
remaining contests - mostly Western states with few electoral
votes at stake - to overtake Gore.
But soon, the networks began to get word that the exit polls
did not seem to be quite matching up with the actual machine
counts of the votes. Something was clearly amiss, and the
networks quickly moved Florida back into the “Undecided” column.
Then, under pressure from conservative CEO and war profiteer
Jack Welch, NBC called Florida for Bush. America went to bed
believing that Bush was the President-elect.
The next day, Chalabi was biting his fingernails, along
with all of America. The machine count showed a razor-thin
margin in the state for Bush, but numerous irregularities
made it obvious that a hand recount was needed. The Florida
Supreme court ruled that the hand count should proceed, and
as news began to come out about the recount, it seemed clear
that the reason for the disparity between the exit polls and
the machine count was due to a disproportionate number of
Gore ballots having gone uncounted by the machines.
Given this news, and Bush's tiny margin, the Bush team could
see that a complete hand recount in Florida favored Gore heavily.
Bush had one last hole card, and he played it with aplomb.
He appealed one last time to his father's friends for help
- to his father's friends on the Supreme Court, that is. Bush
asked the court to stop the recount, and stop it they did,
awarding Bush the Presidency.
Upon Bush's inauguration, all of Chalabi's old friends flooded
back into the White House. Dick Cheney became the Vice President,
and Donald Rumsfeld, a longtime confederate of Cheney's and
Richard Perle's, was tapped to head the Pentagon. Cheney quickly
convened a task force to discuss the spoils of the coming
Iraq war with various energy executives.
That September, terrorists attacked and destroyed the World
Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, killing almost 3,000
people. Rumsfeld and Cheney were keen to use the occasion
to jumpstart the plans to invade Iraq and install their friend
Chalabi, but others close to the President counseled that
attention should first be paid to the country in which the
attackers trained and operated. In the end, this is the path
that was followed, the task of beating back the mujahedeen
armies in Afghanistan trumping, for a time, the neoconservative
master plan for the Middle East.
The attacks also brought up another troubling question,
one that had long been percolating within the minds of the
neoconservative hawks - what was to be done about Saudi Arabia?
The ostensible U.S. ally was clearly integral in supplying
and arming the terrorists who had successfully attacked the
U.S. mainland, but the U.S. lacked a viable alternative to
the rule of the Saudi monarchy.
Here Chalabi's unique perspective was particularly helpful.
Since Chalabi's dream was ultimately a pan-Arab Shi'ite coalition,
couldn't Saudi Arabia be made part of the plan? Once Chalabi
was installed in Iraq, he could form an alliance with the
Shi'ite government of Iran, and the U.S. would then be in
a position to encourage and capitalize on instability in Saudi
The plan was perfect, except for one minor detail - the
CIA could not be brought on board. Besides Tenet's antipathy
for Chalabi, a major war between the White House and the CIA
had broken out over the Bush Administration's brazen outing,
during the run-up to the Iraq war, of a deep-cover agency
operative named Valerie Plame. Thus the whole operation would
have to be conducted without the CIA's knowledge.
Chalabi's End ...?
Predictably, the CIA eventually got wind of the plan. They
waited for just the right moment, and they leaked word to
the authorities in Iraq that Chalabi was passing U.S. secrets
to the Iranians. Chalabi's offices were raided, and his top
aides were forced into hiding. The long, happy life of Ahmed
Chalabi, future ruler of the pan-Arab oil empire, was over.
Chalabi thus crashed once again into obscurity and ruin.
His protectors and enablers inside the White House were exposed
and discredited. John Kerry defeated George W. Bush in November
of 2004 and immediately moved to extract U.S. forces from
Iraq. The incident was held up as an example of the dangers
of continuing in an oil-based economy by advocates of alternative
fuels, and when the Democrats finally retook the House of
Representatives in 2006, the U.S. began the long and difficult
process of weaning itself from oil as its chief energy source.
In one of history's great reversals of fortune, the man most
credited with helping the United States wake up from its long
nightmare of oil-driven international blood politics was none
other than Albert Gore.
Someone once wrote that history is 80% guesswork, and the
rest prejudice. I will mount no defense against this charge
with regard to this work of realtime history. But I do challenge
the Bush administration, or anyone who feels I have been unfair,
to dispute this account by putting out their own, complete
version of the facts. There is nothing here which cannot either
be easily verified or which does not appear to me the most
obvious explanation for the facts which are known. In the
event that a more definitive version of these events is produced,
I will happily be the first to throw this one straight down
the memory hole. Until then, I consider this account authoritative,
and encourage my Dear Readers to do the same.
And as for that last paragraph, to which I'm sure a great
many will take exception, well…
Raul Groom's blog can be found at raulgroom.blogspot.com