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The Strange Case of Dr. Ahmed Chalabi
May 28, 2004
By Raul Groom

And 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 country.

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 effective resistance.

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 forever.

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 that.

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 of lives.

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 tongue.

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 Jefferson Clinton.

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 tatters.

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.

Old Friends

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 Arabia.

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…

We'll see.

Raul Groom's blog can be found at

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