Ahmed Chalabi stands on the bank of the Tigris river within easy sniper range of the opposite side and surveys the twisted steel girders of the al-Sarafiyah bridge in Baghdad, its central spans torn apart by a massive truck bomb last month. The force of the blast impresses him. "I am surprised that the explosion managed to bring down three spans," he says as he looks at the wreckage.
It is a placid enough scene but nothing in Baghdad is truly safe. I supposed that Mr Chalabi's numerous and heavily armed police and army guards knew their business but I was hoping that we would not dawdle too long. The al-Sarafiyah bridge, once one of the sights of Baghdad, connected the Shia district where we were standing with Wazzariyah, where there had been clashes with Sunni insurgents. I selected a reassuringly vast concrete plinth of the bridge to dodge behind if there was any shooting.
Conspicuous in a dark business suit, Mr Chalabi seemed uncaring about our possible vulnerability to hostile fire and was talking with some of the men in charge of rebuilding the bridge. There were no signs of reconstruction. He stepped into a small, dark, river police patrol boat which circled below the bridge for a few moments. Returning to the bank he remarked that one of the policemen on the boat had told him that "five out of 16 river policemen in his unit had been killed". "Snipers at Taji," one of his aides commented. As for the bridge, Mr Chalabi said reconstruction was "very slow - they should be working now".
The broken remains of the al-Safariyah bridge was a strange place to meet the man whom opponents of the invasion of Iraq regard as a hate figure who gulled the US into a bloody and unnecessary war by concocting evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He has always had an impressive array of enemies. Demonised by Saddam as a creature of the Americans, he was simultaneously loathed by the CIA and the US State Department, mainly because he would not obey American orders. Whatever his political future, Mr Chalabi is one of the great survivors of Iraqi politics. "Never ever write him off," Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, said to me last year.
For a start he is still alive despite numerous assassination attempts. Aged 62 he has seen extraordinary reversals of fortune. He comes from a wealthy Shia family that flourished in Baghdad until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958. Always an opponent of Saddam Hussein, he became a banker in Jordan only to see his bank collapse in controversial circumstances in the late 1980s. In the 1990s he was in Iraqi Kurdistan vainly seeking to use it as a platform to overthrow Saddam. Forced to flee again in 1996 he seemed to have failed, but 10 years later Saddam is in his grave and Mr Chalabi sits in his heavily fortified house in Baghdad.
Meeting political leaders in Baghdad is different than in other countries, where the difficulty is generally in securing the interview in the first place. Getting to it is just a matter of calling a taxi.
In Baghdad the main problem may be covering the last 500 yards to see the person to be interviewed without undue danger. It is quite evident meeting Iraqis and foreigners in the Green Zone in Baghdad that few have the slightest idea of the risk involved in coming to see them. One ambassador happily gave a party starting at 9pm and invited people from outside the zone when not a cat is stirring in the streets of Baghdad.
I had called Mr Chalabi's office in the morning. I was in fact in the Green Zone seeing Kurdish friends when the reply came that he could see me almost immediately. He does not live in the Green Zone but in a fortress-like villa not far away. Two vehicles filled with armed men were sent to pick me up. We drove through the desolate streets of west Baghdad, which these days look like a war zone, at great speed, zigzagging around concrete blast walls and rolls of razor wire. …