A year ago, he was the man who could be president of the new
Iraq. For decades, Ahmed Chalabi had crafted and pursued a vision -
an exile's dream - of ousting Saddam Hussein with Washington's help.
Now, Mr. Chalabi has fallen far from the graces of his American
backers. His home and office in Baghdad were raided by coalition
forces, and he is excluded from Iraq's transitional government.
But sources in Iraq and elsewhere are reluctant to write the
political obituary of Chalabi just yet. An inveterate political
survivor, he is on the move still, seeking to build ties to Iraq's
Shiite religious establishment and, according to some of his former
allies in the US government, to Iran.
"The one thing you can say for sure about Chalabi is that you can
never count him out,'' says Ghassan Attiya, a former Iraqi exile and
one-time supporter of the Iraqi National Congress, the political
party Chalabi led. "He's an incredi- ble political survivor ... an
The story of how Chalabi charmed his way to the top and became
the Iraq guru to key advisers around President Bush goes a long way
to explaining why the administration both overestimated Mr.
Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs and underestimated
the difficulties of occupation.
Indeed, a template for the experience that US officials now say
they've undergone with Chalabi can be found in the 500-year-old
words of Machiavelli. "How dangerous a thing it is to believe"
exiles, he wrote. "Such is their extreme desire to return home, that
they naturally believe many things that are false."
To be sure, Chalabi isn't a Svengali who single-handedly deceived
the US into imagining postinvasion Iraq would be easy. Instead, a
cadre of high-level Americans - Vice President Dick Cheney; Richard
Perle, former adviser to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; and
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith - were inclined
to believe what he had to say, despite the objections of many
It was a seductive vision. A post-Hussein Iraq, Chalabi promised,
would quickly normalize relations with Israel and build an oil
pipeline to the Israeli port of Haifa. A new Iraq would strike a
major blow against terrorism and the postwar environment would be
stable, with US forces embraced by grateful Iraqis. Chalabi assured
his audience that his support crossed ethnic and sectarian lines.
Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress provided invaluable
intelligence to the US before and after the first Gulf War. More
recently, the Pentagon says the INC's information has helped save US
soldiers' lives. And Chalabi denies passing secrets to Iran.
Yet many critics felt his dream of a new Iraq was without any
grounding in reality. "We've known all along that anything coming
from Chalabi should be treated with extreme skepticism, particularly
this stuff about being showered with flowers,'' says a senior State
Department official. "But we were overruled by people at Defense who
think we were just looking for excuses not to go to war."
Starting to come apart
Chalabi's vision for an independent Iraq started to come apart
soon after marines escorted him and a US-trained militia loyal to
him into southern Iraq. They'd been told to expect thousands of
Iraqis to flock to the banner of the man the US expected to install
as an interim prime minister. But instead, they found that no one
had ever heard of him. In the months that followed, with the failure
of US searchers to find significant chemical or biological weapons
that Chalabi promised would be there, his star fell further. Though
given a seat on the US-appointed Governing Council, he spent much of
his time abroad.
All this led to the cancellation of his monthly $340,000 check
from the Defense Department for intelligence assistance in April. On
May 20, US-backed forces raided his home and offices in Iraq as part
of a corruption investigation. …