Chalabi, who died of heart failure on Tuesday at age 71, was charismatic, obsessive, and helped lead the U.S. to war in Iraq.
If not for the man named Ahmad Chalabi, the United States probably would not have invaded Iraq in 2003. If not for the Iraq War, as a senior CIA official flatly told BuzzFeed News earlier this year, there would be no ISIS. Indeed, the life of the charismatic and obsessive Chalabi, who died Tuesday of heart failure at 71, led to devastating and unpredicted results that will reverberate for decades.
Before he changed American and Middle East history, Chalabi was a failed Iraqi banker accused of massive international financial fraud in the 1980s. But through guile and grit, he managed to transform himself into Saddam Hussein’s most implacable and effective foe. The CIA, in cable traffic, called him Pulsar 1. His followers called him “the Boss” or “the Doctor.”
What drove Chalabi? One of his relatives told BuzzFeed News that to find Chalabi’s “Rosebud,” his secret motivation from childhood, one had to look at the 1958 revolution and coup that toppled the despised Iraqi monarchy, which was propped up by the British and Americans as a bulwark against the communists. Under the ruling family, most Iraqis lived in devastating poverty, but the Chalabi family was the country’s richest clan, and Chalabi himself would always look back to his childhood as a “golden era.”
In exile after the revolution, Chalabi was a brilliant student in England and then in the U.S. at MIT and the University of Chicago.
He later became a lavish banker, part of a family operation that stretched from Lebanon through Jordan, Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, and into the U.S.
But he fled amid allegations of fraud and insider deals and turned his attention to what would be his life’s work: pushing the U.S. to topple Saddam Hussein.
It took a while.
His relationship with the CIA was tumultuous. Though they recruited him in the 1990s to build the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group, they soon realized they couldn’t handle him and tried to cut him off. But when the CIA helped the Kurds in Northern Iraq, Chalabi rushed to the battlefront dressed in the latest high-end Patagonia fleece and set up shop too.
Back in Washington, he wore tailored suits as he lobbied in the corridors of Congress. Although shunned by the CIA and not even a U.S. citizen, the disgraced banker managed to obtain millions in American taxpayer dollars from the State Department, and from the Defense Intelligence Agency via its funding for the Iraqi National Congress.
A strange irony: Chalabi would later recount that he nearly ended up on American Airlines Flight 77, the L.A.-bound plane that al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked after it left Dulles Airport and crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. But on Sept. 10, Chalabi instead caught the last American Airlines flight to L.A. If he had died on 9/11, who knows if he and his followers would have still been able to manipulate the U.S. government by turning the al-Qaeda attacks into a pretext for the invasion of Iraq two years later?
The day after 9/11, as Americans mourned, Chalabi saw that the tragedy could be used to his advantage. He and his followers launched a campaign to tie Saddam Hussein to the al-Qaeda attacks. They told of a camp in Iraq that taught hijackers, for example. And they soon began telling prominent reporters that Saddam still harbored weapons of mass destruction.
Because of Chalabi’s own diligent work, America’s elite were primed to believe him. More than anyone else in the late 1990s and the early part of the Bush administration, Chalabi had planted the seed in influential American thinkers, chiefly neoconservatives, that removing Saddam Hussein from power was a strategic imperative. But he did far more. Funded by the U.S., he fed bogus information and propaganda to the American press and to intelligence agencies.
In spring 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq and, as Chalabi boasted, toppled Saddam, because of him and the Iraqi National Congress. He dressed in a black Hugo Boss T-shirt, and he was flown by the American Air Force to the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya with a small army of ill-trained and chaotic “Free Iraqi Forces.”
Chalabi thought the U.S. would help install him as Saddam’s replacement, and he envisioned riding through Baghdad to cheering crowds of Iraqis, like de Gaulle returning triumphant to France. But that never happened. He had lost his influence in Washington, D.C., and he had too many enemies in the U.S. and Iraq.
It was after the invasion he’d pushed so hard for that his true weakness was exposed. He tried again and again to become the ruler of Iraq, convinced he was entitled to it. But he never scored more than 1% of the vote, and instead he survived by building blocks of coalitions and by allying himself with powerful Shiite politicians.
He tried one more time, last summer, to lead Iraq. He convinced his supporters, Americans and a handful of Iraqis, that it was a done deal, that he’d arranged a partnership by which he would become prime minister. In the end, that didn’t happen, and he was left, associates told BuzzFeed News, furious but impotent, convinced that he had been betrayed.
Is he really to blame for the current catastrophes of the region? Certainly, soon after the invasion, he pushed hard to maintain and even deepen Iraq’s sectarian divides, especially for policies that empowered Shiites while ripping the rug from under the Sunnis. Disenfranchising the Sunnis led to the rise of ISIS, which is what the senior CIA official mentioned earlier was referring to.
Still, the truth is that while Chalabi convinced the U.S. to go to war, it was George W. Bush and other American leaders in Congress and the White House who believed him and made the ultimate decision that caused so much damage. He never really had the power to invade, to change history. He just had an astonishing ability to influence and finagle others, and that was enough.