Ahmed Chalabi, a prominent yet controversial figure in the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, died of a heart attack in Baghdad on November 3. His legacy has been divisive, yet even his detractors have to admit that he remained tenacious – Machiavellian if you will – in his goal of seeing Iraq freed of Saddam.
After the Gulf War of 1991, an uprising emerged in the south and north of Iraq, heeding a call from President George Bush senior to finish off Saddam. The then-Iraqi president was able to rally his Republican Guard to crush the uprising as the United States failed to come to the rebels’ aid.
It was thought that Bush senior’s message to take out Saddam was really intended for someone in the Iraqi military, not Shia-led rebels allied to Iran or the separatist Kurdish parties. When such a coup failed to emerge, the US began supporting an array of exiled Iraqi opposition groups.
Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress
In 1992, at the US’ behest, an umbrella organisation was founded to overthrow Saddam: the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a name chosen by an American PR specialist. The name resonated with groups such as the Indian National Congress and the African National Congress. All it needed was a leader with the charisma of Gandhi or Mandela.
It got Ahmed Chalabi, a PhD in mathematics, who at the time faced charges of allegedly embezzling money from the Petra Bank in Jordan, which he had helped to establish.
Nevertheless, he came from Iraq’s majority Shia population and was “Westernised”, allaying Washington and Western governments’ fears of Iraq’s future leader not being secular enough to keep Iraq out of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s orbit.
Chalabi, in his role as head of the INC, presided over a diverse group of Iraqi opposition groups, including the two Kurdish militias – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Sunni and Shia Arabs – among them Islamists and secularists, and Iraqi ex-military officers.
While the INC could agree on a future vision for Iraq … it would go on to be ridden with divisions, competing agendas, and the constituent groups resenting Chalabi’s domineering leadership style.
What united all of these groups upon the founding of the INC was a common desire for the return of the rule of law in a democratic and pluralistic Iraq while preserving its territorial integrity.
While the INC could agree on a future vision for Iraq, without Saddam, it would go on to be ridden with divisions, competing agendas, and the constituent groups resenting Chalabi’s domineering leadership style.
Chalabi in the beltway
I first saw Chalabi speak in Washington DC in 1995. I was a masters degree student at Georgetown University studying Iraqi history, and I followed Chalabi’s every testimony to the US Congress, and every speech he made to the think-tanks within the beltway. He was active in these policy circles.
It was just four years after the Gulf War, and Chalabi appeared optimistic that Saddam could be overthrown. When I met him for the first time, he told me that soon I would be able to visit Najaf, my ancestral hometown, in an Iraq free of Saddam.
In the summer of 1996, Chalabi had visibly changed. I attended a talk he gave where he laid out the achievements of the INC in the north of Iraq, a safe haven that Iraqi military forces were not allowed to operate in after the Gulf War.
In the north, the INC had established its own base of operations, conducting hit-and-run guerrilla attacks on Iraqi forces, and according to Chalabi, it was even issuing its own Iraqi currency, the dinar, minus the face of Saddam.
However, the KDP and PUK had a falling-out over the revenues they were collecting from the border crossing with Turkey. The KDP and the PUK began fighting each other, Kurd against Kurd, elements within the INC essentially turning on each other. The KDP eventually formed an alliance with Saddam’s forces, and they pushed back against PUK positions. The PUK called in Iran to its aid to recover lost territory. During this conflict, the Iraqi military and intelligence services used the KDP’s invitation as a pretext to locate the INC base and eliminate it.
The INC lost its base in Iraq and Chalabi’s project had collapsed. The US stood by and did relatively nothing, short of lobbing a few cruise missiles at Saddam’s forces.
Imagine how Chalabi might have seen the US at this point. In 1991, Bush senior had called on the Iraqis to rebel, and then failed to provide them with support, and the rebels were slaughtered. The US had supported the INC, but in 1996, Washington did nothing as Saddam’s forces eliminated the INC base.
By 1996, Chalabi was jaded. Despite renewed US congressional aid in the form of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, Saddam was now stronger than ever.
The events of 2001 provided a new opening for Chalabi. The US had been a fickle ally; but the post-9/11 George W Bush administration saw Saddam through a different lens – a lens tinted by the so-called “global war on terror”. The INC provided “intelligence” to the Bush administration that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and in exchange, the US promised the entire country to Chalabi, who was touted by the Bush administration as Iraq’s “George Washington”.
What did it matter to Chalabi if Saddam did not have those weapons? The US, a feckless ally in the past, had been convinced that Saddam had them, and there would be no stopping it from removing him.
When it was discovered that there were no WMDs, it was the US who had to deal with the fallout; but at the end of the day, Chalabi was in Iraq – without a Saddam Hussein, free to be the master of an Iraqi game of musical chairs, assume numerous ministerial portfolios, and carve out his own niche of power.
The way Chalabi behaved in the lead-up to the Iraq War followed a logical path dictated by sheer power politics. Without Chalabi’s intelligence reports, the US would have probably gone to war against Iraq in 2003 anyway; Chalabi just provided an Iraqi government-in-exile to assure the public that the US had a plan for a post-Saddam nation-building effort.
Ironically, if the US saw Chalabi as a figure who could keep Iraq out of Iran’s orbit in the 1990s, they had a falling out after the Iraq War, when Washington believed Chalabi was feeding US intelligence to Tehran.
Chalabi’s legacy is a controversial one, serving at the centre of the controversial WMD intelligence that justified the war, a matter that is contentious to this day.
However, he played the political game well: As an exile who saw little chance of ever returning to Iraq, to dying in his native Baghdad, all made possible by a policy establishment in DC all too willing to listen to his assessment that overthrowing Saddam would lead to a rosy future for Iraq.
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.