BAGHDAD, Iraq—Even though Ahmad Chalabi apparently lost badly in last month's parliamentary election here, the former Pentagon favorite is still likely to be a big player in the next Iraqi government.
The Dec. 15 vote went largely to ethnic and sectarian coalitions at the expense of secular slates, including his, preliminary returns indicate. That could leave him without a seat in parliament.
Yet the former exile who helped spur the U.S.-led invasion by feeding false intelligence to Washington about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and who returned to Iraq after Saddam's fall to craft himself into a political leader, still has more cards to play. Characteristically, Chalabi, 61, could land on his feet in a high government post even though he failed to win even a minimum of votes from the Iraqi people.
"He is a very experienced politician," said political scientist Hazim Abdulhameed al-Nuaimi of Baghdad's Mustansiriya University. Chalabi has "the ability to retreat and start from zero."
At a minimum, Chalabi, a secular Shiite, has maintained good relations across Iraq's major ethnic and sectarian divides.
Furthermore, as Iraq has endured almost three years of post-invasion unrest, Chalabi's supporters have portrayed him as an astute technocrat, an asset to any ruling coalition aiming to restore order and prosperity. He was educated at the University of Chicago and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I think most, if not all, political parties know what Ahmad Chalabi's capable of," said Haider al-Moussawi, one of his key aides. "They still want to have Ahmad Chalabi as part of any team."
As political leaders haggle over power, the day-to-day running of a government that often cannot provide Iraqis necessities such as electricity and gasoline remains a critical task.
Last week Chalabi was picked to temporarily replace the ousted minister of oil.
"He wants to be close to the oil industry and its institutions in order to know it well, because it is the backbone now for any government," said al-Nuaimi. "If the security situation stabilizes, Chalabi can start promising huge investment projects for Iraq, and he could become popular from that."
While many ordinary Iraqis view Chalabi as a sneaky and corrupt outsider who brought U.S. forces to Iraq, Adil Abdel Mahdi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents and a member of the governing alliance, describes him as "an important figure. ... No one wants to get rid of him."
Other key alliance members similarly praise Chalabi, but nonetheless suggest that his lack of support at the polls will undercut his position when it comes time to negotiate posts in the new government. Preliminary returns show that his slate fell far short of the 8 percent to 10 percent that his party, the Iraqi National Congress, expected to get in predominantly Shiite provinces.
"I think dealing with him in the next government is possible, yet the reality of the electoral returns sets the scene," said Abdul Khaleq Zangana, of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, a member of the governing coalition. "Being outside the government does not mean an end to his political career."
Abbas al-Bayati of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a key member of the United Iraqi Alliance, agreed that while Chalabi overestimated his influence at the polls, "elections are not the end."
"In all, he managed to wield momentum and accumulated experience that qualify him to play a vital role in the political process," al-Bayati said.
Although Chalabi fell out of favor with Washington after the pre-war intelligence he supplied turned out to be false, lately they have indicated that he should remain in the government. In what some observers here took as a reference to Chalabi, U.S. officials have said the new government should be composed of competent people.
Al-Moussawi, the Chalabi aide, indicated that U.S. officials and his boss have mended their relationship. "On some issues there were some disagreements, and I think most of those disagreements have been resolved lately."
Taha al-Luheibi, spokesman for the Dialogue Council, a member of the main Sunni coalition, said the record suggested that Chalabi will not be content with a minor role. "His ambition last year was to be prime minister. ... Now, he's looking to be the same thing, or at least to be a minister."
(McClatchy correspondents Ahmed Mukhtar, Shatha al-Awsy and Zaineb Obeid contributed to this report.)