BAGHDAD, Iraq—On the fourth anniversary of the war he peddled as a historic liberation campaign, Ahmad Chalabi on Tuesday sat in his fortress-style villa in Baghdad and pondered what might have been and how it all went wrong.
Chalabi, sipping cardamom tea in an elegantly appointed salon, absolved himself of mistakes and insisted he had no regrets. Instead, he recited a litany of missteps he blames on the Bush administration, the U.S. military and newly minted Iraqi politicians who couldn't overcome their "parochial" interests for the good of the nation.
"The war was a success," Chalabi declared, "and the occupation a failure."
Four years and five assassination attempts since he returned from exile alongside U.S. forces, Chalabi, 62, said he's proud that Iraq has an elected government, a constitution approved by the people and an 80-percent debt reduction brokered largely by the United States. But he conceded that those successes are overshadowed by an entrenched insurgency, undisciplined Iraqi forces, an expanding U.S. troop presence and a leadership plagued by sectarian rivalries.
Chalabi prefers not to dwell on the faulty prewar intelligence he pushed on hawkish U.S. leaders or his stewardship of the purges of former Baath party members, which cost thousands of Iraqis their livelihoods just after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
In his account of the war, the beginning of the end was the decision to create a U.S. occupation authority instead of immediately handing the reins to Iraqi opposition leaders such as, say, Chalabi himself. That may have been the plan; the Pentagon airlifted Chalabi and his followers to Nasiriyah on April 6, 2003, where they called themselves Free Iraqi Forces.
"The United States changed its status from liberator to occupier," he said. "We warned them, very strongly, that they would lose the moral high ground in Iraq. They did. The U.S. administration, in my view, is suffering the consequences of this decision."
Other grave errors followed, Chalabi continued, settling into a plush armchair and reaching for his favorite snack—a nutrient-rich biscuit his chef makes from Tibetan goji berries purchased abroad.
On the American side, he said, there was the "incompetence" of the Coalition Provisional Authority and its "cavalier attitude toward Iraqi funds." Next came the U.S.-appointed transitional government, which he dismissed as "the CIA's dream team and a disaster for Iraq."
U.S. officials, he said, failed to include the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the political process early on and paid dearly for that decision when his Shiite militiamen staged two bloody anti-American uprisings in 2004.
Iraqi politicians share the blame for the country's disarray, Chalabi said. Their sectarian agendas usurped national interests, and corruption spread unchecked. Worse, he said, was the use of state-sponsored violence to settle political disputes between the triumphant Shiite-led government and the nation's disgruntled Sunni minority.
"This escalated sectarian tensions," Chalabi said. "It brought to the forefront extremists who gained credibility with the people."
Chalabi, the scion of wealthy Shiite landowners, is loath to acknowledge the failure of secular politicians like him to capture the hearts of voters in an increasingly conservative Iraq. With the exception of a yearlong stint as deputy prime minister, all his positions came through appointments rather than election. His secular ticket didn't win a single seat in the last parliamentary elections, and Chalabi is keeping mum on whether he'll run again.
"I'm not disenchanted at all," he said. "All this is terrible, it's regrettable, but it was not inevitable. What exists is hope."
Out of the government but still very much a Baghdad insider, Chalabi keeps busy with a newfound focus on humanitarian issues such as the dismal, overcrowded conditions in Iraqi-run prisons and the return of displaced Sunni families to neighborhoods commandeered by Shiite militias.
These are hardly the problems he expected to be dealing with four years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
"Had it gone well? There would be peace in Iraq," he said. "Iraq would've been pumping 3.5 million barrels of oil today. There would be full electricity, massive reconstruction."
And where would Chalabi have fit in that idyllic scenario?
"Where I am," he said with a wide grin. "Sitting in Baghdad."