BAGHDAD — Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial, ubiquitous Iraqi politician and one-time Bush administration favorite, has re-emerged as a central figure in the latest U.S. strategy for Iraq.
His latest job: To press Iraq's central government to use early security gains from the surge to deliver better electricity, health, education and local security services to Baghdad neighborhoods. That's the next phase of the surge plan. Until now, the U.S. military, various militias, insurgents and some U.S. backed groups have provided those services without great success.
That the U.S. and Iraqi officials are again turning to Chalabi, this time to restore life to Baghdad neighborhoods, speaks to his resiliency in this nascent government. It's also, some say, his latest effort to promote himself as a true national advocate for everyday Iraqis.
Chalabi, in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, provided White House and Pentagon officials and journalists with a stream of bogus or exaggerated intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs and ties to terrorism. He also suggested that he'd lead Iraq to make peace with Israel and welcome permanent U.S. military bases, which could apply pressure to Iran and Syria.
But Chalabi's proven a resilient politician since then and Iraqis yearn for someone who can make the government help them. In sermons in the holy Shiite city of Najaf and in Sunni newspapers alike, Iraqis here often reject their central government, saying it has done nothing for them since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Instead, the government's critics say, local tribal leaders and residents rejuvenated neighborhoods by pushing fighters out and securing the streets.
U.S. officials maintain that it's up to the central government to provide Iraqis with longer-term stability. Iraqis agree, especially when it comes to services beyond the capability of neighborhood councils, such as providing electricity, bringing doctors back into neighborhoods, establishing and paying a police force and building a school system, Traditionally, Iraq's central government delivered these services.
"The key is going to be getting the concerned local citizens — and all the citizens — feeling that this government is reconnected with them," Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander here, said Saturday. Chalabi "agrees with that."
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki named Chalabi as head of the services committee, a consortium of eight service ministries and two Baghdad municipal posts, that is tasked with bringing services to Baghdad, the heart of the surge plan.
Chalabi "is an important part of the process," said Col. Steven Boylan, Petraeus' spokesman. "He has a lot of energy."
Unless the government steps in, U.S. military commanders stationed in small outposts throughout Baghdad fear their rebuilding programs and other efforts to weaken one-time al Qaida and militia bastions will collapse as soon as troops leave. If that happens, those groups will dominate the neighborhoods again, they say.
Lt. Col. Ken Adgie, of National Park, N.J., commander of the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Stewart, Ga., is in charge of securing Arab Jabour, a southern Sunni Baghdad neighborhood long under al Qaida control.
With no U.S. or Iraqi forces in this almost exclusively Sunni neighborhood since the fall of Saddam's regime, al Qaida controlled it, in part, by rationing food and electricity to the residents.
Adgie's troops now are building a health care facility, securing water supplies and working with local concerned residents to secure the area's main street, which is lined with a handful of mud shack stores.
"Right now, it's a Band-Aid. ...But boy it would be nice if we got the government's help," Adgie said. "We refuse to let al Qaida creep back in. ...You can't let up. It's slow constant pressure."
So far, the central government has not been effective. On Saturday, Petraeus traveled to Arab Jabour with Chalabi, their first trip together to a Baghdad neighborhood since Chalabi's new posting. During the trip, Col. Terry Ferrell, 2nd brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division described where he wants to see a new health care facility. Chalabi chimed in: "Where is the Health Ministry in this?"
"That's your job," Petraeus replied.
And as Chalabi tried to assure the residents of Arab Jabour that the government would help, they told him they had heard it before. So far, the vice president, the governor of Baghdad and a top Iraqi police commander have traveled to Arab Jabour promising to deliver 200 police officers. None have shown up.
"We made life better here, not the government," said Abdul Raziq al Jabouri, a newly-named security officer in Arab Jabour. "If we had waited for the government we would have been gone by now. We are not waiting. We don't expect anything."
So Chalabi has his work cut out for him.
Iraqi politicians have used service ministries to promote themselves before, and some suspect that Chalabi took this post to reach a populace that rejected him in the 2006 election when he won no official seats in the government..
Since the fall of Saddam's regime, Chalabi has held several jobs including deputy prime minister, head of the de-Baathification committee and chairman of several investigative committees.
"I think Ahmad is trying to come back through this committee. But the reality is that there has been no action," said Mithal Alusi, a secular member of the parliament. "We Iraqi don't accept this."
But Chalabi's supporters reject that, saying he is the best suited to work with several ministries. And Hussein al Shaheen, a Chalabi advisor, said the government chose him because "everyone knows he can do it."
As he met with residents of Arab Jabour concerned about security and basic services, however, it was Chalabi the historian speaking, not Chalabi the ombudsman.
He reminded them that Alexander the Great once traveled through their neighborhood and that, at one point, 600,000 people lived in the area.
"We have a doctor among us," one resident remarked politely.
Minutes later, another muttered: "He cannot help us."