WASHINGTON — Of all the Bush administration's missteps in Iraq, the worst may have been listening to Ahmad Chalabi.
The former Iraqi exile fed the administration bogus intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs and ties to international terrorism. He encouraged an invasion with fewer troops that U.S. generals wanted by assuring Americans they would be greeted as liberators and that entire Iraqi army units would surrender. He urged the administration to purge members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from the police, the military and the government, creating a security vacuum quickly filled by violent insurgency.
The graphic scandal in Iraq's prisons has so far eclipsed the Chalabi story. But his influence on the administration's case for war, its plan for war and its planning for postwar Iraq could prove to be an even more damaging scandal than the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by the U.S. military.
Much of what Chalabi said before, during and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq has turned out to be wrong, and one of his top aides is now accused of supplying U.S. intelligence to Iran.
That doesn't mean Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress are responsible for a war that's claimed 970 American lives and thousands of Iraqi ones. The administration didn't need much encouragement to declare war on Saddam, and its goals 'remaking the Middle East, reducing America's dependence on Saudi Arabia, demonstrating a new doctrine of pre-emptive war' were far more ambitious than Chalabi's desire to oust Saddam.
Yes, Chalabi went out of his way to lobby the administration to expand its war on terrorism to Iraq. But officials in Vice President Dick Cheney's and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's offices and on the staff of the National Security Council went out of their way to believe what he told them, despite repeated warnings about him from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department.
"Most of us who have worked this area for a living think Chalabi and the others in their Bond Street suits are really charlatans," one defense official told Knight Ridder in September 2002, as the administration was beginning its campaign to build public and congressional support for invading Iraq.
If Chalabi didn't talk the administration into invading Iraq, his dubious intelligence underpinned much of its case for war, and his prediction about how Iraqis would greet American troops encouraged Pentagon civilians to spurn advice from their own generals about how many and what kind of troops it would take to secure Iraq. Among the troops the Pentagon left out were sufficient numbers of military police.
Chalabi's assurances that he had a secret network of allies inside and outside Iraq, meanwhile, encouraged Pentagon planners to ignore a State Department effort to prepare for a post-Saddam Iraq. Instead, Pentagon officials assumed that with their help, Chalabi, a Shiite Muslim like 60 percent of Iraq's population, could assemble a new government and get the battered country back on its feet.
Chalabi, however, turned out to be a divider, not a uniter, and allegations of corruption further damaged his credibility among Iraqis. In one poll this year, Chalabi finished behind Saddam. As a result, when American troops were greeted by improvised explosives and rocket-propelled grenades rather than rose petals, and when Chalabi's return from 46 years in exile was less than triumphant, the administration was unprepared to cope with a widespread insurgency and political chaos.
Why did Chalabi and the INC's defectors, despite the warnings about them, as well as several troubling polygraph tests, get such a ready hearing in the Pentagon and the White House? There were four main reasons, said senior military and intelligence officials and diplomats who tried in vain to debunk Chalabi's information:
"Chalabi told people in high places what they already believed - that Saddam was hiding weapons of mass destruction and that he might give them to (Osama) bin Laden," said one intelligence official.
-The CIA had little or no good intelligence and few human sources of its own to debunk what Chalabi's defectors said. Moreover, Chalabi's allies in and around the Bush administration 'trusted him more than they trusted the CIA,' said one U.S. intelligence official.
- Chalabi had cultivated the friendship of key legislators, neoconservative leaders and journalists. Providing his defectors to reporters and columnists as well as to the Defense Intelligence Agency helped create the illusion that there were multiple sources of the same information.
- Chalabi's rosy postwar scenario sidestepped the hard questions raised by the State Department and others that might have undermined public support for invading Iraq.
Now Chalabi is biting the hand that fed him, denouncing the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq in an attempt to woo the popular support that so far has eluded him.
The administration is trying to explain why its case for war was so flawed, battling an insurgency it never expected, reversing its "de-Baathification" policy and investigating whether Chalabi's security chief passed U.S. intelligence to Iran - and if he did, who gave it to him.
Relations between Chalabi and the United States have so soured that last Thursday Iraqi police, backed by U.S. soldiers, raided Chalabi's Baghdad home and offices and confiscated documents and computers.
On Sunday, Chalabi mounted an all-out public relations campaign, appearing on four talk shows to defend himself and criticize a U.S. mission he once helped set in motion. He blamed the raid and the accusations of links to Iran on CIA Director George Tenet and called on Congress to conduct an investigation.
He also denounced the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
"Americans were greeted as liberators," Chalabi said on ABC. "The liberation was easy and successful. The occupation is a failure." He said U.S. officials "did not listen that they should not do occupation because they would lose the moral high ground and they did that and the troubles started then."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report from Washington.)