A reporter remembers Ahmad Chalabi, the man who never ruled Iraq

Ahmad Chalabi with victims of a suicide bomber in Musayyib, Iraq, July 18, 2005. Chalabi was a rare Iraqi politician, who lived outside the U.S.-protected Green Zone and traveled to danger zones.
Ahmad Chalabi with victims of a suicide bomber in Musayyib, Iraq, July 18, 2005. Chalabi was a rare Iraqi politician, who lived outside the U.S.-protected Green Zone and traveled to danger zones. Tribune News Service

The day after Christmas in 2006, Iraq War mastermind Ahmad Chalabi and I were at his compound in Baghdad squabbling over which insurgents were nastier: Sunni Muslim jihadists who blew up markets full of civilians or Shiite Muslim militiamen who were known for torturing innocents to death with power drills?

I was McClatchy’s Baghdad bureau chief and had known Chalabi for years. We frequently had such debates, and it was easy to back down against such a formidable personality, but this time I held firm in my argument that the militants were equally dangerous because of their shared habit of slaughtering civilians. He disagreed.

“I’ll believe that when Shiites start chopping off heads!” said Chalabi, a secular Shiite.

“Well, we still don’t know what happened to those Crescent Security guys,” I shot back, referring to four Americans and an Austrian whose fates were unknown after having been seized by Shiite militiamen in southern Iraq.

Chalabi insisted that the men were alive. Yeah, right, I told him. Prove it.

Chalabi opened a laptop, cued up an amateur video and pressed play. I felt my stomach turn to knots as the missing Crescent Security men introduced themselves one by one, the first proof of life since their capture. The video had languished on Chalabi’s computer for nearly a month while desperate families in Kansas, Florida, California, Minnesota and Austria prayed for word of the men’s safety.

“Have you shown the Americans?” I asked Chalabi.

“Nobody’s asked,” he replied with a shrug.

Chalabi died of an apparent heart attack Tuesday at home in Baghdad. He was 71. He never saw his lifelong dream of ruling Iraq, though until his death he remained a don-like presence on the Iraqi political scene, a result of his singular skill in cultivating alliances – even across sectarian lines – and his seemingly bottomless coffers. A top Kurdish leader once told me that Chalabi was the only real politician in the country. As the hostage-video debacle showed, Americans wrote him off or underestimated him to their detriment.

And yet perhaps no man had more lasting influence on American foreign policy than Chalabi, whose faulty intelligence Bush administration war boosters used to sell Americans on an ill-planned invasion whose legacy we see today in the Islamic State and the de facto partitioning of Iraq.

Like other reporters in Baghdad, I’d chronicled Chalabi’s operatic relationship with his American handlers, the stories of intrigue and betrayal, of dustups and makeups, but the hostage video episode seemed to me indicative of a deep, irreparable break in relations.

With a handful of exceptions, Chalabi once told me, he was no longer on speaking terms with the Americans who were early supporters of his push to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It was a stunning outcome for a man who’d been derided across the majority-Sunni Arab world as the Americans’ Shiite lapdog, their handpicked heir to Saddam, a prototype Western-friendly Arab leader with bonus points for flawless English and mathematics degrees from MIT and the University of Chicago.

“If only they had just left. If only they hadn’t stayed on as occupiers,” Chalabi would say whenever we discussed his ruined relationship with the Americans.

I once accompanied Chalabi, then deputy prime minister, on a visit to a power plant on the outskirts of Baghdad. At the site, a Texan engineer in a John Deere cap and cowboy boots spoke to him slowly and loudly, in the way some Americans address foreigners who struggle with English. Chalabi listened calmly to the carefully enunciated syllables, then shot back with a stream of jargon-laced observations that made the engineer’s eyes widen.

“So, can we see the turbines now?” Chalabi finished with a grin.

“Absolutely,” the humbled Texan replied.

Scenes like that made it a joy to cover Chalabi. There simply was no other Iraqi politician as suave and sophisticated, or as maddening. He was a witty and brilliant peacock, albeit with a menacing swagger.

To reporters, he offered a constant stream of leads on what sounded like scoops; perhaps half of them panned out. He always bristled at his reputation for providing bogus intelligence (his stance was that he simply provided sources and the vetting was up to the Americans) though he has acknowledged, in his own wry way, his fall from grace.

One time, Chalabi mentioned that he was reading “The Orientalist,” the biography of a Russian Jew who masqueraded as a Muslim prince early last century. He seemed fascinated by the fabulist at the heart of the story. One literary critic wrote of the character: “Inventing and reinventing himself, he left a confused and perplexing trail.” I included all of that in a profile of Chalabi and braced myself for an angry phone call. None came. Chalabi loved the piece.

After his break with the Americans, Chalabi grew much closer to the Iranian-Syrian axis. He would regale me with stories about Iranian spymaster Qassem Suleimani just to hear me ask him to arrange a meeting. He always said he was “working on it.”

One day, an aide called to invite me to accompany Chalabi on a trip to Syria to meet President Bashar Assad. I had to dash out and buy a suit from an Iraqi market because I had no business attire with me. In the end, that trip, too, was scuttled with no explanation.

One of the main Iraqi criticisms of Chalabi is that he orchestrated land grabs, seizing prime real estate across Baghdad through his manipulation of government property agencies as well as through brute force. Chalabi always described the moves as “reclaiming” land that Saddam had confiscated from his aristocratic Shiite family.

It was easy to see why Chalabi coveted the estates – they were elegant oases from the ugliness of the war. One was a pagoda-style villa – “the Chinese house,” in Arabic – that U.S. forces ransacked during a probe into allegations of counterfeiting and kidnapping. The Americans also had accused Chalabi of passing secrets to Iran. The media-savvy Chalabi responded by calling up the Western press corps and holding a news conference amid the wreckage at the pagoda house.

My favorite of Chalabi’s properties was the farm estate that his father built in 1934. On summertime visits, I’ve spotted government ministers who publicly criticized Chalabi cooling off in the turquoise waters of his estate’s swimming pool. The compound also is home to a trove of paintings from Iraq’s national collection of modern art (Chalabi assured me he was just “keeping the art safe” from looters and extremists) and a traditional mudhif, a hut made of reeds from the famous marshes of southern Iraq. Rooms at the farm, as at his other properties, were adorned with “baghdadiyat,” Iraqi collectibles that would make an antiques lover swoon.

No other Iraqi politician I encountered expressed such a broad and abiding love for Iraq – he could spend hours talking about the art and the cuisine and the architecture and the music. Most Iraqi politicians lived under U.S. protection inside the fortress-like Green Zone and almost never ventured outside its gates. Chalabi, however, lived in the city, protected by his personal guard force, and crisscrossed the country whenever he felt like it.

I tagged along on many of these journeys over the years, and they were no small production. They involved convoys of Chalabi’s most loyal bodyguards traversing bomb-dotted roads at breakneck speed. Chalabi survived countless assassination attempts on these trips, including one ambush with his daughter as a passenger. Along with the personal fear that preceded each Chalabi adventure, I would find myself thinking what an ignoble end it would be to go down with one of the greatest con men of modern times.

But not for a second did I think about declining. After all, what other Iraqi politician would hear of a massive bombing in the southern town of Musayyib and decide to check it out even before the flames had been extinguished?

The Musayyib trek was particularly interesting because Chalabi brought along his house guest, Fouad Ajami, the controversial Arab intellectual and supporter of the Iraq War who died last year. The men delighted in each others’ company, skewering American politicians and pundits. They cracked each other up by targeting Middle East scholar and war critic Juan Cole: “Juan Cole rhymes with asshole!” They also bopped around to Lebanese and Spanish pop music, making for one of my most surreal moments in Iraq.

The mood was somber once we reached the blood-spattered bombing site. The stench of death filled the hospital, where Chalabi checked on the maimed and burned survivors. Residents and local authorities swarmed Chalabi, the only Baghdad politician who dared to make such a risky trip, demanding better security. Dusk was coming and Chalabi’s guards said it was time to go before the road to Baghdad got too dark.

We all scrambled toward the cars but I noticed Chalabi lagging behind. He’d stopped to take in a spectacular view of date palms along the shimmering Euphrates River. Chalabi’s crimes loom large, but his punishment was not small. That moment in Musayyib is how I’ll remember him, watching the sun set over the land he would never rule.

Hannah Allam, McClatchy’s foreign affairs correspondent, was Baghdad bureau chief from 2003 to 2006 and has returned to Iraq many times since.

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam