The cal­cu­lat­ing chameleon

Antony Loewen­stein

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The Man Who Pushed Amer­ica to War By Aram Ros­ton Na­tion Books, 400pp, $ 49.95

AHMED Cha­l­abi, the chameleon­like Iraqi ex­ile who fed bo­gus in­tel­li­gence about weapons of mass de­struc­tion to the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and to will­ing me­dia, told Bri­tain’s The Daily Tele­graph in 2004 that he re­gret­ted noth­ing.

‘‘ We are he­roes in er­ror,’’ he said de­fi­antly. ‘‘ As far as we’re con­cerned, we’ve been en­tirely suc­cess­ful. That tyrant Sad­dam ( Hus­sein) is gone and the Amer­i­cans are in Bagh­dad. What was said be­fore is not im­por­tant. The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion is looking for a scape­goat.’’

Cha­l­abi has been ac­cused of be­ing an Ira­nian agent, the key fig­ure be­hind the Iraqi Gov­ern­ment’s re­cent plan to back Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Barack Obama’s with­drawal timetable from the oc­cu­pied coun­try and of align­ing him­self, as a sec­u­lar man, with Shia cleric Mo­q­tada al- Sadr.

For­mer UN weapons in­spec­tor Scott Rit­ter re­calls meet­ing Cha­l­abi in Wash­ing­ton in 1998 and be­ing shown a doc­u­ment drafted by the USbacked Iraqi Na­tional Congress that con­sid­ered in­stalling Cha­l­abi in Iraq as a vi­able po­lit­i­cal al­ter­na­tive to the dic­ta­tor.

‘‘ Cha­l­abi’s plan struck me as sim­plis­tic at best and en­tirely un­re­al­is­tic,’’ Rit­ter wrote ear­lier this year. Alas, an eerily sim­i­lar plan even­tu­ally be­came the White House’s strat­egy for over­throw­ing the once- feted ally.

In 2006, Cha­l­abi told The New York Times that he blamed the roar­ing in­sur­gency in Iraq on the Amer­i­cans for not hand­ing over con­trol to Iraqis as soon as they had de­posed Sad­dam in 2003. He al­ways blamed ev­ery­body but him­self.

In The Man Who Pushed Amer­ica to War, Emmy award- winning jour­nal­ist Aram Ros­ton has un­der­taken to ex­plain this man, a maths ge­nius and for­mer diplo­mat, banker and fraud­ster. Cha­l­abi re­fused to co- op­er­ate with his ef­forts. At times the writ­ing is dis­arm­ingly con­ver­sa­tional, but the jour­ney reads more like a less- than- be­liev­able thriller.

Born to a wealthy Shia mer­chant fam­ily in 1944, ‘‘ when the Bri­tish still qui­etly pulled the strings in Iraq’’, Cha­l­abi was the last of his par­ent’s nine chil­dren. In the 1950s, Iraq’s prime min­is­ter Nuri as- Said was sup­ported by the US in its global bat­tle against com­mu­nism. Bru­tal­ity against the Iraqi regime’s in­ter­nal en­e­mies was ex­treme, but the Cha­l­abi fam­ily wasn’t op­posed to it; they were more con­cerned about los­ing in­flu­ence in the new world of Arab na­tion­al­ism.

Cha­l­abi stud­ied at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy — one of his men­tors, War­ren Am­brose, was po­lit­i­cally aligned with Noam Chom­sky — and he ex­celled in math­e­mat­ics. Af­ter work­ing in Beirut as an aca­demic, he helped found Pe­tra Bank: years later, he was con­victed and sen­tenced in ab­sen­tia for bank fraud by a Jor­da­nian court, though he claimed the charges were po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.

It wasn’t un­til the late ’ 80s — Ros­ton adroitly ques­tions Cha­l­abi’s op­po­si­tion to Sad­dam and notes his will­ing­ness to pro­vide loans to busi­nesses do­ing deals in Iraq — that the chameleon adopted a new per­sona. He be­friended sev­eral prom­i­nent US jour­nal­ists — in­clud­ing The New York Times re­porter Ju­dith Miller, who pub­lished nu­mer­ous false sto­ries about Sad­dam through the years — and one of the key jobs of the INC be­came fun­nelling sto­ries to the me­dia. Cha­l­abi found politi­cians and me­dia re­cep­tive, as Sad­dam moved in the ’ 90s from hero to vil­lain.

The pic­ture of Cha­l­abi that emerges is of a man pos­sessed of in­cred­i­ble charisma, able to smoothly milk the post- Septem­ber 11 angst and the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fo­cus on de­pos­ing Sad­dam. Amid Amer­i­can un­ease over ter­ror­ism, the INC, re­garded at that stage by the CIA as wholly un­re­li­able, took its rea­sons and rec­om­men­da­tion for in­va­sion to will­ing mem­bers of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. ( Cha­l­abi had backed John McCain for pres­i­dent in 2000, con­sid­er­ing him more sup­port­ive of his aims.)

Since 2003, Cha­l­abi has shown an amaz­ing abil­ity to res­cue suc­cess from the jaws of de­feat. De­spite his pa­thetic show­ing in the 2005 Iraqi elec­tions, last year he was ap­pointed by Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al- Ma­liki to head the Iraqi Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, which is in charge of the ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties for re­viv­ing life in Bagh­dad. His for­tunes are on the rise once more.

One thing re­mains un­ex­plained in the con­text of Cha­l­abi’s re­la­tion­ship with lead­ing US neo­con­ser­va­tives: whether the Pen­tagon — in­clud­ing for­mer de­fence sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld, for­mer deputy de­fence sec­re­tary Paul Wol­fowitz and for­mer un­der­sec­re­tary of de­fence for pol­icy Dou­glas Feith — planned to ap­point Cha­l­abi as ruler of Iraq soon af­ter Sad­dam’s fall. Feith, re­cently spruik­ing a book de­fend­ing the in­va­sion, claimed that there was never a plan to do this.

One thing is cer­tain, how­ever. Cha­l­abi will in­evitably play a key role in the fu­ture of Iraq, with or without US per­mis­sion. Antony Loewen­stein is the au­thor of The Blog­ging Revo­lu­tion, pub­lished by Mel­bourne Uni­ver­sity Pub­lish­ing this month.

Man of many roles: Ahmed Cha­l­abi with tribal leaders in Na­jaf; he was once re­put­edly favoured by the Pen­tagon as ruler of Iraq

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