Ahmed Chalabi

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Ahmed Chalabi (1944–), the leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), was born in Iraq to a Shi'ite banking family. He left the country in 1956 and has largely lived in the West since then, but he played an important part in influencing policy against Saddam Hussein and in establishing a post-Saddam government. His loyalties have not been clear, and, while he was once a potential head of an Iraqi government and still leads the INC, he is now isolated and has no official role in the government of Iraq. He is sympathetic to Iran, but is generally thought to be more of an agent of influence than under orders from other people.

The family name was originally a Turkish honorific for a high-ranking merchant, and the family steadily grew in wealth in influence. His great-grandfather was considered tyrannical, but his father, Abdul Hadi Chalabi, was well regarded and influential with the Shi'ite clergy. [1] Abdul was a member of the Council of Ministers of King Faisal II[2] and then President of the Senate. His family left Iraq in 1956 when Saddam took power. After secondary schooling in Britain, he did undergraduate studies in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago.[3]


He taught mathematics at the American University of Beirut from 1971 to 1977. Azmi Hanna, the department chairman, said he was under substantial pressure to leave academia for the family banking business. He also was increasingly involved in Shi'ite and Kurdish politics.[4]

The 1975 Lebanese Civil War had a major impact on his career, as it stopped the pay of professors at the University. He and others continued as volunteers, but he eventually resigned after the department chairman suggested he was consistently late to class due to pressures from his banking and political interests.

Shi'ite identity and Iranian relations

While he had been born Shi'ite, his identity was much strengthened by the 1979 Iranian revolution. The degree to which Chalabi is linked to Iran has always been questionable; the most common interpretation is that he is an "agent of influence" rather than under direct control of the Iranian government. His companies maintained offices in Tehran.

Work and issues in finance

The family had been in banking since 1954, when they set up a Swiss company, Socofi. After the 1958 revolution in Iraq, under the patriarch, Abd el-Hadi al-Chalabi, they moved their business interests to Lebanon, the [[United Arab Emirates], and Switzerland In 1963, when they started started Mebco, or the Middle East Banking Corp, headed by his brother Jawad.[2]

He founded the Petra Bank in Jordan in 1978. According to Ali Allawi, (not to be confused with Ayad Allawi, but a nephew of Chalabi[5]), the Jordanian officials became hostile to Petra, de to a combination of reduced expatriate remittances, the drop of Iraqi expenditures caused by the end of the Iran-Iraq War, and "ill considered and draconian measures deployed by the Central Bank of Jordan to reduce liquidity in the banking system and to stave off a collapse in the Jordanian dinar". Allawi said the Petra affair was always to affect his reputation. [6]

His daughter Tamara wrote that he challenged the means by which Iraq was financing purchases for the Iran-Iraq War via the Italian Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL) and U.S. loan guarantees. She said that in 1989, when Petra submitted its financial statements to Jordanian regulators, pro-Saddam officials charged Chalabi with diverting assets, at a time when the Jordanian currency fell due to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The Jordanian military seized the bank in April 1989, and Chalabi fled to Syria. She said it used Arthur Andersen's auditing to redefine the

financial condition of Petra Bank to make it appear insolvent on the date it was seized. Assets of 476 million Jordanian dinars ($541 million) were "revalued" downward to 297 million dinars ($337 million). Later, the bank's liquidators reported a collection rate of over 150% on the bulk of the devalued assets--a recovery rate that in itself shows the revaluation was a ruse.[7]

Hamzeh Haddad, legal advisor to the Central Bank when Petra fell, said Saddam's power vis-a-vis Jordan was such, at the time, that no subterfuge was needed. "If he wanted to crush Chalabi, he had only to ask for it...He had no need to conceal his wishes."[8]

The Guardian reported in 2003 [9] Guardian reporters, however, said the audit report showed assets had been overstated, and there were underreported bad debts: "unsupported foreign currency balances at counter-party banks" (about $20m); and money purportedly due to the bank which could not be found (about $60m). Many of the bank's bad loans were to Chalabi-linked companies. His Swiss and Lebanese firms, Mebco and Socofi, were subsequently liquidated."

Chalabi was sentenced, in absentia, to 22 years imprisonment by a Jordanian court.

1990s and Kurdish resistance

In the early 1990s, after Saddam suppressed the Shi'a in the south, new resistance organizations formed in the Kurdish north. Chalabi's contacts strengthened the Kurdish resistance. Two other organizations contended for U.S. support, especially Ayad Allawi's Iraqi National Accord, with backing from Saudi and British intelligence, and good CIA contacts. Allawi's family had stayed in Iraq after the 1958 revolution, and the young Ayad joined the Ba'ath party. He fell out with Saddam in 1971 and left for London, forming the INA in December 1990, as the Gulf War neared. Ali Allawi said the U.S. was dubious about Chalabi's claim that the INC was the chief resistance organization.[10]

Roston, in a 2008 interview with Harpers magazine, provided additional information. While Chalabi has commonly been associated with neoconservatives, Roston said the first major American supporter of the International Committee for a Free Iraq, founded in 1991, was John McCain. [11] He had known Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, however, since the 1980s, and neoconservatives such as Meyrav Wurmser credit him with helping form their thinking. "Ahmad Chalabi is a hundred times smarter than them", according to Robert Baer, his former CIA case officer and a CIA critic. The Mossad would not work with him. Meyrav Wurmser said that her group, at the time, were too hawkish for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. She found him neither anti-Semitic nor pro-Palestinian. He also gained the support of Max Singer,[12] a conservative thinker influential in Israel. When Singer met with Mossad officials, they told him they were unwilling to work with Chalabi.[13]

In 1992 he helped to found a London-based organization called the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which started with an alliance of the two main Kurdish groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Masud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headed by Jalal Talabani.[14] The first meeting was in June, with an assortment of other opposition groups. A key meeting took place in October, when the major Shi'ite groups joined. Roston said that while he was no military man, he had physical courage necessary to earn Kurdish respect. [15]

The group had a three-member Leadership Council and a 26-member executive council. The former consisted of moderate Shiite Muslim cleric Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum; ex-Iraqi general Hasan Naqib; and Masud Barzani. Although Bahr al-Ulum did not represent the more influential radical Shiite fundamentalists in the opposition, his selection was perceived as more palatable to the United States than the appointment of a fundamentalist.

Chalabi became leader of the Executive. Based at Salahuddin, north of Irbil in the quasi-autonomous Kurdish region, INC had CIA funding from its inception.[16]

1995 attack plan

Chalabi, who had no military experience, tried to form a guerrilla force in 1995, which would attack three cities held by Saddam. CIA case officer Robert Baer informed him that Saddam's intelligence had learned of the plan, and the CIA would not support it. Further, the CIA had learned that Chalabi had forged a document indicating the U.S. planned to assassinate Saddam, and leaked it to Iranian intelligence. Baer speculated that the forgery was intended to draw Iranian support to the INC.[17] Baer could not say how U.S. intelligence learned the Iranians had the forgery, but the Washington Post said that U.S. communications intelligence intercepted an Iranian message containing it. [18]

The attack was tried but was a fiasco. [19] The Dawa Party and other groups broke away from the INC at this time, before warfare broke out between the Kurdish factions in the INC.

Exile to Washington

In August 1996, Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party faction in the INC, invited Saddam into Kurdistan to destroy the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan opposition. The resulting attack by 40,000 troops also captured and killed hundreds of Chalabi's loyalists in Salahuddin; the U.S. evacuated 7,000. He began operating the INC from a townhouse in Washington, D.C., without significant assets in Iraq.[19]

He sought funding for a new effort, befriending Dewey Clarridge, a legendary but forcibly retired CIA operations officer. Clarridge attempted to get Taiwanese funding for the INC, with a future reward of oil access when the INC took over. The funding went nowhere, but Clarridge introduced Chalabi to Wayne Downing, just retired as head of United States Special Operations Command. Downing later lost confidence in Chalabi, partially over Francis Brooke, Chalabi's American assistant. [20]Downing and Clarridge developed a detailed insurgency plan based around the INC, a plan reconsidered in 2001.[21]

In April 1999, he lost the support of Barzani and Talabani, as well as other Iraqi followers. in part over loss of confidence in Brooke and others of his inner circle. He was demoted to INC member, but immediately came to Washington with a new plan to overthrow Saddam.[22]


Chalabi pressed the U.S. to overthrow Saddam even more strongly after the 9-11 attack, speaking to the Defense Advisory Board on the invitation of Richard Perle. He argued for an approach similar to the not-yet-executed approach to Afghanistan: U.S. air and other support to insurgent Iraqis. [23] Chalabi also trained exiles to go into Iraq, although the actual Scorpions (Iraq War) unit was loyal to a different exile and he had little to do with their operations.

In 2000, Baer warned Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz of Chalabi's Iranian ties, but he said they paid no attention. [17]


One of the major justifications for regime change in Iraq was the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam's hands. He had used chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War, and some chemical stockpiles were destroyed by the Coalition after the Gulf War. Biological and nuclear programs also had been underway, but were forbidden by the UN resolutions ending the Gulf War; inspectors did not find hard evidence, but Saddam unquestionably kept the matter vague.

Richard Perle and R. James Woolsey had argued for war, specifically rejecting a coup d'etat because he would be replaced by another military officer. Perle was close to Chalabi and treated him as a source.[24] Woolsey, former Director of Central Intelligence, was one of the Democrats that backed Chalabi. [25]

When Colin Powell made WMD accusations before the UN, he said that he believed, at the time, that he had good intelligence. The intelligence, however, came in large part from Chalabi's group. [26] Chalabi, when asked about the implications of false information, said to the The Telegraph,

"we are heroes in error....As far as we're concerned, we've been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone, and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important."[27]

Iraq War

The Iraqi Freedom Force was a guerrilla force, recruited by Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, recruited to fight in the Iraq War; United States Central Command officers did not trust or want the force. The U.S. did work with Kurdish peshmerga groups with which CIA and U.S. Army Special Forces had long-term relationships.

Three other groups could have added forces: the INC, INA, and Badr Army of the Shi'a SCIRI. INC forces essentially stayed isolated. [28]

Iraqi transitional government

He was part of the Iraqi Leadership Council, formed among the exile groups. Singer, one of his supporters, said "Chalabi's enemies insist that the INC is only an exile group. But that is misleading. The INC was based in northern Iraq from 1992 to 1996, where it demonstrated that an open organization and a free press could find homes in an Arab (and Kurdish) country. It went into exile...[after the US allowed Saddam to attack it]...Despite Saddam's iron grip on what happened in Iraq, the leaders of Iraqi clans and tribes and other traditional groupings maintained active contacts with their members outside. Thus, Sunni tribal leaders were effective participants in the Iraqi political process within the INC...Chalabi's strength comes not from American neoconservatives, but from the widespread support he has among Iraqis not only Shi'a, but Sunni and Kurd and other minorities. Not only among exiles, but among Iraqis in Iraq who have maintained contacts with the exile community."[12]

In January 2004, Chalabi appeared to have the support of George W. Bush, being an invited guest sitting near Laura Bush at the State of the Union Address. Afterwards, however, the President told staff he was unhappy that Chalabi had been given to the seat, and Bush had said he was not going to select the new leadership in Iraq. Powell sometimes thought Chalabi was the greatest problem for the U.S. in Iraq, which was complementary compared to Armitage's opinion. Armitage's reporting from Iraq suggested "most Iraqis thought Chalabi was a knucklehead", and Chalabi had provided inaccurate WMD intelligence. [29]

The Telegraph said that L. Paul Bremer told them that when George W. Bush read Chalabi's statement, the President ordered the U.S. to distance itself from Chalabi. Chalabi denies having said it. Given that Jay Garner complained on how CPA de-Ba'athification had been imposed by Washington, to the detriment of his plans for rebuilding infrastructure, was "...setting up to pay the civil servants and the police and the pensioners,"[30] Chalabi's assertion that the CPA gave Ba'athists power is unlikely.

United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who was the finance chair for the Iraqi Governing Council, recommended that Chalabi not be given any role in the Iraqi government after the 30 June 2004 transition to sovereignty.[2]

Also in 2004, Chalabi was accused of telling Iran that the U.S. could read some of its secret communications. [18]

In May 2004, the U.S. cut off the $335,000 allowance to the INC, which had come from the Defense Intelligence Agency for assistance in intelligence collection. [31] Paul Wolfowitz testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the cutoff was a result of "the decision to withdraw the INC's funding was "made in light of the process of transferring sovereignty to the Iraqi people. We felt it was no longer appropriate for us to continue funding in that fashion...There's been some very valuable intelligence that's been gathered through that process that's been very valuable to our forces". [3]

The day afterwards, however, Iraqi police and U.S. troops searched his home and office, arresting two of his staff. [32] The Coalition said it involved an investigation of "suspected fraud in a government ministry." Chalabi himself was not charged. He claimed it was ordered by Ba'athists who control the Iraqi police, and are protected by the Coalition Provisional Authority; he blamed L. Paul Bremer, saying it was the "penultimate act of failure of the CPA in Iraq...My message to CPA is let my people go...Let my people be free. We are grateful to President Bush for liberating Iraq but it is time for Iraqi people to run their affairs."

Danielle Pletka, of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote that the US betrayed him. [33]

Current status

In the most recent election, the INC won no seats in the legislature, but Chalabi is still visible, highly guarded, and involved in internal politics. After the poor showing in April, he suggested he might ally with the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance, although he claimed sectarianism is blocking Iraqi political development. [34]


  1. Aram Roston (2008), The Man Who Pushed America to War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi, Nation Books, ISBN 9781568583532, pp. 9-11.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 John Dizard (4 May 2004), "How Ahmed Chalabi conned the neocons", Salon.com
  3. 3.0 3.1 Lennox Samuels (June 25, 2009), "‘An Honor I Do Not Claim’" Ahmad Chalabi on his role in Iraq and on the U.S. withdrawal.", Newsweek Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Newsweek" defined multiple times with different content
  4. Roston, pp. 24-26
  5. Alan Weisman (2007), Prince of Darkness: Richard Perle; the Kingdom, the Power, and the End of Empire in America, Union Square, ISBN 140275230X, p. 243
  6. Ali Allawi (2007), The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, Yale University Press, ISBN 9780300110159, pp. 41-42
  7. Tamara Chalabi (August 7, 2003), "The Petra Bank Scandal: Jordan slandered my father at Saddam's behest", Wall Street Journal
  8. John Dizard (May 4, 2004), "The implosion of Chalabi's Petra Bank", Salon.com
  9. David Leigh and Brian Whitaker (14 April 2003), "Financial scandal claims hang over leader in waiting: Pentagon's choice to succeed Saddam was found guilty over $200m bank losses", The Guardian
  10. Allawi, p. 42
  11. Scott Horton (19 March 2008), "Six Questions for Aram Roston, Author of The Man Who Pushed America to War", Harpers (magazine)
  12. 12.0 12.1 Max Singer (14 April 2003), "The Chalabi Factor: A strength and threat", National Review
  13. Roston, pp. 134-138
  14. Iraqi National Congress, Globalsecurity
  15. Roston, pp. 101-102
  16. Dilip Hiro (2001), Neighbors, Not Friends: Iraq and Iran after the Gulf Wars, Routledge, ISBN 0415254124, p. 83
  17. 17.0 17.1 Julian Borger (5 June 2004), "Pentagon accused of ignoring CIA evidence of Chalabi's link to Iran", The Guardian
  18. 18.0 18.1 Walter Pincus and Bradley Graham (4 June 2004), "Coded Cable In 1995 Used Chalabi's Name Intercepted Iranian Message Involved Plot to Kill Hussein", Washington Post Staff Writers
  19. 19.0 19.1 Jane Mayer (June 7, 2004), "The Manipulator: Ahmad Chalabi pushed a tainted case for war. Can he survive the occupation?", New Yorker
  20. Roston, pp. 126-130
  21. Attacking Iraq - Downing Plan / Afghan Model, Globalsecurity
  22. Hiro, pp. 171-172
  23. Michael R. Gordon, Bernard E. Trainor (2006), COBRA II: the inside story of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Pantheon, ISBN 0375422625, p. 27
  24. James Mann (2004), Rise of the Vulcans: the History of Bush's War Cabinet, Viking, ISBN 0670032990, p. 334
  25. Seymour Hersh (May 12, 2003), "Annals of National Security, Selective Intelligence: Donald Rumsfeld has his own special sources. Are they reliable?", New Yorker
  26. David Corn (05/17/2004), "Powell Admits False WMD Claim", The Nation
  27. "Telegraph interview that swayed the president", The Telegraph, 11 Jan 2006
  28. Allawi, pp. 89-90
  29. Woodward, pp. 432-433
  30. , Interview: Lt. General (ret.) Jay Garner"The Lost Year in Iraq", PBS Frontline, Aug. 11, 2006
  31. Richard A. Oppel Jr. (May 18, 2004), "U.S. to Halt Payments to Iraqi Group Headed by a Onetime Pentagon Favorite", New York Times
  32. "Chalabi blames Ba'athists for raid", CNN, May 20, 2004
  33. Danielle Pletka (June 4, 2004), "U.S. Only Wounded Itself When It Betrayed Chalabi", Los Angeles Times
  34. Daniel Graber (23 April 2009), "Chalabi blasts sectarianism; Petraeus warns of Afghan challenges", United Press International