While Chalabi has long aimed — but always failed — to lead Iraq, his latest bid has a better chance to succeed because the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has been crippled by the stunning loss of a third of Iraq’s territory to Sunni militants.
“I think he’s got a decent shot,” said a former U.S. official who played a leading role in Iraq.
Chalabi’s representative in Washington, D.C., Francis Brooke, did not confirm or deny that Chalabi will put his name forward for prime minister. But in an email, he said that candidates other than Maliki “may emerge; may the best man win.”
Before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Chalabi, a failed banker and former mathematician who lived in exile, became notorious for his influence in Washington among neoconservatives. Funded by the U.S. government itself, Chalabi’s group lobbied the successive American administrations to topple Saddam Hussein, pitching false stories about Hussein’s purported ties to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. When the U.S. invaded, Chalabi’s neoconservative allies in the administration of President George W. Bush thought Chalabi would sweep into power like an Iraqi Charles de Gaulle. But the Bush administration never put him in charge of Iraq. And as the extent of his ties to Iran became clear, many of his American allies divorced themselves from him.
But even with that history, United States officials have been openly meeting him once again. Recently, it was Deputy Secretary of State Brett McGurk and U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Robert Beecroft, as first reported in the New York Times. A State Department spokeswoman emailed Buzzfeed that after Dr. Chalabi requested the meeting, McGurk and Beecroft met with Chalabi “as they have with other Iraqis to discuss the current situation in the country.” Beecroft, sources tell Buzzfeed, has been meeting Chalabi for months and has dined at his mansion in Baghdad.
Because of the lightning-fast offensive by Islamists over the past week, the immediate crisis in Iraq seems military, and President Barack Obama is sending 300 Special Forces troops to advise Iraqi forces and is contemplating air strikes. But the central issue in Iraq is political. The military crisis stems from Sunni grievances that, far from resolving, Maliki’s policies have actually exacerbated.
Chalabi, like others, has been maneuvering to topple Maliki for years, though he hasn’t ever managed to come close in elections. If Chalabi has a chance now, the reason has little to do with him or democracy in Iraq. It’s about Maliki.
In April, Maliki’s political party won a large plurality, which would give the prime minister a third term in office. But Maliki is despised by Sunnis, Kurds, and even many of his fellow Shiites. And the recent invasion, led by the Islamist group ISIS but joined by other Sunni factions, has undercut his main appeal. As the former American official put it, “Maliki ran on a security platform, and the security platform has blown up in Mosul,” a city seized by Sunni militants.
To become prime minister, Chalabi would have to win a vote in the Iraqi parliament, which is divided largely along tribal, ethnic, and religious lines. “The Kurds will be with him, the Sunnis, and 75 percent of the Shiites will be with him,” claimed one of his Iraqi supporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It will be a challenge for Chalabi to persuade Sunni factions that he can ease their frustrations. After all, he was the inventor of “de-Baathification.” Patterned on “de-Nazification,” this was a process used after the American invasion to keep Sunnis, out of government. Not only did Chalabi invent the word, but he was the man put in charge of the process.
Also, he’s been at the forefront of divisive Shiite politics since the invasion. He set up a Shiite voting bloc called “Shia house,” or Beit al-Shia, in 2003, to unify Shiite influence. At times he has allied himself with Muqtada al-Sadr, the heir to one line of Shiite clerics, and at other times with the Ammar al-Hakim, another Shiite religious leader.
Now, Chalabi is reportedly ready to disavow de-Baathification. The Iraqi ally of his said that some important Sunni leaders will support Chalabi “because they don’t have any other choice! Who are they going to go for?”
Chalabi has plenty of other baggage. Back in the 1980s, before he was an activist against Saddam Hussein, Chalabi and his family ran a worldwide banking network, in Jordan, Lebanon, Switzerland and Washington. It crashed amidst a series of insider loans.
Yet he may have remade himself again.
His most famous feat was to play Washington against itself and win the support of the neocons in the Bush administration. Could he now win the power he’s always wanted under Obama?
“It’s Iraq,” said a former CIA official, “Anything could happen.”
Aram Roston wrote a book about Ahmad Chalabi, The Man Who Pushed America to War.”