America, Iraq and the Legacy of Ahmad Chalabi

November 5, 2015
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Ahmed Chalabi, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, May 5, 2010. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

My first meeting with Ahmad Chalabi was 16 years ago. I was working on a story about what was then a little known organization — Al Qaeda — and the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. A colleague suggested that Chalabi had something to say about the plot. Back then, he was spending most of his time in Washington making the rounds between Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department and the White House. He was trying to convince anyone who would listen that Saddam Hussein was a grave threat to the United States and that America needed to do everything it could do to topple his regime.

I set up a dinner meeting. By the time Chalabi arrived, two hours late, he told me he had already eaten someplace else.

I ordered my meal and listened while he talked. “The African embassy bombings were the work of Saddam,” he said confidently. I remember thinking this was a pretty far-out claim. By then, I was pretty immersed in the story and no one among the government investigators I had spoken to had suggested that the bombings were linked to the Iraqi dictator in any way.

But Chalabi, a political exile from Iraq, insisted. It had to be Hussein, he explained, because no one else could have moved the necessary explosives and arranged for the sophisticated, simultaneous bombings that killed more than 200 people. I pressed him for evidence and leads, but he was evasive and vague. Looking back now, this was vintage Chalabi — aloof and supremely self-confident. I left the meeting with nothing to go on.

After that, Chalabi fell off my radar for the next few years, but he stayed busy, pressing his case to top-level U.S. officials at the Pentagon, CIA and the vice president’s office at every opportunity. After 9/11, his efforts intensified. He told anyone who would listen that his evidence was solid.

The story is now well known: Ahmed Chalabi was instrumental in convincing the U.S. government to send troops into Iraq. For Chalabi, who died Tuesday at the age of 71, this will be his lasting legacy. Perhaps the Bush administration would have found other reasons had he not obliged, but as it was, Chalabi was the administration’s favorite Iraqi. In the march to war, it was Chalabi that provided the administration with the key rationale it sought to justify the invasion — even if the intelligence was deeply flawed.

I saw Chalabi for a second time in 2003 on the heels of the U.S. invasion. I met him at the Baghdad Hunting Club, where he was setting up the new headquarters of his Iraqi National Congress party. The place was swarming with journalists, spies and returning Iraqi ex-pats. The Iraqis reminisced about how they hadn’t seen the place since they were kids coming for dance lessons and birthday parties. The journalists, meanwhile, lined up for chances to talk to the man himself, Chalabi.

I took my turn and interviewed him on a veranda as other reporters looked on. Chalabi was gloating, reveling in the glory of a returning hero. The conversation didn’t reveal much, other than his pride at what he had helped accomplish — the overthrow of Hussein.

When I returned a couple months later, no weapons of mass destruction had been found and the early euphoria around the invasion had devolved into looting and death. I interviewed Chalabi over two days in late July 2003 for my FRONTLINE documentary, Truth, War & Consequencesand confronted him on the evidence he provided to the Bush administration and to editors and reporters, including some at The New York Times and FRONTLINE. Most memorable was his blithe dismissal of any concern that he might have misrepresented anything. “We are in Baghdad now,” is what he told me.

Later in the interview, I asked Chalabi about his contention that Hussein and Al Qaeda were connected. He claimed to have a document showing money changing hands between Hussein’s government and Al Qaeda, but after repeated requests, I was never shown such a document.

I traveled to Iraq many more times over the next 10 years, but I didn’t bother looking Chalabi up again until last year.

I was in Iraq to cover the rise of ISIS, and at the time, there were frequent car bomb attacks as ISIS was doing its best to terrorize the capital after seizing much of Iraq’s north. A lot of time had passed and I thought perhaps I could learn more from Chalabi — perhaps time and all the intervening bloodshed would have sobered the man. Certainly things didn’t turn out as he had hoped. He never became the country’s prime minister, the job he long sought. I called him up and he agreed to receive me on his father’s date farm on the outskirts of Baghdad.

I thought the meeting might be short, but then he sat for more than 90 minutes into the late afternoon and patiently answered questions. While we were served coffee and fancy chocolates, we talked about many things. He seemed to enjoy the opportunity. I recall thinking he seemed lonely and that he liked the chance to reminisce and hold forth.

By this point, he was critical of the U.S., and of the prime minister at that time, Nouri al Maliki. Chalabi, a Shiite, was also weary of Saudi Arabian meddling in Iraq through its support for Sunni militants.

It was widely reported that Chalabi was attempting another run at the prime minister spot, and I asked him about it. He denied any such thing. I then turned back to 2003, and asked if he had any regrets about the “evidence” he had provided, and about the role he played in purging the government of thousands of Baathists loyal to the Hussein regime — purges that led to a bitter divides, civil war and eventually, the emergence of ISIS. The gist of what he told me was that the American government misinterpreted what he told them about weapons of mass destruction, and that he had vigorously opposed de-Baathification.

Listening, I realized that this was the same man I had met in 1998 and 2003 — someone so confident that he had right answers for any question. But if he ever had regrets about his role in the invasion, and the years of violence it unleashed, he never voiced them to me.

Before leaving I asked him if he thought ISIS posed a serious threat to Iraq. They were holding about one third of the country, including the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul. He denied there was a threat. Around that time a giant explosion shook the entire room, rattling the doors and windows. He hardly flinched, and with a wave of his hand, dismissed the bomb as if a fly had landed on his arm.

Martin Smith is an Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning documentary filmmaker for FRONTLINE. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Smith has covered the conflict for FRONTLINE with a series of films, including Truth, War and Consequences (2003), Beyond Baghdad (2004), Private Warriors (2005), Gangs of Iraq (2007) and The Rise of ISIS (2014). Smith works with RAINmedia, an independent production company in New York City.

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