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Worldview: Chalabi legacy haunts Iraq

Let us pause to mark the death of Ahmed Chalabi, the suave Iraqi exile beloved by Vice President Dick Cheney and top Bush administration officials.

Let us pause to mark the death of Ahmed Chalabi, the suave Iraqi exile beloved by Vice President Dick Cheney and top Bush administration officials.

Many Americans have no doubt forgotten the name of Chalabi, 71, who died this week of heart failure in Baghdad. They shouldn't have. The fast-talking Iraqi, with degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, was the darling of President George W. Bush's top foreign policy advisers. He was a con man who succeeded in his mission: to convince the Americans to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein.

Cheney et al. accepted everything Chalabi offered - without question - including claims that the Iraqi would be welcomed home as the country's new leader and would establish a pro-American democracy that recognized Israel. Anyone who knew Iraq knew this was nonsense. But such contrary views were rejected in the Bush White House and Defense Department.

Chalabi told them exactly what they wanted to hear.

It is useful to reflect on Chalabi's machinations at a time when the botched Iraq invasion still haunts America and the region. All the more so since some of his strongest backers, such as Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, are still politically active and some are even advising current Republican presidential candidates.

This Iraqi's story should (but probably won't) warn U.S. leaders of both parties of the folly of basing foreign policy on wishful thinking, especially when it involves war.

Until age 13, Chalabi was raised in luxury as the son of a wealthy Shiite merchant. (He once showed me the family's former vacation home in a Baghdad suburb, with its outdoor lap pool, across the street from a grain silo that his father had owned.) His family was forced into exile in 1958 after military officers ousted the Iraqi king. The coup led to a succession of dictators culminating with Saddam, whom Chalabi was obsessed with ousting.

I first met Chalabi in 1992, after the 1991 Gulf War, when he founded the Iraqi National Congress, an exile movement aimed at Saddam's ouster. Through his contacts with U.S. officials, the INC ultimately received more than $100 million from the CIA and other government agencies.

Chalabi sold the Bush team on the idea that Iraq was a middle-class country that would set up a secular, inclusive governing system. (In reality, as Iraq experts predicted, the ouster of Saddam empowered the majority of poor, religious Shiites to take power and set up religion-based parties. The secular middle class had been decimated by years of sanctions and war.)

After 9/11, Chalabi convinced Cheney and the Bush team that he could lead the exiles back home like a latter-day Charles de Gaulle, where he would be welcomed by his countrymen. Wolfowitz told me in a November 2002 interview that postwar Iraq would resemble post-World War II France, to which de Gaulle triumphantly returned from London.

In late 2002, I asked Bernard Lewis, the distinguished Mideast expert who was close to the Bush team and was a major Chalabi booster, how democracy would come to Iraq. He responded: "Well, Ahmed will take care of things."

Lewis and other Bush advisers hoped the Hashemite monarchy could be restored to Iraq and that the monarch would then appoint Chalabi as prime minister. Never mind that the Hashemites are Sunnis and that the overthrow of Saddam meant that Iraq's majority Shiites would take power.

Chalabi's informants fed the Bush team false information about weapons of mass destruction, including the famous fable of mobile vans where biological weapons were manufactured. The story was cited by Colin Powell in February 2003 at the United Nations as justification for the war, although the defector's data was never verified. The story bolstered the case for war.

Once the Iraq invasion began, U.S. forces airlifted Chalabi into the southern city of Nasiriyah, expecting a crowd of thousands to welcome him. To make sure the numbers turned out, CIA operatives distributed bags of money to tribal leaders, as I was told at the time via satellite phone by sheikhs in the area who had been offered cash to show up.

But Chalabi - who had not stepped foot in Iraq since age 13 - had no support inside his country. The welcoming masses never appeared. Dreams of an Iraqi deGaulle were nothing but a mirage.

Nonetheless, Chalabi set up office in Baghdad's Sporting Club, a onetime retreat for the Iraqi elite; he remained on the Pentagon payroll, to the tune of $340,000 a week, until 2004. He was the driving force behind the country's de-Baathification policy, which deepened Iraq's sectarian divisions.

That policy barred tens of thousands of former Baath party members from government jobs - not just those with blood on their hands, but thousands of teachers and other professionals who had had to join the party to keep their jobs. By mainly penalizing Sunni Iraqis, it helped drive many into the arms of extremists.

The Bush administration finally soured on Chalabi in 2004 because of suspicions of fraud and worries about his close relations with Iranian officials, but his backers never admitted their folly in creating the myth of Chalabi as leader.

Perhaps that's because they couldn't make him look bad without making themselves look worse.