The Resurrection of Ahmad Chalabi

The man who helped convince the United States to invade Iraq has spent the last decade in the political wilderness. But now, with his country in chaos, he could be its next leader.

BAGHDAD — Outside the steel doors and high walls of what was once a country estate on the outskirts of Baghdad, trash is piled along dusty streets marked with concrete blast barriers. In large swaths of the country, Sunni fighters intent on erasing Iraq's borders to create a sweeping Islamic state battle Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militiamen. Inside, in the more refined world he has willed into being, Ahmad Chalabi ponders his political resurrection.

"The politicians believe this is business as usual -- it is not," he says in an interview with Foreign Policy, while leaning back in the embrace of a Danish-designed chair made in Baghdad from the reclaimed teak doors of old houses. "Iraq has never faced dissolution since its creation until now. This is the first time Iraq faces dissolution on two fronts -- the Kurds and the Sunnis."

Chalabi is dressed in a black T-shirt, black parachute pants, and black suede shoes with no socks. He sits surrounded by Iraqi paintings -- at Baghdad's declining number of art galleries, his purchases alone help keep some artists afloat. In the garden in the evening, fans with water reservoirs spray a cooling, rose-scented mist. He is renovating his swimming pool, where neoconservative American officials used to swim when he was still a darling of President George W. Bush's administration. Now, the U.S. Embassy across town is evacuating its nonessential staff, and the remaining Foreign Service officers aren't allowed even to cross the street.

To many in the West, Chalabi, 69, is still the political operator who convinced the Bush administration that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, paving the way for the U.S.-led invasion of the country. But inside an Iraq dangerously on the verge of splintering, that invasion is almost ancient history. After almost a decade of being sidelined, the man who could not win a seat in parliament in 2005 and whose name once inspired insults scrawled on Baghdad walls has emerged as a serious contender to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In fact, he believes he can save Iraq.  

"The facts, you see, add cumulatively to my credibility with all sections of society," he says. "These people proposing me to be prime minister -- [they are] not only among the Shiites but among the Sunnis and the Kurds."

Those "facts," as Chalabi sees them, are a proven record of reducing government corruption and the economic qualifications to repair Iraq's bleeding economy. Now, he has his sights set on crushing the Islamic State -- formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a jihadist organization that has recently seized vast areas of territory in the north and west of the country. To do that, he says the government needs to mend ties with the country's Sunni community.

"The way to defeat ISIS, in my view the only way, is first of all -- after a good government is formed -- you have to issue a law of national reconciliation to win over the Sunnis in a serious way."

In June, Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, fell to ISIS, which rebranded itself as the Islamic State and declared the creation of a caliphate. With the Sunni jihadists on their doorstep, Iraqi political leaders are still wrangling over who will form a new government after elections in April. One of the only things they seem to agree on is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should not be given a third term in office.

Chalabi, a secular Shiite, has not been wasting his time while in the political wilderness. In the past decade, he has forged strong ties with hard-line Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, as well as the major Kurdish factions and key Sunni leaders. Close to Iran and apparently now tolerated by the United States, he has emerged as perhaps the ultimate compromise candidate in a country fatally lacking in political compromise.

Part of Chalabi's proposed reconciliation would be reviewing the cases of thousands of prisoners, most of them Sunnis, who have been arrested under sweeping anti-terrorism laws and held in jail without charge, or long past orders for their release. Chalabi says he would also appoint a judicial committee to review cases where people have been sentenced on the basis of coerced confessions.

Then he would turn his attention to Iraq's bleeding economy and combat corruption. The former banker proposes a team of forensic auditors -- perhaps headed by the American former special inspector for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart Bowen -- to review contracts and contracting procedures in order to reduce Iraq's staggering corruption. Chalabi also points to his experience in government in 2005, when he says he exposed a $1.2 billion contracting scandal and proposed a committee to oversee large contracts. "For one year there was not one instance of corruption in the entire contracting process of the Iraqi government," he says -- a claim difficult to verify.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic aims of a man inextricably associated with laws punishing former Baath party members would be to roll back de-Baathification, which he now argues has been perverted from its original purpose of dismantling Saddam's party institutions to being used as retribution for political purposes.

"It became the common wisdom that Sunnis hate me because of this de-Baathification," Chalabi says. But given the even harsher crackdown that followed his departure, he claims, "They are having nostalgia about de-Baathification."

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But before Chalabi turns to the future, he has a litany of grievances against those he believes have wronged him in the past. While several former Bush administration officials still champion his political ambitions, top on his list of adversaries is the man the United States appoint to lead the occupation authority following the 2003 invasion: Paul Bremer.

"Bremer never liked me from the beginning," Chalabi says, blaming a 2003 editorial he published in the Wall Street Journal, in which he thanked the United States for toppling Saddam Hussein but warned it against staying in Iraq. He blames the United States -- and U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi -- of excluding him from Ayad Allawi's interim government, formed in 2004.

Chalabi, who was paid by the CIA for six years as part of a futile covert effort to topple Saddam Hussein, also bats away claims that he was responsible for the incorrect intelligence about the Iraqi regime's purported WMD stockpiles. He says his role was limited to putting informants in touch with the CIA for the agency to evaluate on its own. A congressionally appointed committee discounted his connection to the now-discredited source known as "Curveball," later identified as Iraqi defector Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, whose claim that Saddam was operating mobile biological weapons laboratories was used by the Bush administration to publicly make the case for war. Chalabi says the widespread claim in the media of his connection to Janabi was payback for ruffling feathers at the State Department and White House.

"What happened is that the narrative of war that Bush based his plan on fell apart," he says. "Who is at fault? I am. It's an easy target -- a foreigner in Iraq who did things in Washington with questionable methods whom they didn't like. It's easy."

However, Chalabi is still happy to take credit for his key role in bringing the United States to Iraq. After being cut loose by the CIA, he went to Washington in 1997 to lobby Congress to back attempts to overthrow Saddam. A year later, the Iraqi Liberation Act, which made it U.S. policy to support regime change, was signed into law.

"The main thing we did was we made the Iraq issue an American political issue inside the United States," Chalabi says. "Of course this gets me great ill will with the American bureaucrats, so every chance they get, they dump on me."

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Even by the mercurial standards of Iraqi politics, Chalabi has had a dramatic ride. Less than a year after the beginning of the war, he was given a privileged seat near first lady Laura Bush at President Bush's 2004 State of the Union address. Four months later, U.S. Special Forces raided his office following accusations that he sent sensitive files to Iran and forged currency with plates stolen from the Iraqi mint. The charges were later dropped. He is still, however, sentenced in absentia to prison with hard labor in Jordan, where he is held responsible for the collapse of the kingdom's second-largest bank in 1989. Chalabi maintains he was made the scapegoat for that collapse.

The passage of the years has not managed to erase everyone's suspicions about him. As one former Western diplomat who has dealt with him put it, "I think [Chalabi's new popularity] is part of Iraq's long slide into the abyss."

But Chalabi believes that recent events have validated his decision in the years following the invasion -- much bemoaned in Washington at the time -- to pursue cooperation with Iran.

"Are they not cooperating with Iran?" Chalabi says of the United States. "Are they not accepting Iranian interference in the war against ISIS? Why was that a bad thing to do in 2003 to 2004 and why is it a great thing now? Who was right and who was wrong?"

During his years out of political power, Chalabi launched a sort of economic salon -- twice-weekly seminars bringing together technical experts to thrash out economic and political issues -- that has burnished his credentials as a technocrat able to rise above sectarian issues.

In what was once a grain cellar for his family's ancestral farm -- and is now lined with gleaming-white concrete and outfitted with a stage and audiovisual system amid the abstract art -- a rotating cast of academics, policy makers, and industrialists still gathers for discussions of issues such as the role of the central bank, how to revive industry, and how to combat corruption.

Chalabi mostly listens -- as he has been listening for the past decade.

"Every week he meets tens if not hundreds of technocrats and academics, and he tries to find the right people," says an independent Iraqi analyst who has attended his seminars and, like many, describes him as "brilliant."

"When the Americans turned against him, he became alone -- he was only respected by the Kurds," says the analyst. "Everybody was ignoring him, so he used that in a very clever way -- he did not want to become a puppet. I think he knows the only way to have his star shine is when there is nationwide disagreement."

Chalabi, perhaps disingenuously, says he isn't seeking the prime minister's job.

"What's the point if there's no plan?" he asks. "To put Iraq back together is very difficult. The points of this plan will be opposed violently by some Shiites because their concept is they are in power.... But we can't conquer Sunni lands with Shiite militias. That's one thing we need -- a plan to stitch Iraq back together."

With Iraq unraveling and after a decade waiting in the wings, this might be Chalabi's chance to implement that plan.



Will Congo's Rebels Finally Come in From the Cold?

The DRC's most notorious outlaws may finally be ready to end their 20-year war of rape and plunder.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Fourteen-year-old Habimana was asleep in his bed when armed militiamen burst through the door of his home and demanded that he carry their luggage to a nearby market. When he arrived at the market, with two other children from his village in the Masisi territory of eastern Congo, they were told they would never see their families again.

That was six months ago, and the armed men were from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel group that relies heavily on abducted child soldiers and counts among its members men who participated in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

Now, after 20 years of preying on the civilian population of eastern Congo, the biggest faction of the FDLR says it wants to come in from the bush. In April, it declared its intention to lay down its weapons and engage in political dialogue, and on July 3, a group of foreign ministers from southern and east African countries said they would suspend military operations against the FDLR for six months in order to give the rebel group a chance to make good on its pledge.

Whether the FDLR is serious about disarming or just playing for time is, of course, impossible to say. But there can be little doubt that the group is feeling the heat. Ever since the United Nations' special intervention brigade, fighting alongside Congolese troops, trounced the M23 rebels last year, both parties have come under tremendous pressure to take on the FDLR. Meanwhile, a diplomatic full-court press on Congolese President Joseph Kabila means that the rebels can no longer look to Kinshasa for support.

"Kabila is under intense diplomatic pressure to get this settled and he no longer needs rebel support to fight the M23 or its predecessor movements," said Laura Seay, a professor of government at Colby College and an expert on the Great Lakes region, in an email. "So [the FDLR is] in a predicament."

Already, some 200 FDLR fighters out of an estimated 1,500 have turned themselves in. But the United Nations is only cautiously optimistic that the remaining rebels will disarm voluntarily. "These guys are criminals, bandits, and they have been deceiving us for years. Why should we trust them?" said Ray Torres, the head of office for the U.N. mission in North Kivu, the province where the most recent FDLR disarmament took place. "Still, it would be irresponsible not to give this a chance.… What is at stake here is a 20-year-old war, and we have an opportunity to end it in a few months without having to kill anybody."

For the last two decades, eastern Congo has been the site of seemingly unending tragedy. After the Rwandan genocide, the perpetrators, along with roughly 1 million refugees, fled across the border to what was then Zaire, touching off a regional war that toppled the government in Kinshasa and, at its height, involved dozens of rebel groups and nine different countries. The human cost was astonishing: More than 5 million people have died in eastern Congo since 1996, mostly from war-related disease and starvation.

Today, the country of 60 million is moving, haltingly, toward peace. The world's largest U.N. peacekeeping operation -- and the only one that is authorized to take offensive military action -- has improved the security situation in the east dramatically. Meanwhile, a U.N. and U.S. diplomatic offensive has convinced the Rwandan government, which in 1996 pursued the Hutu genocidaires across the border into Zaire and has been exploiting the chaos ever since, to cut ties with rebel groups that were causing the most damage.

The preliminary results are impressive. In Goma, which fell in dramatic fashion to the M23 less than two years ago, U.N. peacekeepers have little to do except break up bar fights that have spilled into the street (they don't dare enter the establishments themselves) and neutralize the occasional drunken Congolese soldier who is stumbling around, armed to the teeth. So secure is the provincial capital, in fact, that the United Nations deemed it safe for me to accompany its North Kivu brigade for a night patrol without wearing a helmet or bulletproof vest.

But large parts of Congo are still controlled by armed groups, roughly 50 of which operate in the eastern portion of the country alone. Among the alphabet soup of rebel movements, the FDLR is one of the more potent, but its real significance is political, not military. As the successor group to a genocidal army and militia, the FDLR's demobilization would eliminate Rwanda's favored pretext for meddling in Congo.

But even as some elements of the flagging militia prepare to hand over their weapons, others continue to terrorize civilians and even recruit additional fighters. According to a report released July 3 by U.N. experts, the FDLR "continues to recruit and train combatants, including children."

Andre Moussa, a child protection specialist at UNICEF, confirmed that the FDLR still ranks among the top 10 armed groups operating in Congo in terms of recruitment of child soldiers. "The FDLR is still actively recruiting children," he said. "The risk of recruitment and re-recruitment is high, particularly for children in the Rutshuru territory," which is located to the east of Masisi in eastern Congo.

Despite repeated pledges by the United Nations and the Congolese government to take on the FDLR, no decisive military action has been taken to date -- a fact that many experts believe reflects the cozy relationship between officers in the Congolese military and the FDLR. According to a U.N. report that was leaked earlier this year, FDLR fighters regularly shack up under the same roof with Congolese troops and purchase ammunition from the Congolese military for as little as 5 cents per bullet. Over the years, the two have also fought alongside one another frequently against Rwanda and its proxies.

While the United Nations' special intervention brigade is authorized to take offensive military action with or without the support of the Congolese military, in practice Lt. Gen. Carlos dos Santos Cruz, the force commander of the U.N. mission in Congo, has interpreted his mandate very conservatively thus far.

"He sees the mission's task as being not just about ending the violence, but also to build institutions and the Congolese people's confidence in them," said Seay. "In that mindset, having the [Congolese military] involved is really important."

The announcement of the six-month grace period by the group of African foreign ministers seems to push the military option even further down the road. But exactly how long the FDLR has until it needs to worry about the type of offensive military action that routed the M23, a much larger rebel faction that captured the eastern city of Goma in 2012, is not entirely clear.

"There is some negotiations about this timeline," Santos Cruz said in an interview on July 3. "It's not been fully established."

But Santos Cruz was clear that the FDLR will eventually have to choose between total disarmament and war. "The surrender is one option. But if they stop [voluntarily disarming], the military option is the one we will use."

Taking the fight to the FDLR will be tricky, though, because unlike the M23, which was easily distinguishable from the civilian population, FDLR fighters live among the communities they terrorize. "It's completely different from the situation of M23," said Santos Cruz. "The operations against them were very classic operations. The FDLR is completely different. Some small groups are inside the population, and then you need to treat it case by case because [you don't want to] cause more suffering to the population."

That will be easier said than done. According to Seay, the only way to pry the FDLR loose from the civilian population is to conduct door-to-door searches. As a result, a military solution would be "really messy" and almost certainly cause "a lot of civilian casualties."

Even if the FDLR is serious about going out peacefully, the demobilization process is fraught with potential pitfalls. For one thing, the group itself is deeply fractured, and only one faction -- the Forces Combattantes Abacunguzi (FDLR-FOCA) -- has declared its intention to disarm. Whether the remaining factions will follow FDLR-FOCA's lead is anybody's guess. "A rebel group is not an organized army," said Torres, the head of office for the U.N. mission in North Kivu. "So disarmament is going to be a slow and consultative process."

Then there is the possibility that other rebel groups could try to prevent FDLR fighters from turning in their guns. The United Nations is preparing for the possibility that Cheka, an armed group previously allied with the FDLR, could attack the facilities where ex-FDLR fighters are being processed. The result is a bizarre scenario in which U.N. peacekeepers are being deployed to protect recently demobilized members of one armed group from another.

Finally, there is the ever-present risk that combatants, once demobilized, will tire of civilian life and eventually return to the bush. These are people who have spent 10 to 20 years feeling powerful because they carry a gun, explained Santos Cruz. "Your power is the weapon, and suddenly you are going to drop it."

Already, there have been reports that former members of the M23, most of whom are in camps in neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, have begun to recruit and rearm. Last year, the Congolese government set up a so-called DDR -- disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration -- camp in Bweremana, a village in the Masisi territory of North Kivu, but failed to provide adequate services for the ex-combatants and their families.

"The place was a complete mess," said one NGO worker who visited the camp before it was closed down. "Many of the more battle-hardened fighters took one look at the place and marched right back into the bush."

The disarmament and demobilization facilities administered by the United Nations are by all accounts better run than those overseen by the Congolese government. But the idea that men who once killed and raped at will can be turned into productive members of society is at best aspirational -- a fact that is confirmed by the U.N.'s own record on DDR. According to the Small Arms Survey, which has conducted DDR assessments in more than a dozen countries, "there is still little evidence of its effectiveness."

Habimana, the 14-year-old who was abducted by the FDLR earlier this year, is now taking part in his own DDR program after he and a friend pulled off a daring escape a few weeks ago. The two were given weapons and ordered to loot a farm in Masisi territory. Instead, they made a break for it and ended up seeking refuge on a U.N. base.

Today, Habimana is being housed in a transit and orientation facility for former child soldiers, where he is at least on track to be reunited with his family. Still, he told me that he does not want to return to his home village for fear of being recognized and recaptured. "The FDLR is still a big problem for us," he said. "It is not yet safe to go home."

Photo by TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images