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Ahmad Chalabi, Iraqi Politician Who Pushed for U.S. Invasion, Dies at 71

Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi politician who from exile helped persuade the United States to invade Iraq in 2003, and then unsuccessfully tried to attain power as his country was nearly torn apart by sectarian violence, died on Tuesday at his home in Baghdad. He was 71.

The cause was heart failure, Iraqi officials said.

Mr. Chalabi (pronounced CHAHL-a-bee) was the Iraqi perhaps most associated with President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq and topple its longtime dictator, Saddam Hussein.

A mathematician with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Mr. Chalabi, the son of a prominent Shiite family, cultivated close ties with journalists in Washington and London; American lawmakers; the neoconservative advisers who helped shape Mr. Bush's foreign policy; and a wide network of Iraqi exiles, many of whom were paid for intelligence about Mr. Hussein's government.

Mr. Chalabi's relationship with the Americans stretched over decades. In 1998, he helped persuade Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act, which was signed by President Bill Clinton and declared it the policy of the United States to replace Mr. Hussein's government with a democratic one.

His group, the Iraqi National Congress, would get more than $100 million from the C.I.A. and other agencies between its founding in 1992 and the start of the war. He cultivated friendships with a circle of hawkish Republicans -- Dick Cheney, Douglas J. Feith, William J. Luti, Richard N. Perle and Paul D. Wolfowitz -- who were central in the United States' march to war, Mr. Cheney as vice president and the others as top Pentagon officials.

Mr. Chalabi's contention, shared by United States intelligence agencies, was that Mr. Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Hussein had fatally gassed Kurds and slaughtered Shiites and other Iraqis, and he had refused to fully cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors.

But most of the case for war was predicated on flawed intelligence, including the testimony of defectors whose accounts could ultimately not be substantiated.

A 2006 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that "false information" from sources affiliated with the Iraqi National Congress "was used to support key intelligence community assessments on Iraq and was widely distributed in intelligence products prior to the war." It found that the group "attempted to influence United States policy on Iraq by providing false information through defectors directed at convincing the United States that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had links to terrorists."

Probably the most notorious defector was Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, code-named Curveball, the brother of a Chalabi aide. His false account of mobile bioweapons laboratories was cited by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at the United Nations. But the Senate report found an "insufficient basis" to determine whether Curveball had provided his information at the behest of the Iraqi National Congress.

Mr. Janabi was just one of several defectors whose accounts were promoted by Mr. Chalabi's group: Sabah Khalifa Khodada Alami and Abu Zeinab al-Qurairy claimed that Islamist terrorists had trained in the mid-1990s at a camp in Iraq called Salman Pak; Khidhir Hamza said that Mr. Hussein had tried to build a nuclear weapon in the early 1990s; and Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri told The New York Times that he had visited at least 20 secret weapons facilities in Iraq.

The Times said in a 2004 editors' note that "accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted," and that "we, along with the administration, were taken in."

As it became clear that Iraq did not have an active chemical, biological or nuclear weapons program, and as the occupying American forces did not receive the welcome that the Iraqi opposition had predicted, the Bush administration distanced itself from Mr. Chalabi.

One year after the invasion, American special forces raided his home in Baghdad, apparently searching for evidence that he was sharing intelligence with Iran.

Mr. Chalabi was the target of an assassination attempt at least once, in 2008, when a suicide bomber narrowly missed him, killing six of his bodyguards.

Spurned by the Americans, Mr. Chalabi allied himself with Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite leader and ally of Iran whose Mahdi Army led two bloody uprisings, and who remains a significant force in Iraqi politics.

"Chalabi's life work, an Iraq liberated from Saddam Hussein, a modern and democratic Iraq, is spiraling toward disintegration," Dexter Filkins wrote in The Times Magazine in 2006, after interviewing Mr. Chalabi at his home in London. "Indeed, for many in the West, Chalabi has become the personification of all that has gone wrong in Iraq: the lies, the arrogance, the occupation as disaster."

In 2010, after a disputed parliamentary election that threatened to end the reign of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, Mr. Chalabi led an effort to purge Sunni politicians from positions of authority. By doing so, he helped Mr. Maliki consolidate power and alienated Sunnis -- two factors that set the stage for the renaissance of the Sunni insurgency that later metastasized into the Islamic State.

As recently as last year, Mr. Chalabi's name was floated as a candidate for prime minister, and at his death, he was the head of the finance committee in Parliament.

On Tuesday, Iraqi leaders emphasized Mr. Chalabi's role in ousting Mr. Hussein, who was captured in 2003 and executed in 2006.

President Fuad Masum said in a statement that "Chalabi had a pivotal role with many Iraqi leaders in fighting the dictatorship."

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement, "He dedicated his life to opposing the dictatorial regime, and he played a great role in building a democratic process in Iraq."

Ahmad Abdul Hadi Chalabi was born in Baghdad on Oct. 30, 1944. His family was part of a tiny, secular Shiite elite that had prospered under the Ottoman Turks and then, after World War I, the Hashemite monarchy installed by the British.

Mr. Chalabi attended an elite Jesuit high school, Baghdad College, where his schoolmates included fellow Shiites like Ayad Allawi, who would become a relative by marriage and serve as an acting prime minister, and Adel Abdul Mahdi, who would become a finance minister, a vice president and, now, the oil minister.

In 1958, the same year that army officers overthrew King Faisal II, the Chalabi family went into exile. Mr. Chalabi studied math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before receiving his doctorate from the University of Chicago, in 1969. (His dissertation was in an area of algebra known as group theory.) He later taught at the American University of Beirut and published several mathematical papers. During his time overseas, the Baath Party staged a coup, in 1968, and by 1979, Mr. Hussein had consolidated power.

The disastrous Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, Mr. Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the American-led war that ousted his forces from Kuwait in 1991 galvanized Iraqi exiles. In 1992, Mr. Chalabi and other exiles founded the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based coalition for groups seeking to oust Mr. Hussein.

By now, Mr. Chalabi was in regular contact with the Americans, though his actions were often unwelcome. In 1995, while receiving pay from the C.I.A. in the Kurdish city of Erbil, Mr. Chalabi began an unauthorized -- and unsuccessful -- attack on Mr. Hussein's forces.

The fiasco led to nothing more than a decision by Turkey to send troops into northern Iraq. The next year, Mr. Chalabi interfered with a C.I.A. plot to topple Mr. Hussein. It failed, more than 150 opposition fighters were killed, and Mr. Chalabi's relationship with the C.I.A. never recovered.

The American-led overthrow of Mr. Hussein's government in 2003 gave Mr. Chalabi a chance to re-enter politics. The Americans named him to the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council. But images of toppled statues and cheering Iraqis quickly gave way to violent resistance to the occupying authorities, led by former members of the government, and to increasing sectarian violence.

Within a year of the war, the Americans cut off Mr. Chalabi. In May 2004, they stopped monthly payments of $335,000 to the Iraqi National Congress, and days later raided his Baghdad home.

Mr. Chalabi, for his part, attributed the problems in Iraq to the Americans for staying too long and for failing to immediately turn over power to Iraqis -- even though most observers doubted that exiles like Mr. Chalabi, who had been away for 45 years, could have kept the country together on their own.

Moreover, he never developed a strong political base. In the December 2005 parliamentary elections, the first under the country's new Constitution, his Iraqi National Congress received just 30,000 of 12 million ballots.

Mr. Chalabi was never widely trusted nor liked by ordinary Iraqis, for whom it was common knowledge that he had been convicted in absentia for fraud in Jordan in 1992, and sentenced to 22 years in prison, for embezzling almost $300 million from Petra Bank, which he had founded. (Mr. Chalabi, who fled Jordan before he could be arrested, said the charges had been concocted by the Jordanian government under pressure from Mr. Hussein.)

Mr. Chalabi, who is survived by his wife, Leila Osseiran, and four children, may be remembered above all for a certain quality of relentlessness. As the Times journalist Michael R. Gordon and a retired general, Bernard E. Trainor, related in their 2012 book, "The Endgame," members of the Iraqi Governing Council traveled to Washington in January 2004 for Mr. Bush's State of the Union address, his first since the invasion. Seated in the gallery, near the first lady, Laura Bush, was Mr. Chalabi.

The next morning, at a meeting of the National Security Council, Mr. Bush turned to Richard L. Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, and asked how Mr. Chalabi had managed to get in. No one could say.

[Source: By Sewell Chan, The New York Times, 03Nov15]

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small logoThis document has been published on 16Nov15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.