Writer Aram Roston, Parsing Ahmad Chalabi's Past

Aram Roston

Investigative journalist Aram Roston's new book examines Ahmad Chalabi's role in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Robert Clark hide caption

itoggle caption Robert Clark
Former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq Ahmad Chalabi

Ahmad Chalabi is a Shiite secular politician who was formerly the deputy prime minister of Iraq. Karim Sahib, AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Karim Sahib, AFP/Getty Images

Secularist Shiite politican Ahmad Chalabi was for years part of an opposition group dedicated to overthrowing former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Son of a wealthy exile family that fled Iraq in the late 1950s, he moved easily in Washington, D.C.'s political and policy circles, making allies among neoconservatives and helping to convince journalists and intelligence agencies alike that Iraq was a threat demanding urgent action.

After the U.S. invasion, he was appointed interim oil minister and then deputy prime minister — but when parliamentary elections were held in Iraq in December 2005, he failed to win a seat and was bypassed for the cabinet. Now

Investigative journalist Aram Roston joins Fresh Air to discuss his new book on Chalabi, The Man Who Pushed America to War.

Roston has reported for CNN, the Washington Monthly and the investigative unit at NBC News. As a producer for the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, he helped produce the Emmy-nominated Iraq: Life on the Streets.

Excerpt: 'The Man Who Pushed America to War'

The Man Who Pushed America to War

Note: Author's footnotes have been omitted.

Prologue

On the afternoon of Thursday, April 28, 2005, Ahmad Chalabi smiled as he stepped from one group of journalists to the next in the Baghdad Convention Center. They eagerly surrounded him with cameras and microphones. The space was modern and well lit and even air-conditioned, built under Saddam Hussein when he had ruled Iraq and now protected by U.S. soldiers who guarded the Green Zone. Silent bodyguards, like unobtrusive servants, shadowed Chalabi as he walked with dignity to the next clutch of fascinated reporters.

It was an important day for him. Two events touched him and his family: one political and one financial. The first development was the reason journalists had gathered to chat with him: the triumphant creation of a new government for Iraq, which had been scourged by violence and disorder since the U.S. invasion two years earlier. Chalabi was confirmed that day as the deputy prime minister and acting oil minister of a transitional Iraqi government. This would be a temporary government, by design, but even so, it was the first time in his life that Chalabi, now sixty, was confirmed as a member of any government at all. Exhilarated he may have been, and he held his head high that day, but he did not even refer to his own central role in all this, nor did he boast that this whole new Iraq was a product, in part, of his own making. Cajoling and shaming his American friends and enemies, Chalabi had managed to harness the power of the United States to his own mission: the unseating of a dictator, Saddam Hussein, and the installation of a sovereign new Iraqi government.

The second event that touched Chalabi on April 28 involved money; it concerned his family business and attracted far less attention from the world. That very day, the official Trade Bank of Iraq signed a deal with a London company that, in fact, Chalabi and his relatives had founded years earlier. The Trade Bank, actually run and owned by this new government of Iraq, was created as if from the air after Saddam's fall. The Trade Bank was headed by Chalabi's grandnephew, Hussein al-Uzri, a forty-three-year-old man with a hearty smile. After the U.S. invasion, Chalabi had worked hard to place his younger relative in the position, pressuring his friends among the U.S. occupation authorities. It was a job of immense influence: staggering amounts of money were funneled through the fingers of the younger man.

The Trade Bank's deal, a "strategic agreement," was awarded to Card Tech, Ltd., owned and run by the Chalabi family for more than a decade. Ahmad Chalabi himself, the new deputy prime minister, had an ownership interest in a Card Tech affiliate in his own name. The company did a niche business specializing in helping banks around the world deal with their customers' credit and automatic banking cards. In a final knot, Card Tech, too, like the Trade Bank of Iraq, was run by one of Chalabi's relatives, a nephew named Jaffar Agha-Jaffar. Agha-Jaffar had the distinction of having worked for his uncle Ahmad more than fifteen years earlier at a Jordanian bank that was engulfed by scandal and allegations of fraud.

So that spring day when Ahmad Chalabi received his coveted government appointment in the new Iraq was also the day that one of his nephews in the Iraqi government awarded a contract to a family company. Everything came together on this day in a symphony of political and business success for Chalabi. He had weathered many shifts in his fortunes to arrive at this moment. What he had always sought, and at this moment appeared to have achieved, as he moved through the convention center shaking hands and giving interviews, was a glorious return to the Baghdad of his youth, when the Chalabis had been prosperous merchants, comfortably ensconced in the ruling class of prerevolutionary Iraq, before the dark era of Saddam.

During his media interviews that day, Chalabi made no mention of Card Tech or the Trade Bank of Iraq, nor was he asked about them. It was not the news of the day. Instead, he basked in his new official role. "This government represents the Iraqi people," he told interviewers, describing the Shiite-led government dominated by members of the Islamist Dawa Party.

Asked about the role of the United States, he cocked his head a bit toward his interviewer, raised his eyebrows, and said, "President Bush was very happy with the Iraqi elections." He went on: this government, he said, would get American support. "The United States is a strategic ally, we believe, of Iraq, and we will work with them on this basis."


His inner circle called him The Doctor, because of his PhD in mathematics. Some of his operatives called him Our Big Brother. The Central Intelligence Agency called him by a code name—which intelligence sources reveal as PULSAR ONE. Whatever you call him, Ahmad Abdul Hadi Chalabi, a shrewd Iraqi Arab from a family of Shiite bankers, literally changed the world. The United States, which he referred to so respectfully as a "strategic ally" that day of his triumph, had sponsored him, flown him and his people to Iraq, even toppled Saddam Hussein for him, as he would boast. The Iraq War has many critics and some fierce defenders, but many insiders on both sides of the debate agree on this: without Chalabi there would have been no war.

He is a man of large appetites, with a flair for theatrics, and a brilliant and untiring mind. He had a single-minded hatred of the sadistic Saddam Hussein, a loyalty to his own Shiite heritage, and an inexplicable certitude in his own entitlement. Chalabi's medium is people, and as an Iraqi exile his grazing area was America; his genius was his ability to make loyal friends among adventurous spirits. He epitomized "charismatic leadership." Over dinners, lunches, and coffee, he spoke in grand and colorful language about the human right to freedom, about the delightful world to come in the Middle East, about the great things that could be done. As he talked, Chalabi was physically transformed. What strangers saw as a smug smirk curled on his fleshy lips disappeared, and was replaced by a wise yet merry smile. Whereas once he had a stiff back and clumsy walk, now he appeared to have a regal and noble bearing.

Some of his closest advisers were Democrats. Some were liberals. Some were pro-Israel; others were anti-Zionists. It didn't really matter once they met him. But in the end it was notoriously the recruitment of the American neoconservatives and the hawkish wing of the Republican Party that got him what he needed. They satisfied his needs, and he theirs.

He touched America in three ways. His first success could be called ideological: he was able to affirm for a generation of thinkers the urgent need to overthrow Saddam. Toppling Saddam, and ending his aggression and his feared weapons of mass destruction, became the keystone of transforming the Middle East. Chalabi was not the sole source of this vision, but he was the chief intellectual facilitator for a now well-known cadre of hard-liners whose influence was extraordinary in the early part of the new millennium. They included Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, John Hannah, Michael Ledeen, and Danielle Pletka. They dined with him and met him and conversed, and through well-placed op-eds and clever talking points and sound bites, their ideas bled into the mainstream.

Second, Chalabi fed intelligence and sources to journalists and the U.S. intelligence services. This was, for him, the easiest task. Much of the world already believed Saddam had WMDs. And Saddam was indeed a sadistic tyrant. Chalabi's contribution was to give the allegations flesh and muscle and specificity. The tidbits he provided were often quickly discredited by intelligence officers, but they had tremendous impact on public opinion. His use of the press helped prepare the political battleground for war. The New York Times, CBS News's 60 Minutes, PBS's Frontline, and Vanity Fair became his chosen outlets. The splash from his stories was immense. Saddam, the intelligence services knew, had no ties to the attacks of 9/11, but as Chalabi's friend Fouad Ajami wrote once to explain the war, "These distinctions did not matter; the connection had been made in American opinion."

Third, Chalabi had political impact that was virtually unheard of for a foreigner. He used his personal magnetism, lobbying skills, and tactical abilities to merge U.S. policy with his own ambitions. The U.S. Congress passed a law written largely to achieve his vision and to boost the fortunes of his political vehicle, the Iraqi National Congress. He had a battery of supporters on Capitol Hill. U.S. senators like Trent Lott, John McCain, Sam Brownback, Joe Lieberman, and Bob Kerrey became his champions. But even more important, he knew how to manipulate the key aides who work anonymously in the back rooms to make Capitol Hill run. He courted key Republicans like Trent Lott's Randy Scheunemann and House international affairs staffer Steve Rademaker, as well as Senate Democratic aides like Chris Straub and Peter Galbraith.

As a younger man, Chalabi had presided over the wholesale collapse of his family's business empire, a worldwide venture riddled with fraud insider dealing and disastrous investments. But he was able to bounce back after locating a rich vein of financing from the U.S. government. American taxpayers generously funded him and his Iraqi National Congress during his fifteen-year campaign against Saddam. Although he was not an American, and in fact distrusted the United States, he moved from one federal agency to another with the easy grace of a hummingbird drifting from flower to flower. First he was funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, then by the State Department, and finally by the Defense Department. When he called the United States a "strategic ally," maybe it was a taunt as much as it was reality.


So who was he really? A corrupt businessman or a somewhat deluded visionary? A brilliant con man or perhaps, as some still see him, a persecuted genius? Was he an agent of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or of America, or solely of his own ambition? Or was he all these things? Ahmad Chalabi has refused to cooperate with this book in any way. But many of his friends and family were extremely helpful, usually requesting anonymity. Some revere him, some despise him, and some fear him. Most are in awe at the tangled plots he weaves around him.

He has left no substantial written record of his political philosophy or his life, but he has over time—in some speeches and opinion articles and through the voices of his admirers—exposed his ambitions, disappointments, and triumphs. And just as important, around the world, in courthouses and company files in Washington, Switzerland, London, Jordan, Lebanon, Hong Kong, and the offshore tax haven of the Cayman Islands, he and some family members left a trail littered with bankruptcies, allegations of fraud, and and devastated victims. This narrative follows that trail and chronicles the improbable adventures of Ahmad Chalabi.

The foregoing is excerpted from The Man Who Pushed America to War by Aram Roston. All rights reserved.

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The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi

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