Deja vu? Neocons tout Ahmed Chalabi as Iraq’s next leader


Former Iraqi deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi in October 2010. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

As Iraq's crisis continues, there has been a growing consensus that much of the blame lies at the door of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-led government. Many people believe that Maliki will soon be out of office, and they are probably right.

But who should replace him? There's a long list of possible candidates, but one seems to have won the backing of at least two former advisers to George W. Bush. It's quite a surprising choice.

This week the National Journal's Clara Ritger spoke to Richard Perle, the famously neoconservative adviser to Bush at the time of the Iraq war. Asked about who should next lead Iraq, Perle said 69-year-old Ahmed Chalabi was best suited for the job. "I think he's got the best chance," Perle said. "It would be foolish if we expressed a preference for somebody less competent, which we've done before."

Chalabi, of course, is a man Perle knows well. In the buildup to the Iraq war, the wealthy, politically connected Iraqi exile supplied the U.S. government a large amount of information that linked Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction. For that, he was dubbed the "George Washington of Iraq." Of course, it was later discovered that the information was false, and, after that, a new nickname was found: "The Man Who Pushed America to War" (or, as the New York Times put it, "Neoconner").

Amazingly, it gets worse. In the years after the invasion, Chalabi's reputation for graft and deception expanded. In 2004, U.S. troops raided his Iraqi home and office on fraud and grand-theft charges, and allegations that he had embezzled $230 million from a Lebanese bank years earlier continued to dog him. Later that year, the United States accused Chalabi of providing information to Iran on U.S. troop positions in Iraq. In turn, Chalabi broke with the Bush administration, becoming vocally opposed to the occupation of Iraq.

As you can probably understand, Chalabi became a toxic figure for the United States. "He will use whatever vehicle or platform that presents itself to further his own agenda," Ryan C. Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, told The Post as Chalabi campaigned in the 2010 elections — a move that caused significant concern among U.S. officials at the time.

So, Perle is championing a man who provided false information that led to a war now widely viewed as disastrous, is accused of stealing millions of dollars and is widely thought to have helped spy on the United States for Iran. And Perle isn't alone. Paul Wolfowitz, another leading neoconservative who was key to Bush's foreign policy, also has come out to say that for all his flaws, Chalabi is a viable candidate. “The man is a survivor,” Wolfowitz said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. “That’s impressive. I think he wants to succeed in what he does, he’s smart; maybe he’ll figure out a way to do it.”

The reality is that Chalabi lacks popular support, though his political guile and status as a secular Shiite has helped him emerge as one of the few viable candidates for prime minister. Liz Sly, The Post's Beirut bureau chief, explained his appeal this month: He is "a perennial who presents himself as a compromise candidate after every election. He has no real constituency and won only one seat in parliament, but he has the support of the Sadrists and is being regarded by Sunnis as a chance to move away from [Maliki's] Shiite Islamism."

In many ways, the current chaos in Iraq has renewed focus on the logic of the 2003 invasion and its unintended consequence. It seems a sad indication of the absurdity of the past 11 years of Iraqi history that the man who helped dupe U.S. officials into that invasion should now be backed in his bid for leadership by those very same people.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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