A Lightning Rod's Striking Return

The controversial Iraqi deputy prime minister visited the American Enterprise Institute during a trip in which he met with top U.S. officials.
The controversial Iraqi deputy prime minister visited the American Enterprise Institute during a trip in which he met with top U.S. officials. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 17, 2005

Anticipation is high in the steamy standing-room-only crowd of journalists and cameras at the American Enterprise Institute. "Hollywood," "big deal," "who knew?" is the buzz around the room. Of course every news organization wants to be there for the return of Iraqi lightning rod Ahmed Chalabi. Outside on the street, a small crowd of placard-carrying protesters are shouting "Liar."

Chalabi strides to the podium after a flattering introduction by the head of the institute. "He has been defamed, undermined and attacked by the U.S. government," says Chris Muth. "He permits himself to exhibit no sign of bitterness."

Chalabi's dark eyes dart around the room. He wears an ambiguous smile. He begins to speak. One hour later, after a comprehensive summary of the situation in Iraq without a note or hesitation, he takes questions.

Some are more like accusations. "Did you deliberately mislead the American people about weapons of mass destruction," someone asks. "Urban myth," he responds, never flinching. Someone else asks whether he will apologize for leading the United States into war. He refers them to the Robb-Silberman report on prewar intelligence. "Page 128," he offers helpfully. When the questions are over, he disappears, leaving his smile behind him. The protesters' shouts follow his limousine as it pulls away.

Spending time with Ahmed Chalabi is like disappearing down the rabbit hole. People are either throwing him tea parties or crying "off with his head."

* * *

Normally in Washington, people ask not to be identified when they have something negative to say about a person in the news. With Chalabi, it's the opposite. On the heels of his week-long visit to the United States, few want to be quoted by name saying anything positive. Yet suddenly many have positive things to say.

It was only a year and a half ago that his Baghdad office and home were raided and trashed by U.S. and Iraqi forces. He had gone from being the darling of the neo-cons to a pariah. Many thought he was dead politically.

But today he is a strong contender for prime minister in next month's elections, and highly placed sources say he has become the choice of many U.S. officials to lead the country. He has managed to resurrect himself because he is seen as the one person who can get U.S. troops out of Iraq, and Washington is pragmatic enough to recognize that.

One top White House official, in listing the possible leaders who could emerge in Iraq after next month's elections, put Chalabi's name first. Chalabi's two biggest enemies in the administration, Colin Powell and George Tenet, are now gone. One of his biggest supporters, Vice President Cheney, is still there, and met with him this week.

Ask about Chalabi among members of the administration, and off the record there is general agreement. "Very astute fellow," says one very high government official. "Extremely bright and competent," says a senior military man.

Another top military officer who has worked with Chalabi was effusive. He says that most of the Iraqis he has dealt with are inexperienced and indecisive, whereas Chalabi "is decisive, personally very courageous, is incredibly energetic, knows Western ways. . . . He is the only one of the deputy prime ministers willing to take on the touchy issues." More important, this man says, "he delivers, he cuts through the bureaucracy."

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