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."
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, describes Chalabi to colleagues and reporters as the most effective of the Iraqi leaders, the go-to guy.
And Chalabi furthered his reputation at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations and at a private lunch at the home of financier Henry Kravis in New York on Saturday. Among the guests were Henry Kissinger, Lesley Stahl and Jim Hoge, editor of Foreign Policy magazine. "He is smart as he can be," Hoge said. "My God, he's somebody who can get something done." Hoge could understand why people might like Chalabi to run things in Iraq, given "our desperation to get somebody to help pull us out of this mess." "He did extremely well," another guest said. "His tenacity and wiliness are extraordinary. If he pulls this off, he will be the Talleyrand of the century."
The accusations swirl around Chalabi, but they always seem impossible to nail down. The Los Angeles Times reported that he cooked up this trip to the United States, that a U.S. official called it "his idea, not ours." But the spokesman for Treasury Secretary John Snow says, "There was an invitation." It would stand to reason. Chalabi is chairman of Iraq's Energy Committee. "He wanted to talk to me about oil," Chalabi explains. After that meeting was set up, Chalabi says, he received an invitation to meet with national security adviser Stephen Hadley. Then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Chalabi himself initiated meetings with the secretaries of agriculture and commerce.
It is said that when Chalabi learned that Iraq's vice president and former finance minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, was coming, he piggybacked on his trip. Mahdi is a fellow Shiite and a rival for the prime ministry. But a source says that Mahdi was invited after Chalabi's trip had been planned.
As for the FBI investigation into allegations that Chalabi passed government secrets to the Iranians, information officer Bill Carter says the probe "is not specific to Chalabi. It is about the leaking of classified information to a foreign government." Chalabi denies the allegation, calling it "a canard." He did, however, stop off in Tehran before coming here. "We have 1,400 kilometers of border between us, and they share a faith with the majority of Iraqis," he explains. "We want them to support security."
On this trip, Chalabi has been declining to discuss weapons of mass destruction, except to refer to the Robb-Silberman report. That report describes three defectors supplied by the Iraqi National Congress, Chalabi's group, who gave mostly unfounded information about WMD. It also, however, indicates that their involvement in the decision to go to war was minimal.
Chalabi says the administration knows "how little we influenced the decision."
An expert on WMD who might be able to shed some light on Chalabi's involvement is Joe Cirincione, director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Given Chalabi's twisted path, you'd have to be an idiot to trust this man," he says. "Nothing he has said has turned out to be true." He calls the Robb-Silberman report "a whitewash" and says the information that convinced the administration on WMD came "primarily" from sources in the Iraqi National Congress. What was the information that Chalabi is supposed to have produced that was enough to convince the United States to go to war? "That's the right question," he says. "I don't have the answer to that. I did not do an investigation of that. Let me dig around, call around and see if I can get you an answer." Later he calls back to say that his research came up with the fact that the INC admits to supplying three defectors, just what was in the Robb-Silberman report. "We never had a thorough investigation of Chalabi or the INC role in supplying information to the government. We still don't know the whole story."
Back in Washington on Sunday, Chalabi has agreed to come for an interview at a reporter's house. Preceded by security he appears alone at the door, without his entourage of family and advisers, stepping inside rather diffidently, if that is possible for Ahmed Chalabi.
Seated in the living room, drinking tea, he has a demeanor that's quite different from the past few days. He seems quieter and more serious. The gleaming eyes, the inscrutable smile, the swagger are all gone. He is asked about his new relationship with the White House but seems surprised to learn that some now approve of him as one of the top candidates. "I don't know about it," he says. "It's just as well," he adds with a shrug. "It could hurt my chances."
He elaborates: "It surprised me that they have overcome the hostilities of the past months. I don't want to sound arrogant, but in terms of achieving things, getting things done, it doesn't surprise me. The reporting from Baghdad and my role have been the driving force that made this visit possible." He says of this administration: "They're very pragmatic. And my God, they've known me for a long time. They know I'm a good friend of the U.S." Plus, he says, "I turned out to be a person of independent standing and support and deep roots in my country. The issues that clouded the relationship have been cast aside." Then he adds the most important thing: "I can make a serious contribution to the reduction of [U.S.] forces."
He is asked how he deals with the constant assault on his reputation. "There is a reflective wall that comes instinctively when shots are fired at me. It is tiring, though," he says. "No wall is completely opaque."
But then he brightens when he talks about Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb, then was accused of slowing down research on the hydrogen bomb. "They dug up stuff about his marriage," he says. "They discredited him in the worst possible way; they made him look like a fiend. They withdrew his security clearance. He was a genius. Several years later, Kennedy invited him to the White House and Johnson gave him a medal."
During the news conference at the American Enterprise Institute last week, he also mentioned Konrad Adenauer, who never got along with the British and yet ended up being recommended by them to be chancellor of West Germany. "The things people say about me are depressing," he said. "But I know what they are saying is not true."
Chalabi, 61, knows that he is a conundrum to many people. He has been pronounced dead and has risen from the ashes so many times that some call him the Phoenix. What is it about him that makes people crazy? He explains it this way: "I come into a situation that is static, where people have interests and ideas they hold dear. I come with proposals to move the situation without taking into consideration people's prejudices. They get angry at their lost leverage. They go mad. . . . Change produces uncertainty and agitation. And that becomes associated with me."
Chalabi's detractors say that the idea he might ever become prime minister is ludicrous. They say he made a huge mistake in breaking away from the Shia-Sunni alliance and going out on his own. They say that he has no support at all and will be lucky to win even a few delegates.
He grins. He knows that the Prime minister will be chosen in a smoke-filled room. And he is gambling that, once things settle out, he will emerge as the most viable candidate after all. He says that the United States cannot influence the election but that "the Iraqis don't want somebody the U.S. doesn't want. . . . At the same time, they don't want a lackey sitting there taking orders."
Yesterday Chalabi met with Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who wrote the Republican version of the resolution calling for concrete steps toward U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. Chalabi requested the meeting. Warner agreed, having seen the schedule of Chalabi's other meetings. "I was somewhat taken by surprise," Warner said, adding that the road map is clear when somebody sees the secretaries of state and defense, the national security adviser and the vice president. He said Chalabi told him the newly elected Iraqi government would be up and functioning 30 days after the election. "We have to deal with people the Iraqis have put in those positions," Warner said. "How he got there, I don't know. But there he is. . . . I have the impression he will be around."
Tony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has followed the Iraq situation closely.
"Every major revolution produces brilliant opportunists," he says. "Chalabi is very bright and very ambitious. . . . But being a brilliant manipulator is not the way to create a stable or popular system. . . . Polarizing figures polarize people. . . .
"We are unused to dealing with people like this, where the hero turns into the villain and the villain turns into the hero," Cordesman says. "Are we ever going to find the truth? Any journalist who does will not just win the Pulitzer Prize but the Nobel Prize as well."
Ahmed Chalabi speaking at the American Enterprise Institute last week about the state of affairs in Iraq.
Chalabi's motorcade passes a small group of protesters as it leaves the institute, while across the street a supporter holds up the Iraqi flag.