Ahmed Chalabi smiled contentedly at the thought. L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator who ran Iraq like a viceroy for more than a year, was reduced to a hasty exit with a stealthy helicopter ride to the airport, seen off without fanfare by no one higher-ranking than a deputy prime minister.
"Bremer put his hand in his pocket and went to the airport ignominiously," Chalabi chortled Tuesday, the day after Bremer's departure. "And Dan Senor with him," he added, referring to Bremer's spokesman, who had denigrated Chalabi on television.
In essence, Chalabi was saying, Bremer is now gone, Senor is now gone and Ahmed Chalabi is not.
True, Chalabi has been disowned by the Pentagon and his other sponsors in Washington, the ones who not long ago were paying him for intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that seems to have been groundless. Thanks in part to Bremer, he also was excluded from the new government headed by his longtime rival from exile days, Ayad Allawi. And warrants or subpoenas have been issued for about 15 of his aides, including his intelligence chief, while sources in the United States, speaking anonymously, suggest he may have passed U.S. secrets to Iran. Chalabi, who was not charged, has denied any wrongdoing by himself or his associates.
Now, as the Bush administration's efforts in Iraq enter a new phase and many key Americans have departed, Chalabi remains.
The cunning and determination that served him during more than a decade of encouraging the United States into war against Saddam Hussein have not deserted him. From headquarters in Mansour, Baghdad's toniest neighborhood, the former exile leader, the former Washington protege, the former Iraqi Governing Council member has taken to watching, waiting and laying closely held plans.
Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, which once drew funds from the CIA and the Pentagon, has not gained a high profile as a political force in Iraq, but neither have the other exile groups. The INC will participate as a political party in next January's elections, Chalabi said. But in a shirt-sleeves conversation at his expansive residence, the portly campaigner, 59, danced and jabbed relentlessly when asked about what is left of his own political ambitions.
When pressed, he cited a bit of wisdom attributed to Imam Ali, a 7th-century warrior who married a daughter of the prophet Muhammad and became a central figure of Shiite Islam: "He who seeks authority should not be given authority." In more modern terms, he said he was lying low because "people immediately ascribe to me aims and ambitions of achieving power."
Chalabi, a secular Shiite, has kept only a modest hand in public affairs since the Governing Council on which he served disbanded a month ago. He has helped organize the grand assembly convening next month to pick a quasi-legislature, and he meets regularly with the Shiite Caucus of Iraq's Shiite political leaders. But he is the only senior figure in the U.S.-backed exile movement whose group was frozen out of the new government by the Bush administration's political process.
Yet even from the sidelines, Chalabi said, he has clear ideas about what the Iraqi government should do -- ideas formed in years of maneuvering through the many agencies of the U.S. government. His ideas, forcefully expressed, have gotten him into trouble before, he acknowledged, generating hostility at the CIA, enraging Bremer and irritating even fellow members of the Governing Council.
The CIA had a long grudge against him, he said, because he warned that Iraqi intelligence had penetrated a 1996 coup plot supported by George J. Tenet, then deputy director of intelligence. Bremer turned against him because of his repeated insistence that Iraqis be given authority more swiftly to run their own country, Chalabi said.
It was Bremer, he said, who was behind the raid May 20 in which his office was searched for compromising documents on the strength of a warrant issued by an Iraqi judge. However, Senor, Bremer's spokesman, said at the time that Bremer's only connection with the case was administrative. "Ambassador Bremer doesn't intervene in these respective cases," Senor said then, "he just handles the procedural matter of referring it."
Now things have changed. Bremer has gone home and the Bush administration has cut its ties, leaving Chalabi in Baghdad with a future just as uncertain as that of the rest of his 25 million countrymen. As the new government takes its first steps with restored political authority, there was no longer any reason not to lay out his ideas.
The first imperative, Chalabi said, is to make sure the elections scheduled for January are carried out as promised. Allawi suggested over the weekend that the voting might have to be postponed until February or March if the security situation did not improve. But he swiftly disavowed the idea of delay the next day, recognizing the issue's sensitivity in a country repeatedly told that democracy had arrived.
The next priority should be to shake off U.S. tutelage and show Iraqis they have a government that really is in charge of the country, Chalabi declared. Even if the departure of U.S. troops is not a practical possibility, he said, the Iraqi government should display as much authority as it can under the circumstances.
"This is a quandary," he acknowledged. "The Iraqi government needs to assert itself as an Iraqi government, independent of the Americans, but it has to rely on the Americans to assert itself."
As he and many Iraqis acknowledge, Iraq's army and security services have not acquired the numbers or ability to confront violent resistance to U.S. occupation. As a result, the 141,000 U.S. troops and about 25,000 other foreign forces in Iraq will be in charge of security for the foreseeable future.
Allawi has few tools to back up his repeated pledges to crack down on the anti-occupation underground, Chalabi said, but he should move swiftly to give Iraqi security forces visibility on the streets. "At this time, the government doesn't have the power, but it has to show that it is doing it."
A good place to start, Chalabi suggested, would be with the new Iraqi National Intelligence Service set up by the CIA to replace Hussein's much-feared services. The new intelligence apparatus, hundreds strong, was organized in secret without a known budget or statute, he said.
The director, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Abdullah Shahwani, was recruited by the CIA station in the Jordanian capital Amman after he fled Iraq in 1991, Chalabi said, and has been a favorite ever since. A member of Iraq's Turkmen minority, Shahwani reports directly to the prime minister but is closely supervised by CIA officers, Chalabi added. Under their guidance, the service has turned much of its focus toward neighboring Iran, he said.
According to a report prepared in April by knowledgeable officials for members of the now-disbanded Governing Council, the service roster is two-thirds Sunni Muslim and one-fourth Shiite in a country that is about 60 percent Shiite, giving rise to fears that the new service has incorporated many former members of Hussein's Sunni-dominated services.
"This won't fly here," Chalabi said.
Next, Chalabi said, the new government should grab control of the country's finances. Specifically, he said, it should demand a full accounting of how Bremer, who had check-signing authority, spent funds from the Development Fund for Iraq, a pool of cash from Iraqi oil sales designated to pay for reconstruction.
KPMG, the firm contracted to do an audit, issued an interim report recently complaining that lack of cooperation from Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority was preventing it from meeting a June 30 deadline.
In addition, Chalabi said, the U.S. Embassy, which replaced the occupation authority on Monday, has sought power to disburse some of the funds even though political authority has been returned to the Iraqi government. Allawi's government should insist that the money flow exclusively through the Iraqi Finance Ministry, Chalabi said.
Another step the government should take to show Iraqis that it is in charge is to shed the American and other foreign advisers who remain in some ministries, he said. These advisers have largely left such ministries as education and housing, but remain in others, such as defense and interior.
Finally, Chalabi suggested, Allawi and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari should make sure that they, not the United States, determine Iraqi foreign policy.
Iraq has a long history of Arab nationalism and support for Palestinians against Israel, dating from before Hussein's Baath Party took over in 1968. As a result, its foreign policy, if tradition and popular sentiment are followed, could end up being adversarial with that of the Bush administration.