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Chillin' with Chalabi: My Journey into the Surreal


Ahmad Chalabi's Washington visit hit the top floor today, as he met with Don Rumsfeld in the morning and Dick Cheney in the afternoon.

No official word on what they discussed -- but I got a sneak peek Friday night over the course of a surrealistic four-hour dinner with Chalabi at Megu, a Japanese restaurant in Tribeca.

As I posted about on Friday, after seeing Chalabi speak at the Council on Foreign Relations (and being denied the chance to ask a question), I received a call asking if I would like to meet him for breakfast at 8 the next morning. I declined, explaining that I was flying out at 7 a.m. Shortly after, I got another call, suggesting I join him and his group for a late dinner.

So, after speaking on a panel on the Clinton presidency at Hofstra University, I headed straight to Tribeca.

I arrived at Megu at 11:30 and was led past a phalanx of American security guards (provided, I was told, by the U.S. State Department), to a small, private room where Chalabi, his daughter Tamara (a Harvard PhD who lives in London and works closely with her father), and a half-dozen members of his entourage were seated. Also there were ABC news investigative reporter Chris Isham and his wife Jennifer, president of the Tribeca Film Festival. Isham has known Chalabi since 1988. When they first met in Washington, Chalabi was trying to convince U.S. officials to force Saddam out of power -- but those were the days when Saddam was still our friend.

Chalabi looked downright laid-back in a multi-colored sweater that can only be described as Cosby-esque. His group was an hour into their dinner when I arrived, with the remnants of a sushi meal spread across the table. Most were drinking sake but Chalabi (who doesn't drink) and I (who wanted to keep my wits about me) stuck to green tea.

Everything about him suggested a man in full: smart, articulate, and, above all, totally present. His focus never flagged -- not even at 3:30 in the morning when we said good-bye.

His Master of the Bazaar manner reminded me of former Rep. Lee Hamilton's description of Chalabi as the best lobbyist he'd ever met -- other than legendary Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti.

But he is also a study in contradiction, at one moment talking like the only power broker who could bring Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis -- even former Baathists -- together, and then at the next moment coming across as a virtuoso victim, complaining that the CIA is trying to make him a scapegoat for all the prewar intelligence failures. "They even tried to stick Curveball on me," he told me, reflecting on his long and bitter history with the agency.

As I said, it was a surreal night -- made even more so when my cell phone rang at 12:30 a.m. It was John Cusack, who had come with me to the Council on Foreign Relations to hear Chalabi speak earlier in the day.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"I'm having dinner with Ahmad Chalabi," I replied (not a line I get to use very often).

I turned to Chalabi and asked if it would be okay to ask Cusack to join us. "He's an American actor," I volunteered.

"I know, I know..." he interrupted, and went on to reel off a list of Cusack's movies, including Being John Malkovich and The Thin Red Line. I was going to offer up Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil but bit my tongue.

It seemed just moments before he joined us, and immediately our host took us on a wide-ranging Chalabi Tour, alternating between the personal and the pointedly political. The Tour kept being interrupted with the leitmotif of the evening: "You must come to Baghdad," he would say. "Not to the Green Zone -- to Baghdad itself."

Every time he said that, I couldn't help but flash on the horrific picture that had been on the front page of that morning's New York Times, showing a Baghdad restaurant blown up by suicide bombers. The accompanying description of human limbs thrown into the street by the explosion and a scalp hanging from a piece of plaster on the ceiling kept ringing in my head.

On the political front, Chalabi kept returning to his life's goal: to overthrow Saddam. Not because of WMD, he told me, but because of human rights abuses (he gave me a long exposition on Saddam's mass graves).

But I had spent some time researching Chalabi for the posts I wrote last week about his trip to Washington -- so what he had actually said in the lead up to the war was still fresh in my mind.

"Saddam is a major threat," he had said in July 2002. "You have the choice of using military force to liberate Iraq or of having your own civilians killed in the thousands."

Chalabi may want to rewrite history, but there is no question that he used the WMD threat again and again as a means to his end. And there is no question that Chalabi will now, and in the future, use all means at his disposal to achieve his ends.

He is a man of pure will, a term -- just to add to the ironies -- used in "Pipe Dream," the screenplay by Cusack and Mark Leyner I was reading while in New York. "Men of pure will operate beyond the realm of judgment," says one of the characters. "They are like forces of nature...feral and oblivious. They have the morality of an avalanche."

So what of the future? Where is the avalanche headed?

Chalabi definitely wants American troops to stay in Iraq -- even though he had a lot of horror stories about the way the U.S. military is operating "with total immunity and impunity."

"American soldiers," he said, "are breaking into people's homes and are arresting and detaining Iraqi citizens without charges. Even if they run over an Iraqi and kill him they will not be charged with a crime, because they are above Iraqi law."

"Isn't that proof," I kept asking, "that the presence of the military is fueling the insurgency, and that your job would be easier if the Americans left?"

"No," he kept insisting, "we need the Americans to protect us from our neighbors. From Syria, from Saudi Arabia, from Iran."

That's obviously one of the main objectives of his current trip. He's convinced that the administration, for political reasons, is looking for a way out of Iraq. And he wants to make sure that doesn't happen.

But his other objective, which he told me he was planning to discuss with both Rumsfeld and Cheney, is to change the way U.S. troops are operating in Iraq. "America," he said, "has a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which governs how U.S. forces operate inside a sovereign nation, with over 100 countries. But the Bush administration refuses to have one with Iraq -- and, as a result, the U.S. Army is operating outside the law. Rumsfeld feels that a SOFA will tie the hands of the U.S. military and not allow it to fight the insurgency. Of course, the lack of such an agreement has the opposite effect since it causes great resentment towards the U.S. among the Iraqi people."

Another thing made clear through the night was how much Chalabi hates Paul Bremer and what the Coalition Provision Authority did in Iraq. So much so that he's willing to praise Henry Waxman, who has criticized him harshly, but who, according to Chalabi, has done the most thorough work on what he regards as "the tragic waste and abuse of billions of dollars that belonged to the Iraqi people."

"The administration wants to cover this up," he told me. "Let's hope Waxman won't let them."

He wanted me to know that his meetings were not just with Republicans, but included Sen. Carl Levin, Rep. Tom Lantos, and Dick Holbrooke. "Ultimately," he said, "we have no friendships -- only interests."

Which is just as well since his neocon bud Paul Wolfowitz is off saving the world at the World Bank, Cheney and Bush are trying to save what's left of their co-presidency, and Judy Miller is no longer at the New York Times.

The problem is that this time I don't think the Master of the Bazaar will be able to square the circle and get what he wants. Because what he wants is an occupying army that no longer acts as an occupying army -- an army that fiercely protects Iraq from its neighbors while being the smiling cop on the beat in Iraq's explosive neighborhoods.

It ain't gonna happen.

There is no way he is going to get Rumsfeld and Cheney, steeped in the neocon "you're either at the table or on the menu" ethos, to agree to limit the powers of the U.S. army.

So to the extent that his visit here has made it more likely the troops will stay until the Iraqis are ready to take over -- which effectively means indefinitely -- Chalabi will have done a disservice to his country. And he will have made all the things he cares about -- including a constant and uninterrupted flow of oil -- infinitely harder to achieve.

And I know it's no big deal for avalanches, but it will also lead to even more dead young Americans, more Gold Star Moms, and more broken lives.

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