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Ahmed Chalabi: Conning America

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It's ironic that only now, eight and a half years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as the last American troops pull out, that we finally get a book dissecting the machinations of one of the men most responsible for that catastrophe: Ahmed Chalabi, the brilliant, treacherous, endlessly scheming Iraqi refugee who, from 1991 to 2004, played a singular role in contorting U.S. policy towards Iraq.

The book Arrows of the Night(Doubleday), written by 60 Minutes producer Richard Bonin, is based on lengthy and remarkably frank interviews with Chalabi as well as scores of others who dealt with him over the years. The result is a chilling chronicle of how this charismatic and totally amoral Iraqi exile, without any power base among his own people, was, at various times, able to con everyone from the New York Times, to the CIA, to the Defense Department, to Dick Cheney -- even Iran's intelligence chiefs -- in his single-minded determination to overthrow Saddam Hussein and take power himself.

It is also an alarming tale of how a feckless American president, George W. Bush, buffeted by conflicting counsels of feuding advisers, stumbled into one of the most disastrous military quagmires in America's history.

Chalabi was born to an Iraqi family of immense wealth and influence, remarkable because they were Shiites in a country dominated by a Sunni minority. In 1958 ,however. the family was forced to flee Iraq after a military coup. Almost from the beginning, the young exile was obsessed with overthrowing the regime in Baghdad which, after 1968, was led by Saddam Hussein.

Chalabi studied first in London, then at the University of Chicago and MIT. He was an outstanding mathematician, but with a con man's soul. At age 32 he founded what would quickly become Jordan's second largest bank. But his triumph was brief: Chalabi was obliged to flee that country as well when he was charged -- and then convicted -- of fraud and embezzlement of more than a hundred million dollars.

The contretemps might have ended the career of lesser men, but not Ahmed Chalabi. Still determined to topple Saddam, he came to the United States, convinced that the path to Baghdad led through Washington, D.C.

Lacking any real backing from Iraqis, by his own brilliance and conniving, Chalabi created a support network among influential Americans, many of them prominent neo-conservatives. They saw in the articulate Iraqi an ingenious strategist whose vision of sparking an uprising in Iraq with U.S. help, coincided with their own view: it was time for America to step forward and wield its vast power to promote democracy and other vital U.S. interests abroad. (Key among such interests were ensuring access to Middle Eastern oil and the survival of Israel.) Chalabi and his new allies set out to transform Iraq and Saddam into a hot-button U.S. political issue.

In 1991, George H.W. Bush agreed to clandestinely fund an Iraqi exile group and Chalabi was picked to head the operation, receiving a stipend of $340,000 per month. Actually, as the administration and the CIA saw it, that move was just window dressing to make it appear as if the U.S. was really doing something to overthrow Saddam.

In fact, they had no intention of getting the U.S. involved militarily. Nor did they want a popular uprising that could have brought the majority Shiites to power, and increase the influence of neighboring Iran. What they wanted was to topple Saddam by a military coup and replace him with a more tractable government of Sunni generals.

But Ahmed Chalabi had different ideas. Rather than the CIA using him, he would use them. He deployed his secret U.S. backing to get himself elected leader of the exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, then started dictating policy to an outraged CIA. His plan, to take power himself after a popular uprising, protected by an American military umbrella.

Incredibly, at the same time he was pocketing Washington's money, Chalabi was also dickering with Iran. He calculated that to take power in Baghdad, he would also have to win the backing of America's prime foe in the region, the mullahs in Tehran. And, for a while, he did. In fact, in 1995, by his cunning and deceit, Chalabi almost succeeded in provoking a U.S. military intervention in Iraq and a possible war between Iraq and its neighbors.

When outraged government officials tried to rein him in, Chalabi turned to his powerful Washington backers. Over the years, they would include such figures as Steve Solarz, John Murphy, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby and Dick Cheney. Shrewd, supposedly worldly men with brilliant Washington resumes, they were dazzled by Chalabi: he was an Iraqi De Gaulle, a George Washington. They ridiculed CIA and State Department experts and rode roughshod over their warnings.

In 2001, George W. Bush came to power and Chalabi's lobby grew more shrill. To build their case to invade Iraq, the White House turned to Chalabi's INC for hard evidence of Saddam's WMD's and his links with Al Qaeda. And, presto, Chalabi produced informants with precisely the tales required. After the invasion, when it was revealed that those informants were lying, Chalabi was unabashed.

Similarly, when Washington asked Chalabi to gather his much-vaunted thousand-man Iraqi army, only a motley 600 showed up, many of them Farsi-speaking with no knowledge of Arabic. Turned out they were mercenaries hired at $5,000 a piece -- on America's tab.

Still Chalabi's Washington fans were unfazed. When the U.S. occupied Iraq, the exiled leader was appointed to key positions in the interim government -- which he then milked to build his own political base as well as a huge personal fortune.

And all the while, he continued his double-dealing with Iran; for instance, turning over to them sensitive files seized from Saddam's secret police. Finally, in March 2004, outraged American intelligence agents discovered that Chalabi had informed the Iranians that the U.S. was deciphering Iran's most sensitive communications.

Incredibly, Chalabi still had his protectors in Washington. President Bush only learned of the Iraqi's treachery when he read about it in the May 10, 2004 edition of Newsweek. He also learned of Chalabi's $340,000 monthly stipend -- which was still continuing.

According to Bonin's account, at a meeting of his National Security Council, Bush asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, "Who does Chalabi work for? Who pays him?" Rumsfeld claimed not to know, though Chalabi's payments were coming from the Pentagon's own intelligence agency.

"If we're paying this guy and he's giving away our secrets," Bush ordered, "It needs to stop. Condi, look into it."

But even the President's National Security Advisor, Condelezza Rice, was no match for Chalabi's Pentagon supporters: it took two more NSC meetings, the president growing ever more irate, before, on May 19, Paul Wolfowitz announced that the INC stipend was ending. Not because of Chalabi's treachery, but because it wasn't "appropriate" for the U.S. to be funding an Iraq political party.

Ironically, it was the Iranians who finally thwarted Chalabi's ambitions. In February, 2005 the Iranian ambassador to Iraq bluntly ordered Chalabi to drop out of the race for prime minister. Tehran would never accept a secular Shiite like Chalabi running Iraq. Chalabi might defy the Americans, but never the Iranians. "He would be dead in two days, and he knew it," a Chalabi aide later told Bonin.

In 2007, however, Chalabi would again profit from U.S. backing. With the support of U.S. General David Petraeus, Chalabi was appointed by prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to another key post, charged with restoring Baghdad's shattered infra-structure.

True to form, within a few months Chalabi betrayed Maliki and the Americans by siding with Iranian-backed Shiite radical Moqtada-al-Sadr, whose goal was to drive the Americans from Iraq.

Today, according to Bonin, Chalabi remains ensconced in his sprawling Baghdad compound, surrounded by a small army of security guards, and the enormous wealth his government positions enabled him to amass. But he's no longer a contender to lead post-Saddam Iraq. History, says Bonin, has finally passed him by.

America's military adventure in Iraq is, hopefully, ended. But there's still much to be learned from this case study of national hubris -- how the policies of the most powerful country on the planet were shaped by a group of arrogant players with insiders' cunning and their own, often shadowy, agendas.

It's a lesson particularly relevant today, as the political climate heats up and another American president ratchets up tensions with Iran, while simultaneous dispatching U.S. troops to the Pacific in a new but vague and open-ended challenge.