Shadow Elite : March to War -- Is Ahmed Chalabi Under Iran's Thumb?

For the rest of March, to mark seven years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Shadow Elite column each week will focus on what I call in my book the "Neocon core," a tiny circle of longtime ideological allies who used their interlocking relationships across government, think tanks, business, and national borders to achieve their vision of asserting American power, and firepower, to remake the Middle East. The second Iraq war was the apotheosis of that vision. This week, a crucial accessory to the Neocon core, the consummate operator who's now plying his influence in the fractious realm of Iraqi politics, Ahmed Chalabi.

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In February, General Ray Odierno, U.S. commander in Iraq, said that Ahmed Chalabi, once the Iraqi-exile darling of the Bush White House, was "clearly influenced by Iran" as a political power broker in the run-up to Iraq's parliamentary elections early this month. "We have direct intelligence that tells us that," the General said, accusing Chalabi of having several meetings in Iran, including ones with a man who is on a reported U.S. terror watch list.

At first glance, it might seem like an unimaginable reversal. This is the man who sat behind First Lady Laura Bush during the 2004 State of the Union address, the indefatigable source of propaganda and "intelligence" for White House hawks seeking legitimacy in their zealous quest to invade Iraq. And now he's accused by a top General (earlier, by the CIA) of perhaps aiding the nation declared by his former patrons to be part of the so-called "Axis of Evil."

But for Chalabi, a master manipulator in the new system of power and influence charted in my book Shadow Elite, it is hardly surprising. It's to be expected. Coming up repeatedly in enigmatic roles and different incarnations to promote a cause or policy is a defining trait of the shadow elite.

Indeed, Chalabi is far more than a jet-setting Energizer bunny. He is a prime example of what I call a "flexian", the movers and shakers of the shadow elite who glide across borders, and structure overlapping (and not fully revealed) roles in government, business, media, and think tanks to serve their own agendas. When such players, loyal to their own, perform interdependent roles, and when fundamental questions lack straight answers, we have likely encountered a flexian. Who is he? Who funds him? For whom does he work? Where, ultimately, does his allegiance lie? We never really knew, and still don't know, who Chalabi is.

Flexians thrive in the murky, ambiguous spots where state and private power meet. They bypass or undermine official rules, government, and bureaucracy; organizational loyalty; traditional authority; and professional expertise. And they brand their own version of the truth to suit their interests and those of their associates and fellow-believers.

Chalabi was instrumental, if not indispensable, in conjuring up a version of the truth, now fully discredited, about Iraq and the supposed threat of weapons of mass destruction and the supposed link between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and 9/11. And what was Chalabi's agenda?  He was intent for years on overthrowing Saddam Hussein. But why? And who is he serving now? Despite his insistence that he is simply an Iraqi patriot, the full extent of Chalabi's motives remains a high-stakes mystery.

A number of facts seem well-established:  Chalabi is an Iraqi-born businessman and exile who comes from a prominent Shi'ite family. In the early 1990s, despite a conviction (in absentia) on charges of bank fraud and embezzlement in Jordan, he successfully lobbied Congress for legislation to support his goal of removing the Sunni-backed Saddam Hussein from power. Toward this end, he partnered with members of the "Neocon core", a tight-knit dozen or so power brokers who have worked together for decades in various configurations to realize their goals for an aggressive American foreign policy in the Middle East. Richard Perle, linchpin of the Neocon core and archetypal flexian, introduced Chalabi to other core members and facilitated funding and contacts. Chalabi, who legitimized his role by creating and leading the Iraqi National Congress, in turn provided "intelligence" and persona as a potential Iraqi leader.

Chalabi and his associates used millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars and a broad network of American and Middle Eastern operatives to gather "intelligence." They found receptive players, namely, members of the Neocon core and their allies, in the Pentagon and the National Security Council, even though Chalabi had long been distrusted by the CIA and the State Department and was wanted for allegedly defrauding the Jordanian government in the 1980s to the tune of $200 million. Two secretive units in the Pentagon (the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group and the Office of Special Plans), set up and manned by neoconservatives, assessed intelligence based in part on information supplied by Chalabi et al., assessments typically not shared with or vetted by counterparts in relevant government quarters.

Members of the Neocon core and a much larger group of associates and allies laundered this "information", branding it as official and respectable, and embedded it in their campaign to sell the invasion of Iraq to the U.S. Congress, journalists and ultimately the public. Soon after U.S. boots were on the ground, Chalabi was installed on the Iraqi Governing Council as a U.S. taxpayer-funded envoy to Iraq until his brief (supposed) 2004 fall from Bush-administration grace.  

I say "supposed" because one might expect that Chalabi would suffer some consequences once it became clear that his intelligence was factually-challenged, to say the least.  Instead, in the world of the shadow elite, failure goes unpunished (or is, in fact, impossible to punish by traditional means) and can even offer rewards, by actually giving a flexian a chance to morph into a new role of influence.  

So consider the "failure" of Chalabi. Was he scorned by his former supporters after being so roundly discredited? Hardly. In the fall of 2005, with occupied Iraq in chaos, he had audiences with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Stephen D. Hadley, and other high officials. 

During the same visit, I heard Chalabi speak at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank where Perle and several members of the Neocon core each hung one of their hats. AEI is the platform Chalabi used two and a half years earlier to call for Saddam's removal. This time, he claimed that the Iraqi "government has stopped 95 percent of the corruption", and that democracy and transparency were taking hold, even as reports on the ground rendered this claim ludicrous. Chalabi was received as a respected statesman.

What's staggering about this is not just that Chalabi's intelligence had proven to be so spectacularly wrong, a U.S. embarrassment for the history books, but that at the time of his visit, he was being investigated by the FBI. They were looking at allegations that he had passed classified information to Iran, the Shi'ite powerhouse in the region and avowed enemy of the U.S. and Israel. Chalabi was not only invited to mingle with top White House decision makers, but also apparently avoided FBI interrogation on that visit. Chalabi denies leaking any intelligence to Iran.

Other reports or examples of Iranian influence: Chalabi's Iraqi Council had its officers in Iran soon after the U.S. invasion. He has also reportedly met with the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and various other officials.

But it's his role in the latest Parliamentary elections a few weeks ago that drew Gen. Odierno's ire, and makes the Chalabi mystery highly relevant to the fragile balance of power in Iraq today.  Chalabi, now a member of a Shi'ite political bloc, was reportedly involved in a committee that disqualified hundreds of candidates from running in the election, because they had supposed ties to Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated Ba'ath party. Gen. Odierno also believes Chalabi has been in contact with the top Iraqi adviser to Iran's Quds Force commander. The Quds Force has helped plan anti-U.S. paramilitary and political operations in Iraq, and last summer, the adviser in question was placed on what's reported to be a U.S. terror watch list, on allegations that he and his group "committed, directed, supported, or posed a significant risk of committing acts of violence against Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces."

Chalabi's longtime U.S. adviser Francis Brooke was quoted as saying Odierno showed a "profound lack of understanding of Iraqi politics.....every senior Iraqi politician, particularly the Kurdish and Shi'ite parties, has diplomatic relations with Iran." And Chalabi himself denies any impropriety.

Joining Odierno in accusing Chalabi of being under the influence of Iran is U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill, who gave this account of how Chalabi assumed power, in true shadow elite fashion, with the committee that disqualified the candidates.

Chalabi ...was named ... back in '03 as the head of the de-Baathification Committee. It was a committee that went out of existence two years ago, replaced by the Accountability and Justice Committee. Everyone else understood .... that their terms expired ... except for Mr. Chalabi, who assumed by himself ... a position in a new committee to which he was never named ...  and I don't need to relate to you .... the fact that this is a gentleman who has been challenged over the years to be seen as a straightforward individual.

Chalabi and other highly-skilled flexians don't get their power from being straightforward, in fact, it's quite the opposite. They prefer the roads less traveled, exploiting societies in flux, like Iraq, moving in and out of formal and informal roles, collapsing borders, bureaucracies and defying traditional standards of conduct and accountability along the way.

What does this all mean to the U.S.?   Right now, we are seeing possible blowback from the U.S. having helped to create Chalabi and easing his entree into Iraqi politics, namely the possibility that he is promoting the interests of Iran, a nation that U.S policy regards as hostile, and hungry to become a nuclear power. But the broader picture of the shadow elite's handiwork is even more devastating. In the case of Chalabi, we saw an unelected power broker, not even a U.S. citizen, exerting substantial influence over America's decision to go to war.  As Chalabi's U.S. adviser put it, "this war would not have been fought if it had not been for Ahmad."  And thousands of Americans, and a hundred thousand Iraqis or more might be alive today.

Linda Keenan is editor of the Shadow Elite column.