Ahmad Chalabi “The Fabricator”News Abroad
tags: Iraq, WMD, Ahmad Chalabi
Professor Brian Glyn Williams worked for the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center in Afghanistan and is author of Inferno in Chechnya. The Russia-Chechen Wars, the Al Qaeda Myth, and the Boston Marathon Bombings
Last week one of the major architects in the construction of the Iraqi WMD myth, Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, died of heart failure at 71 in Baghdad. His death brought to an end a sordid chapter in U.S. history that saw Central Command launch an invasion of another nation based on manipulated and hyped intelligence. Approximately four thousand five hundred American troops died in the unforgiving sands of Iraq in furtherance of Chalabi’s schemes and another thirty thousand were horribly maimed or wounded.
What is not generally understood is that the U.S. itself was manipulated into involving itself in an ancient sectarian conflict that saw it intervene in the deserts of Iraq on behalf of Chalabi’s sect, the Shiites. Tragically, it was the U.S. overthrow of the ruling Sunnis, who had ruled the country for five hundred years, that led this disempowered sectarian group to join the insurgency and create Al Qaeda in Iraq (which morphed into the Islamic State in Iraq). The rise of this hybrid terrorist group/army that now rules over an area larger than Britain with eight million people on its lands is a direct result of Chalabi’s efforts to convince the Americans to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. Most important, he convinced them of the need to protect themselves from an active Iraqi WMD program that he knew did not exist.
A brief background journey helps explain how Americans came to feel that it was in their national interest to involve themselves in a struggle between the two sects of Islam that goes back to the seventh century.
Duping the American People.
History tells us Sunnis ruled Iraq since it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s. Sunnis also dominated the secular-Socialist Baathist Party which came to power in Iraq in the 1960s. The Shiite majority on the other hand were repressed in Iraq and many of them, including Ahmad Chalabi, ended up in exile.
In exile, Chalabi helped create the Iraqi National Congress which lobbied in Washington DC to convince the Americans to overthrow Hussein’s totalitarian Sunni regime. This was a difficult proposition, however, as Bush Sr. listened to the CIA and his Sunni Arab allies in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait who warned him of the dangers of overthrowing Hussein’s ruling Sunni-Baathist regime. They felt this would “open Pandora’s Box” and have all sorts of unforeseen consequences in this unstable region.i Among the ripple effects the CIA and allied Sunni Arab regimes feared the most from upending half a millennium of Sunni rule in Iraq was the creation of a Shiite dominated regime in Baghdad that would be aligned with Shiite Iran.
Chalabi was, however, able to convince a group of Republican thinkers known as the Neo-Cons (Neo-Conservatives) that if the U.S. overthrew Hussein and put him in charge, he would create a pro-Israeli democracy in Iraq. When Bush Jr. came to power, in 2001 many of these Neo-Cons and their allies were given positions of power in the Pentagon and White House. There they lobbied to overthrow Hussein even as another group that had nothing to do with the secular Baathist regime in Iraq, Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda, plotted the 9/11 attacks.
The September 11th attacks gave the Neo-Cons the opportunity to “bundle” an invasion of Sunni-dominated state of Iraq with the preexisting war on Bin Laden’s Saudi-dominated stateless terrorist organization. But the Neo-Cons and their allies, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney, needed a pretext to invade a militarily defanged Iraq. Iraq it will be recalled had no ties to Al Qaeda and had had its WMD program systematically dismantled by U.N. arms inspections on the ground from 1991 to 1998 and a devastating bombing campaign launched by President Clinton in 1998 known as Operation Desert Fox.
Enter Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi was active in assisting the Neo-Cons in selling the war to the American people by offering up Iraqi “defectors” who claimed to have evidence of on-going and active Iraqi WMD programs. Among them was the brother of a Chalabi aide who went by the code-name Curveball. This source claimed that he had personally worked on a mobile WMD program for Hussein. Secretary of State Colin Powell then went before the U.N. on February 5, 2003 and used artistic renditions of these supposed mobile weapons labs (there were no satellite or spy images available) to help convince the Congress and the world of the urgent need to invade Iraq. Unfortunately, after the invasion when the mobile labs were found by U.S. troops they were found to be British-manufactured hydrogen weather balloon facilities. ii An unrepentant Curveball was to say of his testimony that led to the war, which led to death of over 200,000 of his countrymen and the rise of ISIS, “They gave me this chance. I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime.”iii
Curveball was not the only INC (Iraqi National Congress) source on WMDs put forth by Chalabi. The National Security Archives would record another incident as follows: “Former Iraqi engineer and exile Adnan Ihsan Saeed al- Haideri, who has said that Iraq secretly buried tons of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in wells, villas, and a hospital failed a polygraph test and the CIA concludes that his entire story is a lie. Al- Haideri had been coached for days by the Iraqi National Congress prior to the test.”iv
Chalabi’s INC also provided another “defector” to the CIA known as “INC Source” who, despite also being found to be a “fabricator,” gave information on Iraqi WMDs to the US intelligence community that made its way into a notoriously alarmist 2002 NIE (National Intelligence Estimate) issued by the country’s fifteen intelligence agencies. This subsequently-debunked report laid out worst case scenarios on Iraq’s WMDs as the only scenario.v Based on Chalabi’s sources, it even claimed that Iraq was trying to reconstitute its nuclear program. The flawed 2002 NIE was crucial to the Bush administration in making the case for war to the American people.
While the CIA was suspicious of Chalabi’s “defectors,” he had powerful supporters in the Bush White House and Pentagon. Reporter Dexter Filkins has written:
David Kay, the former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, offers one of the most compelling explanations for how pivotal Chalabi’s role was in taking America to war. Kay said that while the C.I.A. had long regarded Chalabi with suspicion, disregarding much of what he gave them, Chalabi had succeeded in persuading his more powerful friends in other parts of the government — Vice President Dick Cheney, for instance, and Wolfowitz.... Of Wolfowitz, whom he has known for years, Kay said: “He was a true believer. He thought he had the evidence. That came from the defectors. They came from Chalabi.”vi
Chalabi was also active in influencing the court of public opinion via the media. Dexter Filkins has written of Chalabi that “He was America’s chief public advocate for war, spreading information gathered by his own intelligence network to newspapers, magazines, television programs and Congress…. Indeed, the press proved even more gullible than the intelligence experts in the American government.”vii
Most notably, Ahmad Chalabi’s “defectors” gave false information on WMDs to the influential New York Times which published several articles on the topic based on these sources. One of the INC sources who made the claims for the New York Times was later taken to Iraq by US troops after the invasion, but proved unable to find the WMD facility (said to be located beneath a hospital) that he had been referring to.viii
What is remarkable in hindsight, is the ways in which Chalabi and the Bush White House were not only able to convince America to go to war with Iraq, but the degree to which they made support for the overthrow of the Sunnis a litmus test for American patriotism. Critics of Chalabi’s intelligence, and of the rush to war in general, were defined by the Bush White House as “unpatriotic.” Voices such former Bush Sr.’s National Security Advisor, General Brent Scowcroft, who warned that if the US incautiously tried to reconfigure the Middle East it would become a “cauldron,” were ridiculed and marginalized. ix
Of course when the U.S. occupied Iraq in 2003 and the rosy picture Chalabi painted of jubilant crowds welcoming the Americans was replaced by a full-blown Sunni insurgency, Chalabi’s star began to wane. He was later accused of providing intelligence to the Iranians (it will be recalled that Chalabi was himself a Shiite like the Iranians) and U.S. troops raided his compound in Baghdad. CBS was to report of Chalabi’s betrayal of the Americans: “Senior U.S. officials have told Correspondent Lesley Stahl that they have evidence Chalabi has been passing highly classified U.S. intelligence to Iran. The evidence shows that Chalabi personally gave Iranian intelligence officers information so sensitive that if revealed it could, quote, "get Americans killed." The evidence is said to be ‘rock solid.’ "x
While the Neo-Cons stood by their man, he was seen as persona non grata by the CIA which had long distrusted him as a fabricator who was trying to dupe the Americans into overthrowing the Sunnis based on falsified intelligence. But by then it was too late, the U.S was involved in a bloody counter-insurgency against Sunni rebels that was inflamed by Chalabi’s actions.
As it transpires, Chalabi and his Shiite allies poured gasoline on the flames and played a major role in disempowering ruling Sunnis after the U.S. occupation of Iraq had begun. As members of the Governing Council, they purged Sunnis from the government based on lists of known Baathists. One Sunni explained the impact this decision had on his disenfranchised community as follows: “At first no one fought the Americans, not the Baath, not the army officers, and not the [Sunni] tribes. But when the Americans formed the Governing Council [in July 2003] with thirteen Shia [Shiites] and only a few Sunnis, people began to say ‘The Americans mean to give the country to the Shia’ and then they began to fight, and the tribes began to let Al Qaeda in.” xi
Chalabi played a key role in the purge of predominately Sunni Baathists. Hazem Sangish has written: “Those [Sunnis] who were not afraid of de-Baathification itself were afraid of the people in charge of it. The fact that Ahmad Chalabi had been appointed chairman of the de-Baathification Commission was enough to confirm many people’s suspicions…. Chalabi grew up embittered towards all the Arab nationalist and socialist movements that were usually associated with Sunni military officers. Instead, he developed a kind of Iraqi nationalist sentiment, based on a Shiite majority open to the West, to Israel and to Iran.”xii
Not surprisingly, Sunnis feared that the De-Baathification Commission led by Shiites like Chalabi would carry out vendettas against them and this appears to have to come pass. Sangish writes: “These policies emerged from the beginning as forms of revenge, not only against the Ba’ath as a party and system, but also against the Sunni Triangle…. Regardless of the intentions of those who had drawn the policy, it was as much a means of taking revenge on a certain sect [Sunnis] and a certain region as it was a process of breaking the hold of the Baath Party and its ideology on Iraqi society as a whole.” xiii
Middle East expert Juan Cole has written of the purge of Sunnis, often at the hands of their Shiite rivals: “In the new Iraq, Sunni high status was turned upside down. The Sunnis had been the top graduates of the officer training academies, the equivalent of West Point. They disproportionately dominated the officer corps. They were at the top of the Baath Party. They were the rich entrepreneurs to whom lucrative government contracts were given. Now they were made unemployed, or given menial jobs, while the goodies went to the members of Shiite religious parties. Massive unemployment swept the Sunni cities in 2003-2004.”xiv
The rest is history. The Sunnis who were disempowered by Chalabi and his cronies went on to grow their beards long and become insurgents. In the process, these former Baathists were radicalized or “jihadified” and came to see their war against the Americans, who had thrown them out of power, and against the ruling Shiites as a holy war. This gave Al Qaeda its opening and in 2004 the Sunnis created a jihadi insurgent group known as ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq.’ Thus Bush and Chalabi’s 2002 claims that there was Al Qaeda operating in Iraq became a self-fulfilling prophecy. ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ ultimately expanded into Syria and became known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS. It was largely a Sunni response to America’s overthrow the Sunni sect and empowerment of the Shiites in furtherance of Chalabi’s goals.
Subsequent events would of course show that Chalabi’s “intelligence” of on-going chemical, biological and even nuclear programs in Iraq was false. After the 2003 invasion, when WMDs did not materialize, a 2006 Senate Intelligence Committee report would come to several damning conclusions regarding the intelligence Chalabi had provided to Cheney and Wolfowitz. According to the New York Times: “The report said that the I.N.C. provided a large volume of flawed intelligence to the United States about Iraq, saying the group ‘attempted to influence United States policy on Iraq by providing false information through defectors directed at convincing the United States that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had links to terrorists.’ ”xv
In 2004, when the US finally came to the official conclusion that there were no WMD's in Iraq, Chalabi was unapologetic. "We are heroes in error," he told the UK's Daily Telegraph. "As far as we're concerned we've been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important."xvi In other words, when no WMDs materialized in post US invasion Iraq and the country descended into a bloody insurgency and Sunni-Shiite civil war that cost tens of thousands their lives, Chalabi was unrepentant. He had no regrets about previously having misinformed the Americans about the existence of Iraqi WMDs and leading them into an invasion that would kill and maim thousands of Americans and cost over a trillion dollars.
Chalabi’s lack of regret over the way he misled the American people began to grate on many Iraq observers’ nerves when the WMDs he’d promised did not show up. The New York Times was to write: “It was Chalabi, after all — a foreigner, an Arab — who persuaded the most powerful men and women in the United States to make the liberation of Iraq not merely a priority but an obsession. First in 1998, when Chalabi persuaded Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act (in turn leading to payments to his group, the Iraqi National Congress, exceeding $27 million over the next six years) and then, later, in persuading the Bush administration of the necessity of using force to destroy Saddam Hussein. And when it all went bad, when those nuclear weapons never turned up, the clever child shrugged and smiled. ‘We are heroes in error,’ Chalabi told Britain’s Daily Telegraph. Almost with a wink.”xvii
Dan Murphy’s summary of Chalabi’s successful efforts to dupe the unsuspecting Americans with the help of the Neo-Cons was equally scathing: “It's hard to blame Chalabi for his line of palaver. After all, he had no loyalty to the US, his interests and objectives were not ours, and you can't fault the guy for trying to get what he wants out of gullible foreigners. The problem was that he was given so much credence by US officials and war boosters [i.e. Neo-Cons], who failed to recognize (or pretended they failed to recognize) why he shouldn't be trusted.” xviii
Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, former head of Centcom, was equally critical of Chalabi’s role in working with the Neo-Cons to dupe the American people and said “Chalabi was the crutch the neocons leaned on to justify their intervention. He twisted the intelligence that they based it on, and provided a picture so rosy and unrealistic they thought it would be easy.”xix Robert Baer, a legendary former C.I.A. official who carried out covert operations in Iraq, summed up the debacle and the collusion between Chalabi and the Neo-Cons as follows “Chalabi was scamming the U.S. because the U.S. wanted to be scammed.”xx Tragically, more than four thousand Americans gave their lives up in furtherance of this “scam” during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The U.S. involvement in the centuries old sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites continues to be felt from the ISIS-governed deserts of Iraq and Syria to Tehran where the ayatollahs now have a friendly Shiite government installed in Baghdad.
For a history of the role of the U.S. in radicalizing the Sunnis during the occupation see: “Did the Bush Invasion of Iraq Really ‘Create’ ISIS?”
i Michael Morrell. The Great War of our Time. New York; Twelve. 2015. Page 98.
ii “Iraqi mobile labs nothing to do with germ warfare, report finds.” The Observer. June 14, 2003.
iii “Defector Admits to WMD Lies That Triggered the War.” The Guardian. February 15, 2011.
iv The Iraq War Part 1. The US Prepares for Conflict 2001. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Number 326. Found at: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB326/IraqWarPart1-Timeline.pdf
v “The Commission on Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Page 84-85. Document found at: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GPO-WMD/pdf/GPO-WMD.pdf
vi “Where Plan A Left Ahmad Chalabi.” New York Times. November 5, 2006
viii Jane Mayer. “The Manipulator.” The New Yorker. June 7, 2004.
ix “How Brent Scowcroft Became Bush’s Pain in the Ass on Iraq.” Foreign Policy. February 24, 2015.
x “America’s Best Friend a Spy?” CBS. May 21, 2004.
xi Joel Rayburn. Iraq After the Americans. Stanford; Hoover Institute. 2014. Page 105.
xiii “The Life and Death of De-Baathification.” Revue des Mondes Musulmans de la Mediterainee. July 2007.
xiv“Who are Iraq’s Sunnis and What did we do to Them?” Informed Comment. June 18, 2014.
xvi “Bad Reason to Invade Iraq No. 3. ‘We Can Trust Chalabi.’” Christian Science Monitor. March 19, 2013.
xvii “Where Plan A Left Ahmed Chalabi.” New York Times. November 5, 2006.
xviii “Bad Reason to Invade Iraq No. 3. ‘We Can Trust Chalabi.’” Christian Science Monitor. March 19, 2013.
xix Jane Mayer. “The Manipulator.” The New Yorker. June 7, 2004.