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Chalabi, Ahmad

Ahmad Chalabi

Born c. 1945

Baghdad, Iraq

Exiled Iraqi opposition leader who founded the Iraqi National Congress

"There is no substitute for an Iraqi political process ... to give legitimacy to a provisional government."

Ahmad Chalabi in an interview for Online NewsHour.

Ahmad Chalabi is one of the best-known members of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein's government. After living in exile abroad for most of his life, Chalabi returned to Iraq in 1992 to form the Iraqi National Congress, an influential coalition of major opposition groups. In the years leading up to the 2003 Iraq War, he was often mentioned as a possible future leader of Iraq.

Known for his intelligence, charm, and ambition, Chalabi gained the support of many U.S. leaders over the years, particularly within military circles. But many others questioned his honesty and integrity. "Some American officials, particularly leading Pentagon hawks [military leaders who favor an aggressive policy toward war], regard him as a true democrat and a paragon [perfect model] of Iraqi patriotism, an aristocrat who gave up a potential life of comfort and ease to fight against Hussein at a time when few others dared," wrote Christopher Dickey and Mark Hosenball in Newsweek. "Critics, including officials from the CIA and State Department, characterize Chalabi as a corrupt and unreliable ally."

When the 2003 war concluded, Chalabi was named a member of Iraq's provisional government. But he remained a controversial figure within his homeland and seemed to lack the popular support required to lead the new Iraq.

Wealthy family forced into exile

Ahmad Chalabi was born around 1945 in Baghdad, Iraq. He came from a wealthy and influential family of Shiite Muslims. In fact, his family was connected to the Hashemite royal dynasty that British leaders had installed as the rulers of Iraq in 1921. Both Chalabi's father and grandfather served as government ministers under King Faisal II. But when a military coup (a sudden violent overthrow of a government) removed the king from power in 1958, Chalabi and his family were forced to flee from Iraq. The teenager spent the remainder of his youth living in exile in Jordan, Lebanon, Great Britain, and the United States.

Chalabi earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the mid-1960s, and he added a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1969. He spent the next several years teaching at American University in Beirut, Lebanon, where he met his wife.

In 1977 Chalabi used his own and his family's money to found Petra Bank in Amman, Jordan. With Chalabi as chairman, the bank grew rapidly by introducing such innovations as automated teller machines and credit cards to its customers. In 1989, however, the bank was seized by the government of Jordan and Chalabi was forced to flee the country. He was later tried and convicted in his absence on charges of embezzlement (stealing) and fraud (deception).

Chalabi proclaimed his innocence on these charges. He said that he used his banking connections to help fund Iraqi opposition groups and to block money that Saddam Hussein (see entry) needed to finance his war against Iran (1980–88). Chalabi claimed that the Iraqi leader pressured King Hussein of Jordan to seize the bank as revenge for Chalabi's political activities.

Founds the Iraqi National Congress

After leaving Jordan in 1989, Chalabi lived in London for a few years. In August 1990 Iraq invaded its smaller neighbor to the south, Kuwait. Hussein argued that Iraq had a historical claim to Kuwait's territory. He also wanted to control Kuwait's oil reserves and to gain access to Kuwait's port on the Persian Gulf. In early 1991 the United States joined forces with a number of other countries to push the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. The Persian Gulf War ended in a dramatic victory for the U.S.-led coalition in February 1991, when Iraqi troops were forced to withdraw from Kuwait after six weeks of fighting.

Shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf War ended, Chalabi moved to Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-independent region in northern Iraq that was protected by a U.S.-patrolled "no-fly zone." In 1992, with the support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Chalabi created the Iraqi National Congress (INC). The INC was intended to act as an umbrella organization for all of the major Iraqi opposition groups. A statement of its purpose, quoted in The Iraq War Reader, said that it "provides an institutional framework so that the popular will of the Iraqi people ... can be democratically determined and implemented."

In its early stages the INC was a genuinely representative political organization aimed at overthrowing Hussein and creating a democratic Iraqi government. It originally included 234 members representing 90 percent of all the Iraqi opposition groups. Chalabi led an active opposition movement in northern Iraq that developed its own newspapers, radio stations, and military force.

In 1996 the INC launched a military offensive intended to remove Hussein from power. But the effort lost crucial assistance from the CIA at the last minute and also failed to attract support from disgruntled members of the Iraqi military. As a result, the coup attempt ended disastrously, with the deaths of thousands of INC supporters. Afterward the INC lost much of its power and ended up relocating its headquarters to London.

Over the next two years, Chalabi spent a great deal of time in Washington, D.C., lobbying for U.S. military action to remove Hussein from power. Although the U.S. government did not provide direct military support to Chalabi's cause, it did supply financial assistance to the Iraqi opposition movement. In 1998 the U.S. Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which gave the INC and other opposition groups $97 million to fight Hussein. The following year, however, the INC was accused of using the funds unwisely. Chalabi was demoted from leader to regular member of the INC, and a seven-member leadership group took his place.

Supports U.S. efforts during the 2003 Iraq War

The United Nations (UN) agreement that officially ended the 1991 Persian Gulf War required Iraq to destroy all of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. In the decade after the war ended, however, Hussein consistently refused to honor certain terms of this peace agreement. Most notably, Hussein repeatedly interfered with the UN inspectors sent to verify that Iraq had abandoned its weapons programs. The international community tried a number of different approaches to force Hussein to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors, but instead he kicked the inspectors out of Iraq in 2000. After taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush (see entry) claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed an immediate threat to world security. In early 2003 the United States launched a second war against Iraq with the goal of removing Hussein from power.

Immediately before the 2003 Iraq war began, Chalabi returned to northern Iraq, where he recruited and trained a small militia. During the war the U.S. military flew him and his forces to Nasiriyah, where they took part in the fighting. The war succeeded in removing Hussein from power after only three weeks of combat, when Baghdad fell to coalition forces on April 9. As soon as the major combat ended, Chalabi moved his base of operations to Baghdad's elite Hunting Club. Chalabi's presence in Baghdad was controversial because many Iraqis viewed him with suspicion. Some criticized him for living comfortably in exile abroad while they suffered under Hussein's rule. Others distrusted him because of his reputation for shady business dealings, his close ties with the United States, and his apparent hunger for power in postwar Iraq.

Member of the Iraq Governing Council

Thanks to his prominent position in the Iraqi opposition movement, however, Chalabi assumed a leading role in Iraq's postwar politics. U.S. civil authorities in Iraq selected him as a member of the Iraq Governing Council (IGC)—an interim (temporary) government composed of twenty-five prominent Iraqis from a range of political, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Like Chalabi, many members of the IGC were leaders of groups that had opposed Saddam Hussein's government.

From its initial meeting on July 13, the IGC showed its determination to be a positive force for change in Iraq.

Powerful Iraqi Shiite Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani is the most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric (religious leader) in Iraq. Muslims (people who practice the religion of Islam) worship one God, called Allah. They believe that Allah revealed himself to man through the Koran, a holy book written in Arabic. The prophet Muhammad founded Islam and began spreading Allah's word in the year 622. Over the next few centuries Muslims divided into two main branches, Sunni and Shiite. The two branches differ mainly over which prophets they recognize as successors (people who rightfully inherit a title) to Muhammad. Today the religion of Islam is practiced by one billion people around the world. Although Shiites account for only about 15 percent of the world's Muslims, they make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population. As a result, al-Sistani holds a great deal of influence over the nation and its future.

Al-Sistani was born around 1930 near the holy city of Masshad in Iran. He began studying the Koran at the age of five. In 1952 he moved to the holy city of Najaf in Iraq, where he studied with some of the most important Shiite clerics of the time. When his mentor, the Grand Ayatollah Imam Abul Qassim al-Khoei, died in 1992, al-Sistani was selected to head an important network of schools in Najaf. He gradually rose through the ranks to reach marjah (object of emulation), the highest level of Shiite religious leadership.

Al-Sistani has written many books on Islamic law and is widely viewed as one of the top Shiite religious authorities in the world. Most Iraqi Shiites look to him for guidance on how to live their lives in accordance with Islamic law. His teachings generally fall within the quietist or moderate tradition, which says that clerics should not be involved directly in government, but should instead provide an independent religious authority.

Throughout the decades of Saddam Hussein's rule, his Sunni-led government oppressed the Shiite majority in Iraq. Therefore, like most Iraqi Shiites, al-Sistani opposed Hussein's regime. He was tolerant of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq because it removed Hussein from power. Both during and after the war, al-Sistani encouraged his Shiite followers to cooperate with the coalition forces. In fact, some experts credit al-Sistani's influence for preventing violent opposition to the U.S. occupation from spreading to Shiite-controlled areas of Iraq.

But al-Sistani's goals for Iraq's future do not necessarily match those of U.S. leaders. He wants the new Iraq to be an Islamic state, where Islam is formally recognized as the religion of the majority of Iraqis and no laws are created that conflict with Islamic principles. In contrast, the Bush administration prefers the new Iraq to be led by a secular (nonreligious) government that would tend to be more supportive of American interests. Some experts believe that al-Sistani could support a moderate Islamic democracy that would allow elections, freedom of religion, and other civil rights.

Al-Sistani gained international prominence during the postwar period as U.S. leaders worked to form a new Iraqi government. He publicly disagreed with the American plans at several critical moments in the process. In June 2003 al-Sistani issued a fatwa (religious ruling) saying that only those who were elected by the Iraqi people, rather than appointed by U.S. officials or its hand-picked interim government, the Iraq Governing Council, had the authority to draft a new constitution. U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer initially said that elections would take too long, but he later agreed to speed up the process.

In November 2003 al-Sistani called for direct popular elections, instead of the system of nationwide caucuses proposed by Bremer, to choose Iraq's transitional government. He argued that elections were necessary because then "the parliament would spring from the will of the Iraqis and would represent them in a just manner and would prevent any diminution [reduction] of Islamic law." Since Shiites make up the majority of Iraq's population, al-Sistani believed that elections would ensure that the government would represent his followers' interests. In January 2004 al-Sistani called upon Shiites to demonstrate in favor of elections. After thirty thousand people took to the streets of Basra in peaceful protest, Bremer agreed to drop the caucus plan.

Due to security concerns, al-Sistani is rarely seen in public. He meets with visitors at his office in Najaf and expresses his opinion by issuing fatwas. He has consistently refused to speak with L. Paul Bremer or other U.S. officials because he does not want to appear too close to the American occupation forces. But al-Sistani's power and influence over Iraq's Shiite population make it impossible for the Bush administration to ignore his wishes. If they attempt to create a new Iraqi government without his approval, it might very well collapse as soon as American troops withdraw from Iraq.

Sources: Ahrari, Ehsan. "When Sistani Speaks, Bush Listens." Asia Times, 2004. Available online at http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/FA17Ak02.html (accessed on March 24, 2004); Fahs, Hani. "Behind Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's Tactics." Al-Hayat, January 23, 2004. Available online at http://www.worldpress.org/Mideast/1773.cfm (accessed on March 14, 2004); Guggenheim, Ken. "Newsview: Cleric Is Wild Card for Washington." Newsday.com, March 17, 2004. Available online at http://www.newsday.com/news/nationworld/world/wire/sns-ap-us-iraqi-cleric,0,2748416.story?coll=snsap-world-headlines (accessed on March 24, 2004); Otterman, Sharon. "Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani." Council on Foreign Relations, January 16, 2004. Available online at http://www.cfr.org/background/background_iraq_sistani.php (accessed on March 24, 2004).

The group's first official act was to ban six national holidays that had been put in place under Hussein's rule. They declared that Iraq's new national day would be April 9, the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to coalition forces. They also sent diplomats to visit foreign governments, set up a budget, and formed a war crimes court to put former members of Hussein's government on trial.

Over the next several months the IGC continued its efforts to form a democratic government in Iraq. They faced pressures from various groups within Iraq that wanted to advance their own interests. They also struggled to perform their duties in the face of continuing instability and violence in Baghdad and other parts of central Iraq. Chalabi became a leading voice calling for a timely transfer of political power to the Iraqi people. "We believe an Iraqi political process must be started," he said in an interview for Online NewsHour. "There is no substitute for an Iraqi political process ... to give legitimacy to a provisional government."

The next steps in the political process include selecting a transitional assembly of 250 members representing Iraq's provinces, drafting and ratifying a new constitution, and holding free elections. Coalition leaders established a goal of handing over power to an Iraqi government by June 30, 2004. But they acknowledged that it would be difficult to transfer political power to the Iraqi people if they could not reduce the instability and violence within Iraq.

Where to Learn More

"Ahmad Chalabi." Biography Resource Center Online. Gale Group, 2003.

"Ahmad Chalabi." Online NewsHour, June 11, 2003. Available online at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/middle_east/jan-june03/chalabi_6-11.html (accessed on January 7, 2004).

"Ahmad Chalabi Biography." Iraqi News, 2003. Available online at http://www.iraqinews.com/people_chalabi.shtml (accessed on March 24, 2004).

Dickey, Christopher, and Mark Hosenball. "Banker, Schmoozer, Spy." Newsweek, May 12, 2003. Available online at http://msnbc.msn.com/id/3068557/ (accessed on March 24, 2004).

Purdum, Todd S., and the staff of the New York Times. A Time of Our Choosing: America's War in Iraq. New York: Times Books, 2003.

Singer, Max. "After Saddam: The Controversy over Ahmad Chalabi." National Review, June 20, 2002. Available online at http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-singer062002.asp (accessed on March 24, 2004).

"A Who's Who of the Iraqi Opposition." In Sifry, Micah L., and Christopher Serf, eds. The Iraq War Reader. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

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