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Iraq's Ahmad Chalabi: Contentious 'Wheeler-Dealer' Behind U.S.-Led Invasion

Controversial Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, who lived in exile for decades, never really enjoyed widespread popularity in his native country. (file photo)

A man once groomed by the United States as a possible successor to Saddam Hussein in a postwar Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi will be remembered as a polarizing figure who played high-stakes politics but never managed to reach the top of his country's sectarian-driven political landscape.

The product of an affluent Shi'ite family that emigrated to the West, Chalabi, who died of a heart attack at the age of 71, lacked popular support in his native Iraq and was dogged by controversy through his long political life. But largely through political maneuvering, he remained a prominent figure in Iraq and was often touted as a candidate to lead the country.

Chalabi, a secular politician, was notorious for his oversized role in persuading the United States to invade Iraq in 2003 with false information on longtime dictator Saddam Hussein's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and links to Al-Qaeda.

"Iraqis who still support the removal of Saddam, and are glad to see the back of the Baath Party, will mourn Ahmad Chalabi," says Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the Iraqi Institute for Economic Reform in Baghdad. "But other Iraqis will be glad to see the back of him and the removal of another memory from the invasion."

Born in October 1944 to a wealthy Baghdad family, a young Chalabi and his relatives fled Iraq when the monarchy was overthrown. He lived in exile in Britain and the United States for decades.

Chalabi earned a bachelor's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965, and then went on to get a PhD in mathematics at the University of Chicago.

He rose to prominence as a leading figure in Iraq's exiled opposition in the 1990s, and forged close ties with future Vice President Dick Cheney and the so-called neoconservatives. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Chalabi's then-exiled Iraqi National Congress (INC) party played a key role in persuading the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush to invade Iraq.

Failed Ambition

Following the invasion, Chalabi was named to the U.S.-appointed Iraq Governing Council. Chalabi was one of the main proponents of the "de-Baathification" drive to remove suspected Saddam loyalists from public life, which alienated Iraq's Sunni minority and fueled the insurgency against U.S.-led forces.

Chalabi, who had most recently served as the chairman of parliament's finance committee, also served as deputy prime minister and held the key oil portfolio.

But he was never able to reach the political heights to which he aspired.

Jiyad says Chalabi's long exile meant that the INC was little-known and did not have grassroots support in Iraq. He cites that as one of the reasons Washington's plan to place the INC as the interim government fell apart.

"For most Iraqis, his death will not mean much," says Jiyad. "He was a figure that they never really knew or identified with. His is a story of failed ambition."

Soon after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Chalabi fell out of favor with his U.S. backers because Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction never materialized.

Chalabi was unrepentant about his role. "What happened is that the narrative of war that Bush based his plan on fell apart," he told Foreign Policy magazine last year. "Who is at fault? I am. It's an easy target -- a foreigner in Iraq who did things in Washington with questionable methods whom they didn't like. It's easy."

"I think it's fair to say it was the only reason for war that would hold up and was used extensively by the Bush administration," Daniel Serwer, a research scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank. "It was false. I wouldn't want to be remembered for my falsehoods. But Chalabi always will be."

His American backers also suspected Chalabi was funneling intelligence to arch-foe Iran. U.S. special forces raided his Baghdad home in May 2004 and seized documents and computers. But no evidence was found of ties with Tehran.

In 2010, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill said Chalabi was "under the influence of Iran" and "a gentleman who has been challenged over the years to be seen as a straightforward individual."

Chalabi was also dogged by allegations of corruption and was convicted by a Jordanian court of embezzling funds from the collapsed Petra Bank in 1992, a claim he denied.

After being spurned by Washington, Chalabi allied himself with radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militias fought against U.S. forces and who remains a prominent political figure in Iraq. He was also thought to have had the backing of Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Last year, Chalabi was even being talked about as a serious candidate to replace Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister. But his candidacy, like much of his promising political career, fizzled out.

"He was a wheeler-dealer, and you know, wheeler-dealers have their role in parliament and congress," says Sewer. "But he's not leaving a great big hole."

With additional reporting by RFE/RL correspondent Carl Schreck
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.