The George Washington of Iraq

The justification for the Iraq war in 2003 was that Saddam Hussein was believed to possess weapons of mass destruction. The demand for the Chilcot inquiry to be published, the enquiry into the Iraq war, has brought the intentions for invasion back into the news. Most of the criticism has been levelled at Tony Blair and George Bush. Although both allegedly misguided their electorate on their reasons for war, another key figure has gone relatively unnoticed.

Ahmed Chalabi was a prominent Iraqi politician, who recently died on November the 3rd 2015, shown in the middle of the photograph above. He was the founder of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and often called the “George Washington of Iraq”. This umbrella group of opposition parties was created with assistance from the United States during George H. W. Bush’s presidency. America felt that the coordination of groups opposing Saddam’s rule was crucial to his removal. Although Saddam was not removed from power until April 2003, such plans were being laid as early as May 1991. During the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the INC was crucial in denouncing the rule of Saddam. Ahmed Chalabi was at the forefront of such criticism.

Following the first Gulf war, the INC was a collection of groups that opposed Saddam Hussein’s leadership. The group brought together Sunni, Kurd and Shi’ite groups, of all political persuasions, from ex-military officers, Islamists and monarchists. Although the combination of such a varied group was a revelation in Middle Eastern politics, it did not last. By 1994 disputes over territory between Kurdish groups within the INC, meant that many international backers walked away.

The Iraq Liberation Act

However, just four years later, the then American president Bill Clinton passed a congressional statement of policy titled the Iraq Liberation Act. Sponsored by two Republican representatives, the bill authorised around $97 million of military aid primarily intended for the INC. The act was referred to many times during the lead up to the 2003 Iraq invasion.

The gathering and reliability of intelligence was seen as crucial for the West to justify invading Iraq. The INC provided a great deal of information that eventually made it’s way into various dossiers used by Blair and Bush’s administrations. Admittedly the CIA was sceptical of such information. Yet it continued to be used.

Media influence

The INC and Chalabi were well versed in dealing with the media. From 1998 the INC provided the New York Times journalist Judith Miller with information regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Before the 2003 invasion, Chalabi received media training by Eoghan Harris, a former prominent Irish Republican of the Sinn Féin party. This is not particularly surprising as the media played and was often used, as a key tool by politicians in the lead up to the Iraq war.

Chalabi enjoyed a close relationship with influential figures within the American establishment. He was a special guest of George Bush’s wife, First Lady Laura Bush, for the 2004 State of the Union Address. This relationship quickly soured once most of the INC and Chalabi’s claims were proven to be false. Despite the organisation feeding the British and American governments hundreds of supposedly genuine documents asserting the existence of WMD’s, none were found post-invasion. Although Chalabi was often tipped to become leader of Iraq, 2004 marked the downfall of his relationship with the West.

The New York Times reported in 2004 that Chalabi had passed on American state secrets regarding encryption to Iran. America had at this point already stopped funding the INC, allegedly $330,000 a month. A few months later an arrest warrant was issued for Chalabi on counterfeiting charges, which were later dropped due to a lack of evidence. Despite such scandals all within a short period of time, Chalabi was still able to meet with influential figures. In 2005 he was made acting oil minister, and met with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley.

Justification for War

How could such a controversial figure continue to be granted an audience with high ranking members of the American government? Although many claims against Chalabi were never conclusively proven, they continued to dog him throughout his long lasting political career. The justification for the Iraq war was based on the assumption Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The British and American electorates were promised such claims were based on reliable evidence. Most of this evidence came from the INC and Chalabi. Despite it swiftly being proved incorrect, Chalabi still managed to curry favour. There seemed to be far more importance at the presentation of such ‘evidence’, rather than its substance.

Chalabi has been regularly criticised since the Iraq invasion. It will be interesting to see how the long delayed Chilcot enquiry will discuss the West’s relationship with Chalabi. The most destructive element of the Iraq war was the sheer mess the West left after the removal of Hussein. Although undoubtedly charismatic and politically intelligent, the continued inclusion of Chalabi in post-Saddam Iraq was a grave mistake. Yet it should be no surprise that such a controversial figure maintained relative power.  

The American author Jonathan Frazer was recently discussing his novel Freedom on the BBC World Service Book Club. In the novel he writes about a fictional corrupt business deal during the Iraq war. He consulted his friend the New Yorker journalist George Packer, who often wrote about American foreign policy. Packer said: “Make it up. Whatever you do is not going to be as crazy as what’s happening there.”

In regard to Chalabi, Packer’s advice certainly rings true.