AHMED CHALABI’S downfall had been declared so many times that Iraqis are struggling to believe that the end of his extraordinary career has occurred through natural rather than political causes. His family, who ran Iraq’s oldest commercial bank under the British-backed monarchy, fled the country with the toppling of the Hashemite king in 1958. In 1989 he then fled Jordan in the boot of a prince’s car, accused of cooking the books of the kingdom’s second bank, Petra. Resurrecting himself as the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, a CIA-financed opposition front, he fled Kurdistan during Saddam Hussein’s brief offensive on the Western-protected enclave in the mid-1990s. And when the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003 and flew his armed followers to an airfield near Nasiriya, in southern Iraq, the fighters got lost on their way into town.
Paul Bremer, America’s administrator, parachuted him into his fledgling cabinet, the Governing Council, a 25-man body dominated by exiles, but then raided his compound and arrested his associates for dealing too closely for their liking with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. His party won a mere 0.5% of the vote in Iraq’s 2005 election, and he only narrowly survived repeated assassination attempts, including one in 2008 that killed six of his bodyguards.
And yet since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, he has been one of Baghdad’s constants. Unlike other exiles, who fled back abroad when militias overran the country, he stayed put, re-establishing the role his family had performed under the monarchy as overseer of Iraq’s finances. He held the finance portfolio in the Governing Council and, following his re-election, headed parliament’s finance committee. Admirers credit him with finessing the country’s budget, despite a plummeting oil price and the soaring cost of the war against the jihadists of Islamic State. “Most members of Iraq’s finance committee are not financial wizards. He was one,” says a western diplomat in Baghdad, who lunched with him the day he died.
Until his fall from America’s grace, he had been the neocons’ favourite Iraqi. As a postgraduate student at Chicago University, he befriended Richard Perle, a future assistant secretary of defence who subsequently pushed for the war on the Iraq, and also became close to Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defence in the same era. Months before he was stripped of his American government stipend, he had sat next to Laura Bush, America’s first-lady, as her husband gave the State of the Union address. Pentagon officials rushed to blame him for feeding them the false testimony of Iraq’s stash of weapons of mass destruction that served as their justification for war. Even so, he proved he could still deploy his knack for reinvention without his American patrons.
Though a secular Shia, he helped cobble together a Shia alliance that has dominated Baghdad ever since. He brought Muqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand Shia cleric whose supporters had fought America’s forces, into the political process, an alliance he maintained till his death. He enjoyed the confidence of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s pre-eminent Shia cleric, reviving a relationship his family had played as the clergy’s bankers in exile following the Baath party takeover. Only weeks before his death, senior officials were tipping him as a possible Iraqi prime minister, should the floundering incumbent, Haider Abadi, fall.
Detractors say he used his influence for personal gain and for settling scores. As head of the de-Baathification committee, he ran the “star chamber” that hunted for Saddam’s former henchmen, but also banned competitors from running for office and bidding for contracts his own associates prized. Before his death, he was vigorously investigating accusations that the Iraqi Central Bank’s had been involved in cheque-fraud in Amman, an operation he claimed had cost Iraq over $60 billion. Rivals suspected the investigation was politically motivated. And even his friends joked about his reputation for untrustworthiness. At a signing ceremony for Iraq’s post-Saddam foundational law in 2004, a fellow councillor and future president, Jalal Talabani, was overheard chiding Mr Chalabi, “Ahmed, leave the pen.”