The role of Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi has fascinated me for years. The corporate press used him as a key source over Iraq’s alleged WMDs. Oops.
For Iraq-watchers, a tiny but enticing tidbit surfaced in a WikiLeaks cable from February 2004, 11 months after the U.S.-led invasion. It involved Ahmad Chalabi, the brilliant, controversial and always fascinating Iraqi politician best known for helping to convince the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The secret cable from the U.S. Embassy in Amman describes a meeting in which Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher accused Chalabi, then the chairman of the finance committee in the provisional Iraqi Governing Council, of opposing closer ties between Iraqi and Jordan. Muasher “blamed Chalabi for spoiling deals negotiated by Jordan’s Arab Bank and Export and Finance Bank with Iraq banks” and said he’d complain to Bush administration officials on an upcoming trip to Washington.
There’s no love lost between Chalabi and Jordan. In 1989, he had to flee Jordan after a bank he owned collapsed. Three years later, Jordan convicted him in absentia for embezzlement. Chalabi has always maintained that he did nothing wrong and that the prosecution was politically motivated.
The implication in the cable was juicy: Did Chalabi use his government post to settle an old score with Jordan?
I met Chalabi at one of his Baghdad homes on Thursday night and put the question to him. The smooth talking politician, dapper as always in a navy suit and matching tie, said that he had indeed blocked the bank deals — but had a ready explanation. His committee, he said, had obtained documents showing that the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s feared secret police, had attempted to open an account in the Swiss branch of Jordan’s Arab Bank, and that an officer in the Mukhabarat was holding a deposit in a Dubai office of the bank.
“So I said no,” Chalabi said. At the time, the Mukhabarat was accused of abuses and filled with Saddam loyalists and Baath Party members — and there was perhaps no more bitter opponent of Saddam than Chalabi. If Arab Bank were allowed to open up in Iraq, he told me, “it will facilitate the transfer of the money from these (offshore) accounts to help the Baathists and terrorists do things without the thing going through the international banking system. They could do an international transfer within the bank itself.”
In January 2004, Chalabi traveled to Washington and met with President Bush and other senior U.S. officials in the Oval Office. After the meeting, L. Paul Bremer, then the American viceroy in Iraq, took Chalabi aside and asked, “Why are you blocking the opening of Arab Bank in Baghdad?”
Chalabi explained what he found and Bremer asked him to pass the evidence to his staff in Baghdad. “I gave them copies of the documents and nothing more was said about it to me,” he said.
So, it seems, there you have it. It’s a bit inside baseball, but any story involving Chalabi, the Bush administration and the early days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq is worth telling, even almost seven years later.