As Iraq descends into chaos at the hands of religious militants who want to establish a caliphate, America and its allies are scrambling to find someone — anyone — to replace embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The desperation has led to some unlikely candidates, including formerly disgraced US intelligence asset and suspected spy Ahmed Chalabi.
Chalabi was one of the main agitators who pushed the United States to war in Iraq in 2003. He not only advocated for the conflict but supplied the Bush administration with much of the flawed intelligence about weapons of mass destruction on which they based their case for the invasion. His stock has risen and fallen among US policymakers and politicians as popularity for the war has waxed and waned. But, desperate times call for desperate measures, and his name is once again being floated as a potential Iraqi prime minister. With that in mind, here are seven things you need to know about the man once investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for passing along state secrets.
1. Chalabi was convicted of bank fraud in Jordan.
In 1977, Chalabi opened Petra bank in Jordan. Ten years later, it was the second biggest bank in the country, but a financial crisis forced Jordan’s central bank to impose strict liquidity rules. Chalabi refused to comply, fled the country and claimed he was being politically persecuted. In April of 1992, he was found guilty of 31 charges, including embezzlement, theft and forgery, and sentenced to 22 years of hard labor. He was later pardoned by King Abdullah.
2. His father was one of the wealthiest men in Iraq before fleeing the country.
Born in October of 1940, Chalabi had a charmed childhood. His father, who was the president of the Iraqi Senate and even advised King Faisal, was extremely wealthy and carried a tremendous amount of influence within Shia circles. In 1958, when the military staged a coup and deposed the monarchy, the family went into exile, leaving behind its vast real estate holdings. Chalabi vowed to reclaim his family's lost land, which he described as more than a million square meters in the heart of Baghdad.
3. Chalabi is a math whiz.
Educated in the United States, Chalabi has a B.S. in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He studied knot theory, a type of geometry, as a PhD student at the University of Chicago. He also taught math at the American University of Beirut from 1970 until 1977.
4. He founded the Iraqi National Congress, but his colleagues didn’t want him to lead it.
The INC, an umbrella group of activists who opposed the Hussein regime, was formed in 1992 following the Gulf War. Its first meeting was in Vienna that June, but Chalabi, who was instrumental in setting the group up and securing US funding, didn’t garner enough support to make it onto the board. It’s not clear how, but by the end of the symposium, Chalabi’s name was added to the 15-member board.
5. Chalabi has been accused of everything from espionage to killing Jordanians.
There is a long list of grievances against Chalabi. In August of 2003, the Jordanians blamed him for a bomb that erupted near their embassy in Iraq, killing 17. In May of 2004, US officials searched his home and offices during an investigation of the INC. They were looking for evidence of fraud, kidnapping, counterfeiting and spying. In August of 2009, American military intelligence found some evidence that Chalabi had ties to terrorists that attacked a group of Marines.
6. Chalabi’s brothers have also gotten into trouble for their shady deals.
In 2000, Chalabi’s two brothers, Jawad and Hazam, pleaded no contest to charges of false accounting after the collapse of Socofi, an investment company in Switzerland. (Authorities said the firm made inappropriate loans to Ahmed Chalabi and others in his family.) The pair received suspended six-month prison sentences.
7. He headed the de-Baathification committee in Iraq.
In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, membership in the Baath party was a requirement for almost any government job. But the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority decided it wanted to get rid of anyone with ties to the group — no matter how strong or weak they were. The move fomented pervasive political discontent and helped give rise to the insurgency. Chalabi was in charge of this effort for a spell.