At home with Ahmed Chalabi




BAGHDAD, Iraq — The evening after Iraq's parliament chose the country's next president, and just hours after twin bombings killed more than a dozen in a busy downtown Baghdad street, Ahmed Chalabi was juggling phone calls from his Hurriya estate outside the city center. In the midst of Iraq's most acute crisis since the country's formation as a state, with Sunni militants holding almost a fifth of the country and eyeing the capital, Chalabi’s name is again being tossed around for prime minister.

Abandoned by his former neoconservative allies in the US after the American-led 2003 invasion discredited his claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Chalabi faded from the headlines as he entered elected Iraqi politics, his political bloc repeatedly unable to win enough seats in parliament to wield any real power. 

But amid widening calls for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down following military losses to the Islamic State and its coalition, Chalabi is experiencing a comeback of sorts. 

This latest twist in a roller coaster of a career appears to have surprised everyone but Chalabi himself. 

"[The media] thought that because I had no relations with the US, then everything was finished," he says, half laughing, leaning back in his chair, "but that's not the case, I've been part of this process here for a long time and I was never out of it."

Over espresso and ice cream in the library at his remodeled family home and amid a steady stream of interruptions, Chalabi repeatedly claims he's not campaigning to be prime minister.

"That was Barzani," Chalabi says — referring to Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdistan region — as he tosses his smart phone back to his assistant. "He's very worried about these clashes with the Islamic State." He excuses himself to take another call.

On the far side of his office a series of bookcases hold heavy volumes on classical and modern art, ancient Koranic texts, and modern American fiction. Chalabi says he's a particular fan of Jonathan Franzen and Philip Roth. 

"If you want to understand Iraq, I would suggest this," he says, pulling out a more clinical looking tome. "It's a remarkable collection of Babylonian mathematical texts."

Thumbing through the pages he points out a stone tablet that details elements of Pythagoras’s theorem more than a thousand years before the birth of the Greek mathematician widely credited with developing the proof. 

"Knowledge, learning, and research is endemic to this land." Chalabi says this book reminds him of what Iraq is capable of.

Chalabi turns to his books on Middle Eastern history. "Iraq is a very old place," he says. "Of course we had a long period of close to 70 years of neglect and decline, but that’s only 10 percent of the recorded history of Iraq."

While offering detailed examples of Iraq's past achievements — infrastructure projects like railroads and dams — Chalabi only sketches a rough outline of his vision for the country's future, calling for an inclusive government, outreach to the Kurds, judicial reform, and an end to corruption. 

Describing corruption as "the root cause of the dismemberment of the state," Chalabi emphasizes the need to address the issue quickly.  

But when asked about the allegations of corruption against him personally, specifically a $200-million banking scandal in Jordan, Chalabi scoffs, calling the dispute with Jordan politically motivated. "That was 10, 20 years ago," he shoots back. "[Those accusations] are completely disconnected from the reality of Iraq now."

Susannah's reporting from Baghdad is part of a GlobalPost partnership with PRI's The World.