By Scott Ritter
Editor’s note: Five years after the invasion of Iraq, Scott Ritter reconstructs from his memories and notes one of the seminal events in the march to war.
As we approach the fifth anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, I find myself thinking back on how we got ourselves into this predicament. Like many who played a direct role in the issues surrounding Iraq in the years leading up to the decision to invade, I have wrestled with the demons of history, wondering about the specific impact my actions (or inaction) may have had on the course of human affairs. I’ve also wondered whether or not I have been witness to any events that, if more fully reported, might enable others to have a better understanding of the events that shape our world today, for better or for worse. As I examine where we are today and contemplate our future and those who are positioning themselves to play a role in Iraq, it seems to me that there is at least one such incident, a dinner party I attended at the home of Ahmed Chalabi in June 1998 that is worthy of a more public illumination.
During my time as a weapons inspector for the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), I frequently traveled to Washington, D.C., for liaison purposes. The usual customers, so to speak, included the State Department, the CIA and the Department of Defense. All such meetings were conducted in accordance with instructions I had received from the executive chairman of UNSCOM (from 1991 until July 1997 this post was held by a Swede named Rolf Ekéus and after July by an Australian, Richard Butler) and as such were considered “official business.”
I strayed from the umbrella of “official business” only once during my tenure as an inspector, when, in June 1998, during a scheduled official trip to Washington, D.C., I ventured out into the shadows of back-bench domestic American politics. Bill Clinton was president then, and there was a growing undercurrent of neoconservative ideology that was gripping the nation’s capitol as the right wing of the Republican Party, frustrated by its inability to outmaneuver the president on the domestic front, chose to instead do battle on matters pertaining to foreign policy and national security. Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein was deeply entrenched in Baghdad. Economic sanctions, which served as the primary vehicle for containing the Iraqi dictator by denying him markets for his oil-based economy, were collapsing amid international concern for the humanitarian toll that such sanctions took on the people of Iraq, and in the face of old-fashioned greed. U.N. weapons inspections were floundering and the Clinton administration seemed to lack any coherent plan on how to bring order from the foreign policy chaos that was Iraq.
In early June 1998, UNSCOM weapons inspectors received a technical report from a U.S. military laboratory in Aberdeen, Md., which specialized in chemical and biological agent analysis. In March 1998, UNSCOM had retrieved from Iraq several fragments of ballistic missile warheads from a site that had been used by the Iraqis in their program of unilateral destruction of WMD in the summer of 1991. The Iraqis, in an effort to clarify glaring discrepancies in the accounting of their weapons-of-mass-destruction stockpiles, had admitted that a certain number of these warheads had been filled with chemical and biological agent, in particular nerve agent, and anthrax and botulinum toxin biological agent. In an effort to verify the Iraqi claims, UNSCOM had excavated warhead fragments from the declared destruction sites and sent them to the U.S. military laboratory in Aberdeen for analysis.
By early June 1998 the results were back, and they were, on the surface, stunning: Rather than finding evidence of the declared chemical or biological agent that the Iraqis had admitted placing in the warheads, the Aberdeen lab results showed trace evidence of the chemical degradation byproduct of stabilized VX nerve agent, one of the most deadly substances known to man. The Iraqis had admitted trying to produce VX nerve agent in the past, but denied that they had ever succeeded in stabilizing the volatile chemical (i.e., preventing the agent from deteriorating over time and becoming useless as a weapon), let alone filling any warhead with VX. The lab results from Aberdeen, if correct, dramatically contradicted the Iraqi claims and potentially turned the entire disarmament effort of UNSCOM in Iraq on its head.
Butler, the Australian diplomat who headed UNSCOM at the time, was arriving in Baghdad when the Aberdeen lab results were released. Inspectors in New York were able to transmit a copy of the report to Baghdad, and the senior UNSCOM chemical inspector in Iraq at the time was able to meet Butler at plane-side to personally brief him on the dramatic news. Butler was in Baghdad to undertake a delicate negotiation with the Iraqi government on a so-called road map that would serve as the basis upon which UNSCOM and Iraq would seek to work together to clarify outstanding issues, and seek verification for declarations made by Iraq, such as its stance on VX nerve agent, which UNSCOM was unwilling to take at face value. The Aberdeen lab report threw a monkey wrench into Butler’s tightly scripted plan, and he decided to keep the report under wraps for the time being in order to let diplomacy take its course.
The UNSCOM chemical inspectors were furious. Over the years they had uncovered one lie after another about Iraq’s VX nerve agent program. Initially, the inspectors proved that a VX program existed when Iraq claimed it did not (in order to prove that point, inspectors had to burrow down inside bombed-out buildings to recover buried documents the Iraqis thought lost). Later, the inspectors were able to force the Iraqis to admit that the VX nerve agent effort was in fact larger than the laboratory-scale research and development program they tried to peddle once their denials had been proved false. The chemists had already contradicted the Iraqis on the issue of stabilized VX, by finding traces of VX stabilizer in VX agent recovered from containers the Iraqis had thought had been thoroughly sanitized. This discovery forced the Iraqis to admit having attempted VX stabilization. But in the end, the Iraqis maintained that all of their efforts had failed, and that VX agent had never been “weaponized,” or loaded into a warhead or shell. Now, with the Aberdeen lab report, this last lie seemed to have been uncovered.
Over lunch in the U.N. cafeteria, I listened while the UNSCOM chemical weapons inspectors vented their anger and frustration. Butler was selling out, they speculated. Why else wouldn’t he make use of this material? I asked the chemists how certain they were of the lab results. One hundred percent, they said. The lab results had discovered incontrovertible proof of the existence of specific chemicals on the warhead fragments, which could be explained only as the result of the degradation over time of VX stabilizer. “What would be the ideal situation vis-à-vis this information?” I asked. Everyone at the table believed that Butler was being pressured by the Clinton administration not to provoke a major crisis with Iraq over the issue of disarmament, so as not to break the existing Security Council consensus on maintaining economic sanctions. As such, the best scenario would be to have this information made public, published in the press so that neither Butler nor the Clinton administration could ignore it. Several of the inspectors around the table had served as background sources for some of the world’s leading journalists. “Why not slip a copy of the report to one of these press contacts?” I asked. The lab report, they responded, was tightly held. If it was leaked out of New York, suspicion would automatically gravitate toward them, a situation none of the inspectors wanted to deal with. “What if,” I asked, “I could get the lab report released in Washington, D.C., with no UNSCOM fingerprints?” The chemists liked this idea, and slipped me a copy of the lab results.
I was scheduled to fly down to Washington to meet with the CIA about ongoing intelligence support programs then underway. In my desk I had a business card for Randy Scheunemann, the national security adviser to Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who was at that time the Senate majority leader. Scheunemann had been part of a congressional staff delegation that had visited the United Nations earlier in 1998, and had met with Butler and some of the UNSCOM inspectors to discuss the situation in Iraq. I dialed the number listed and told Scheunemann I would like to meet with him while I was in Washington to discuss some new developments. He agreed to the meeting and threw in a twist of his own: Would I mind meeting with Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi expatriate who headed an opposition group called the Iraqi National Congress, or INC? Chalabi maintained offices in London and Georgetown, Va., and he shuttled back and forth between the two carrying out his various political intrigues. He was, at the time, in residence in Georgetown, and Scheunemann thought that Chalabi might be of assistance in any matter regarding Iraq.
I had previously met Chalabi in January 1998 in London, where we had discussed various matters pertaining to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and how the INC might be able to assist UNSCOM in gaining access to new sources of information about Saddam’s past proscribed programs. Butler had authorized the London meeting, so I justified any subsequent meeting organized by Scheunemann as a legitimate follow-up. Scheunemann said he would have someone meet me at the airport in Washington.
I landed at National Airport early in the morning. In the terminal I spotted a man in a black suit holding a sign with my name on it. I assumed he was a driver of a car sent to take me to the Senate offices of Scheunemann. I was partly right. The driver was for me, but my destination was not Capitol Hill. “Mr. Chalabi sends his greetings,” the driver said as he ushered me to an awaiting town car. “I will take you to meet Mr. Chalabi now.” Ahmed Chalabi’s Washington headquarters was in a posh red-brick Georgetown town house. Chalabi himself was there to greet me.
I was ushered into Chalabi’s home, where he set out an ambitious program, including briefings to senators and their staffs. The meeting went on well into the next day. I had an open return air ticket but had not planned on spending the night, and as such had not made any hotel arrangements. “Not to worry,” Chalabi said. “You are welcome to stay with me as my guest. We’ll have dinner here tonight, and you can sleep in one of my guest rooms.”
Chalabi’s driver, who turned out to be a Shiite refugee from southern Iraq, drove me to the State Department, where my meeting with the CIA was held. Afterward, I took a cab to Capitol Hill and then made my way to the Senate office building where Randy Scheunemann had his office, right across from Sen. Lott’s. Once there, I got down to business. I handed Scheunemann a copy of the Aberdeen lab report and explained the background of the document. He immediately grasped the importance of what he was holding in his hand. “What would you like me to do with this information?” he asked. I explained the desire to get this data into the public eye, which meant bypassing both Richard Butler and the White House because I and the inspectors I had met with believed that both were seeking to suppress the data. “If it could find its way into the press in a way that removed any UNSCOM fingerprints, this would be ideal. That way the data remains uncompromised, and yet politically Butler and the White House can’t ignore it.” Scheunemann was smiling. “I think we can manage that.”
I thought my mission complete, but Scheunemann picked up the phone, speaking in hushed tones to someone on the other end. Hanging up the receiver, he rose. “Please follow me. Sen. Lott would like to have a chance to speak with you.” We made our way across the hall and into the Senate majority leader’s suite. Lott was meeting with constituents but broke away and ushered me into a side conference room, where we sat around a large wooden table. Scheunemann briefed Lott on the nature of the information I had provided, but withheld any suggestion of leaking it to the press. Lott thanked me for my “service.” “I understand you will be in town for a little while, and that you’re staying at the home of a mutual friend.” Neither Scheunemann nor I had mentioned my arrangements with Chalabi to the senator. “I hope you take some time to talk with him, and some other interesting people I think you will be meeting with. Exchange ideas. See if you can help him in any way. We’re all on the same side here, and we have to start finding ways to break down some barriers others have constructed between us.” I told the senator that I had met with Chalabi previously and saw no reason why we couldn’t engage in an exchange of ideas.
Scheunemann and I left Lott’s office, and I took a cab back to Chalabi’s town house in Georgetown. Chalabi was out when I arrived, but I was met at the door by Francis Brooke, an American from Atlanta who was Chalabi’s principle adviser. Brooke was also a guest at Chalabi’s apartment. I changed out of my suit and made my way downstairs to relax while I waited for dinner. No sooner had I sat down than the doorbell rang. Brooke answered it, and in walked Dr. Max Singer, a noted independent consultant on public policy and a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute who specialized in what was known as “political warfare.” Singer was a busy man, but he had been asked by Scheunemann to prepare a paper titled “The Chalabi Factor,” which outlined the importance and viability of Chalabi and the INC as a realistic opposition to the rule of Saddam Hussein. “Ahmed asked me to drop this off for you to look at,” Singer said, handing me the document. “I will be interested in what you think of it.”
Singer left and I sat down with his paper. The document outlined a political scenario that had Chalabi and the INC exploiting the weakness of the regime of Saddam in northern Iraq (Kurdistan) and southern Iraq, among the Shiites, to install himself as a viable political alternative to the Iraqi dictator. The main thesis centered on gaining a physical foothold in southern Iraq and taking control of the oil fields surrounding Basra, enabling the INC to become economically viable, which in turn created the conditions for political viability. Chalabi, the paper held, was ideally suited for this role since he already had a large following inside Iraq and was widely recognized outside Iraq as a legitimate contender for the helm of post-Saddam Iraq. I was somewhat taken aback by the content of the Singer paper. I was on dangerous political ground here, a U.N. weapons inspector charged with the disarmament of Iraq, suddenly dabbling in the world of regime change. Far from advising me on issues of intelligence regarding Iraqi WMD, Ahmed Chalabi had turned the tables and had me advising him on how to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Within the hour Chalabi returned to his apartment, accompanied by a tall man in a gray suit, Stephen Rademaker. Rademaker was the husband of Danielle Pletka, the senior professional staff member for Near East and South Asia affairs on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Rademaker was the legal counsel for the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and, like his wife, an unabashed member of the right wing of the Republican Party, along with being a champion of Chalabi. Rademaker joined Francis Brooke, Chalabi and me in the comfortably laid-out living room of the town house, where we discussed not arms control but regime change. I started off with the premise that the best way to achieve regime change in Iraq was to hold Saddam accountable for his requirement to disarm, and that the focus of our discussion should therefore be how to get the U.S. government to take more seriously the work of UNSCOM, and to put the weight of America behind such smoking-gun evidence as the VX nerve agent lab report from Aberdeen. Rademaker interjected at that point. “We agree. But we all know Saddam is cheating, and that his days are numbered. What we don’t have is a plan on what we are going to do once Saddam is out of office. Mr. Chalabi represents our best hopes in that regard, which is why we’re delighted that you and he are meeting like this.”
The discussion moved on to the matter of Singer’s Chalabi paper. In the kitchen, Chalabi’s driver had put on an apron and was busy putting together plates of appetizers and beginning preparations for dinner. I had spent the better part of the last three years investigating the inner workings of Saddam’s government, and how the Iraqi president shaped his internal domestic constituencies. “The premise of gaining support among the Kurds and Shi’a I can’t take issue with,” I said, “except to note that my experience with both groups is that neither represents a homogeneous movement that can be treated as a singular element. Things will be much more complicated than that. The key to me is what is missing here: any discussion of the Baath Party or the Sunni tribes. The Baath Party is the only vehicle that exists in Iraq today that unites Sunnis, Shi’a and Kurds alike. It makes modern Iraq function. How do you plan on dealing with the Baath Party in a post-Saddam environment? And what is your plan for winning over the Sunni tribes? How will you bring the tribes that represent the foundation of Saddam’s political support into the fold with your Kurdish and Shi’a supporters?”
Steve Rademaker and Francis Brooke stared blankly. Chalabi was grinning ear to ear. “We have a plan. First, we will do away completely with the Baath Party. Those minor members who were forced to join out of survival, of course, they will be allowed to retain their jobs. But anyone who profited from Baathist rule will be punished. As for the Sunni tribes, we are already in contact with their representatives. We feel that the best way to negotiate with them, however, is to make them realize that there is no future with Saddam. Once they realize that, they will come over to our side.” Chalabi’s “plan” struck me as simplistic at best, and entirely unrealistic.
“What about defeating Saddam’s military?” I asked as the hors d’oeuvres were laid out. “Not just the Iraqi army, but the security forces closest to Saddam, the Special Republican Guard and others?” Chalabi said a few words to Brooke, who got up and returned with a three-page paper entitled “The Military Plan.” Chalabi handed me the document. “This was written for me by Gen. Wayne Downing. I believe you know him from Operation Desert Storm.” Downing commanded U.S. commandos operating in western Iraq who were tasked with interdicting Iraqi Scud missile launches against Israel. I had participated in that effort.
Downing’s paper outlined a plan that had the U.S. military training and equipping a force of several thousand INC soldiers who would operate out of bases in western Iraq. These forces would be equipped with light vehicles armed with anti-tank missile launchers, which Downing believed would be more than a match for any armored force the Iraqis might muster. The plan postulated support from the local tribes in western Iraq, especially the al-Duleimi in and around Ramadi and Anbar. I thought this somewhat fanciful, since the al-Duleimi were among the tribes that provided manpower for some of Saddam’s most elite units. I said as much, but Chalabi dismissed my concerns with a flick of his wrist. “My people have already had discussions with the tribal leaders of the al-Duleimi, who are ready to join us once we get situated on the ground.”
Downing’s plan called for the presence of U.S. military advisers on the ground and U.S. warplanes overhead. “We don’t operate like that,” I said. “If we have forces on the ground, then we’ll need to have a base, with a base support element, and base security, and a quick-reaction force in case some of our boys get in trouble. The U.S. presence would have to be much greater than what you’re saying here.” Again, Chalabi smiled. “That may be so,” he said. “But we don’t have to highlight it at this time.” The “Downing Plan” was a nice bit of trickery, plotting what was ostensibly an Iraqi opposition military force with minor U.S. military involvement, but masking what was in reality a much larger U.S. military effort with a minor role played by Chalabi’s INC “army.”
There was a knock at the door, and Chalabi’s butler answered. In walked Rademaker’s wife, Danielle Pletka, accompanied by none other than James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA. They found seats around the table, and it became clear that this was where we would be eating. The discussion moved from the flawed military planning evident in Gen. Downing’s paper and onto the issue of Chalabi’s political future. Jim Woolsey was an unabashed supporter of Chalabi, something I found strange since Chalabi and the CIA were at odds over many aspects of the INC’s past operations. “This [criticism] is all bunk,” Woolsey said. “Chalabi is an Iraqi patriot and visionary who intimidates many lesser thinkers in Langley [CIA headquarters]. My friend Ahmed is a risk taker who understands the reality of Iraq, unlike the desk-bound analysts and risk-averse operators at the CIA. Chalabi scares these people, so they have created false accusations in order to denigrate him and ultimately destroy him.” Danielle Pletka chimed in. “We cannot allow this to happen. Ahmed Chalabi has many friends in Congress, and it is our goal to make sure Ahmed Chalabi gets the support he needs to not only survive as a viable opposition figure to Saddam Hussein but more importantly to prevail in Iraq.”
And so the night went. Dinner with Ahmed had turned into a political strategy session, the primary topic of interest being how to breathe new life and legitimacy into Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress so that a viable, and thus politically supportable, opposition to Saddam Hussein might be formed. According to Chalabi, this viable opposition already existed; all that was needed was funding and political support (not to mention military assistance in the form of advisers on the ground and fighter-bombers overhead). Personally, I doubted whether Chalabi could muster the forces he claimed inside Iraq. But my doubts were not shared by my dinner companions that evening, and as we sat afterward, sharing drinks and conversation, it was clear that Chalabi was being groomed for another run at power.
He had been embraced by the CIA in the early 1990s, only to be abandoned following halfhearted coup attempts the U.S. government failed to support, and accusations of financial mismanagement. But Trent Lott and the Republican Party were gunning for Bill Clinton and the Democrats, and they believed that with Iraq they had discovered a chink in Clinton’s armor. Chalabi was being resurrected before my eyes. They had picked their cause and selected their champion. Now all they needed was a springboard issue from which to launch their program. And that, apparently, was where I came in.
I rose early the next morning and went downstairs for breakfast before heading back to Capitol Hill and another round of meetings with senators that Pletka had arranged. Chalabi was already up, and we chatted a bit while I ate. “You see, Scott,” he said, “I have many friends here in Washington. With what you know about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, you can be of invaluable assistance to our cause. The VX story is but the tip of the iceberg.” I was taken aback, as I had not shared the VX lab report information with Chalabi. Clearly, one of our co-diners of the previous evening had spoken out of school. “Well, I am just a simple weapons inspector,” I replied. “In any event, it wouldn’t go over well back at the U.N. to have an UNSCOM inspector plotting regime change down in Washington, D.C.” I looked at Chalabi directly. “This is why you must be very discreet about the VX lab report. It simply won’t do for you to have your fingerprints on this information.”
Chalabi smiled and nodded. “I understand completely. As for your status as a weapons inspector, you must understand that those days are nearly gone. The inspection process has run its course. You need to think about what you are going to be doing in the future. I would like you to work for me.” I looked over at him. “How would that work? As an American citizen I can’t be working for you while planning the overthrow of Saddam. I believe there are laws against that.” Chalabi laughed. “Of course. You wouldn’t be working for me, but for the U.S. Senate. My friends would create an advisory position for you, and you would in turn advise me. It wouldn’t pay much upfront,” he said. “But don’t worry. One day I will be the president of Iraq, and will be in control of Iraq’s oil. When that day comes, I will not forget those who helped me in my time of need. Let’s just say that my friends will be given certain oil concessions that will make them very wealthy.” I remained silent.
Chalabi’s butler drove me to the Senate office buildings, where I met up with Pletka. She escorted me to the office of Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican. He had been fully briefed on the VX story. He was also interested in my description of how the Clinton administration was balking at fully supporting the work of the UNSCOM inspectors. “This will not stand,” he said when I was finished. “Believe me when I say you and your colleagues have friends here in the U.S. Senate who will make sure America honors its commitments and obligations, especially when it comes to disarming a cruel tyrant such as Saddam Hussein.”
Afterward, Pletka and I met with her husband, Steve Rademaker, in the Senate office building cafeteria. Rademaker had been hard at work briefing influential congressmen, especially Ben Gillman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, about the VX lab report. “We’ve got their attention,” Rademaker said, “and I think you’ll find that serious pressure will be brought on the Clinton administration to better support your work.” Pletka then took me back to where I had started, the office of Randy Scheunemann. Once again I was ushered in to see Sen. Lott, who thanked me for my service. “This is very important, and we’re very glad you brought the lab report to our attention. Be assured that this matter will be handled with the utmost discretion.” As I got up to leave, Scheunemann brought up the issue of future collaboration. I said that my being a weapons inspector made such collaboration difficult. Lott intervened. “Well, maybe we can find a way to bring you down here working for us. That might be the most useful thing to do.” Chalabi’s schemes seemed to have some substance behind them.
Armed with that potential job offer, I left Washington and returned to New York. Richard Butler was due back at the U.N., where he was planning to announce a “major breakthrough” regarding Iraq’s approach to disarmament. There was to be no mention of the specific details of the VX lab report findings, although Butler had alluded to their existence, and the Iraqi rejection of these findings. Butler was to make a presentation to the Security Council on June 25th. However, my visit to Washington produced results that dramatically altered his planned presentation.
On June 23rd, The Washington Post published a front-page story headlined “Tests Show Nerve Gas Agent in Iraqi Weapons.” The article made the main gist of the Aberdeen lab results public. It also reported on the political work undertaken by Lott and the Republicans based on that information. According to the Post story, “The new indications of Iraqi deception also are likely to reverberate in U.S. politics, where conservative Republicans are increasingly critical of what they see as a failure by the Clinton administration to support strongly either aggressive UNSCOM inspections for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or efforts to overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.”
Senate Majority Leader Lott was quoted in the article as being “deeply disturbed” by reports that the administration had not acted on the VX information. “The latest example of a failed policy toward Iraq will not be swept under the rug,” the Post quoted him as saying. I was just about to conclude that my visit had been a tremendous success when I caught a line in the middle of the article. “The Washington Post obtained a copy of the U.S. Army lab report from officials of the Iraqi National Congress, the principal Iraqi exile opposition group.” After watching the Republicans build up Chalabi, I should have known that they could not have passed up this opportunity to interject his name into the limelight. “This is a smoking gun,” Chalabi said to The Washington Post. “It shows that Saddam is still lying, and that this whole arrangement based on his turning his weapons of terror over to the United Nations is not workable.” The Post then quoted a “Republican Senate source” who echoed Chalabi’s concern: “This report means that they have VX out there now, and can use it. They have lied from the start.”
Today, in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq, I think back on my visit to Washington and my dinner with Ahmed Chalabi and his friends. The ramifications of that visit were many.
Butler’s report to the Security Council, delivered in late June of 1998, was dramatically revamped in order to take into account the need to discuss the VX findings. The “major breakthrough” in disarmament work with the Iraqis was, as a matter of course, pushed to the sidelines. The Clinton administration, caught off guard, had to come out with public statements proclaiming its support for the work of UNSCOM at a time when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger were lobbying hard behind closed doors for the U.S. to pull back from blanket support of the inspection process.
The Republicans, led by Lott, had a new cause around which to rally in their effort to confront the Democrats: the failure of disarmament and the need to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Randy Scheunemann used the impetus created by the VX nerve agent scandal to draft legislation, the so-called Iraq Liberation Act, which was passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate in October 1998. This legislation solidified regime change in Iraq as the official policy of the United States, and certified Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress as the American choice for replacing Saddam. The Chalabi machine was on a roll, and was not to be stopped until the overthrow of Saddam in April 2003.
Ahmed Chalabi remains a controversial figure today. The U.S. case for war with Iraq was built around the notion of Iraq retaining stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Much of the case was built around so-called intelligence provided by Chalabi’s INC. All of this intelligence proved flawed. Chalabi and the INC have been singled out as the scapegoats for this failure, accused of deliberately misrepresenting data and even fabricating intelligence reports to shore up the U.S. government claim that Iraq did indeed possess proscribed weapons.
As for the Aberdeen VX lab report, the Iraqi government in the end had been telling the truth. It had not succeeded in stabilizing VX nerve agent, and it had never filled any weapons with the agent. Far from representing “incontrovertible evidence” of Iraqi duplicity, the Aberdeen lab results were flawed. Even under ideal circumstances, laboratory analysis conducted at approved facilities operating under strict protocols established in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention had an incredibly high rate of misidentification, and this occurred in known test samples. Detection of a specific chemical agent simply wasn’t a slam-dunk proposition. The Aberdeen samples were taken from metal fragments that had been subjected to explosive demolition and buried in the ground for many years. Subsequent retesting done by French and Swiss labs proved inconclusive. In the end, I was wrong to have pushed so hard to have the lab results made public.
Chalabi’s bid for the leadership of post-Saddam Iraq has stalled, but not stopped. In the aftermath of the Jan. 30, 2005, elections in Iraq, a new Iraqi government was formed, and Chalabi emerged as deputy prime minister responsible for energy policy. In this role, he was given interim responsibility for overseeing the Iraqi Ministry of Oil in April-May 2005 and December 2005-January 2006, which meant he had control over Iraq’s vast economic resources. Chalabi had told me that this had always been his goal. He also told me that he would use his access to Iraq’s riches to “take care” of those of his friends who had supported his rise to power.
Exploiting Iraq’s oil resources for his own benefit has always been a Chalabi goal. Prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Chalabi took a leading role in planning how the Iraqi oil sector would be managed in post-Saddam Iraq. He chaired a meeting of oil executives at London’s prestigious Royal Institute of International Affairs, the title of which was “Invading Iraq: Dangers and Opportunities for the Energy Sector.” Chalabi also took a leading role in advising the State Department’s Oil and Energy Working Group; in a conference of the group held in December 2002 he pushed for using a revitalized Iraqi oil industry to pay for the cost of the U.S. invasion (former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz relied heavily on Chalabi’s input when he testified to the U.S. Congress that Iraqi oil would more than offset the cost of invading Iraq). Chalabi argued that the best way forward for Iraq’s oil industry was to privatize as quickly as possible, and seek to free it of OPEC-imposed production quotas. Many of Chalabi’s policy positions are reflected in the stalled National Oil Law of Iraq, still pending ratification by the Iraqi parliament.
Chalabi no longer sits as Iraq’s oil czar. In the twists of fortune that mark the instability inherent in the disastrous American occupation of Iraq, Chalabi was compelled to step aside from the Oil Ministry in January 2006, replaced by former nuclear weapons scientist Hussein al-Shahristani. Chalabi’s political aspirations had fallen short in Iraq’s national elections, with his party failing to win even one seat in the Iraqi parliament. Down but not out, Chalabi continues to this day to operate on the fringes of Iraqi politics. In the fall of 2007 he was appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to be the chair of a so-called services committee, helping coordinate the provision of health care, electricity, education and other governmental services to Baghdad neighborhoods in coordination with the American military “surge.” Chalabi’s link to the ongoing “surge” is no accident, since it maintains the connection between him and those in the neoconservative establishment in American politics who have consistently advocated for him in any post-Saddam Iraq.
One of the most visible, and vocal, of these advocates was Randy Scheunemann, the former national security adviser to Trent Lott, who left his job as a Senate staffer. In 2000 he served as the foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination. In 2001 he served a short stint as a consultant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In November 2002, Scheunemann helped form a political advocacy group known as the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, whose membership included McCain, who was an honorary co-chair. With Scheunemann guiding him, McCain said in 2003 that Ahmed Chalabi was “a patriot who has the best interests of his country at heart.” Scheunemann is a key figure behind McCain’s unabashed support for staying the course in Iraq, and helped shape the “surge” strategy currently being pursued in Iraq. Today, once again, he serves as a senior foreign policy adviser to a McCain presidential campaign.
Danielle Pletka left her job with the Senate to take a position as vice president of the neoconservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, where she continues to be a vocal and unapologetic advocate of Ahmed Chalabi. In 2006, Pletka helped form AEI’s Iraq Planning Group, which authored a report released in January 2007 that advocated surging 50,000 troops into Iraq as a remedy to the ongoing impasse. This report took precedence over the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group findings, which articulated a more nuanced approach inclusive of diplomacy and reduction of forces in Iraq. She is an avid supporter of Sen. McCain’s presidential aspirations. Pletka’s husband, Stephen Rademaker, served in the Bush administration as an assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation and disarmament issues before leaving in 2006 to join the high-profile Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Barbour, Griffith and Rogers, where he actively operates in support of undermining the current Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki and advocating for Iraqi Kurdish oil autonomy. Another Pletka associate, former CIA Director James Woolsey, has been the pro bono counsel for Chalabi over the years. Woolsey, who openly advocated for the invasion of Iraq prior to March 2003, today is an adviser to McCain’s election campaign, with a primary focus on oil security policy.
Ahmed Chalabi no longer directly controls Iraq’s oil. But at one time he did, and it will be interesting to see how he chose to distribute this largess to his friends and allies. Even more interesting will be how Chalabi leveraged his control of Iraq’s economic wealth to support his continuing claim to the ultimate position of power in Iraq. With the Shiite fundamentalists in Baghdad stumbling in their effort to form a stable government, and with the U.S. balking at Maliki’s theocratic tendencies, rest assured there are many in Washington who continue to look upon Chalabi as the go-to guy to bring secular stability to Iraq. Whether he can accomplish this task is questionable. But, in the meantime, Chalabi is in a position to write many checks, a factor that today makes him so attractive to so many, especially those in the neoconservative establishment with whom he has maintained a relationship over time. Just how attractive will be determined once there is a better understanding of when, and to whom, Chalabi writes his checks, or, more important, who is writing the checks on his behalf.
Scott Ritter is a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq (1991-1998). Author of “Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein,” published by Nation Books in 2005, and “Target Iran: The Truth About the White House Plans for Regime Change,” published by Nation Books in 2006.
AP photo / Hadi Mizban
A man with many powerful American friends, Ahmed Chalabi was once trumpeted as the George Washington of Iraq. Twists of fortune have hindered but not ended his political ambitions.