Friday, November 6, 2009

Ahmad Chalabi by Dexter Filkins

And so here was Chalabi, driving south in a convoy full of guns. After forty-five years in exile, he had come home to a strange land. In the West he was a famous man, and now a notorious one as well. He was a banker and a millionaire and a mathematics professor trained at MIT and the University of Chicago. But in Iraq his roots had withered and died. And so now, in January 2005, Chalabi was reinventing himself as an authentic Iraqi. He was running for a seat in the new Iraqi parliament.

Chalabi had entered his Islamist phase. In his speeches he had begun to speak reverently of Islam and the Prophet. In Baghdad, he had begun forming alliances with Islamist leaders, most notably, most remarkably, with Muqtada himself.

It wasn't terribly convincing. Chalabi did not wear a turban. He had no beard. He did not pray. He did not, really, even pretend. But as a practical politician- as an exile come home to a strange land growing stranger by the day- Chalabi had needed to do something. After ten minutes in the shrine, Chalabi emerged. He climbed into his SUV and sped away back to Baghdad. His goal had been accomplished. By morning, all of Najaf would know that Chalabi had come to pay homage under the golden dome of the Shrine of Imam Ali, the tomb of the son-in-law of the Prophet, the holy heart of the Shiite faith.

I pressed him on this bit of opportunism, but he would not give the game away. "It would be bad for me to do that," Chalabi said, cutting me off. "It defeats the purpose." Games-man, exile, idealist, fraud: Chalabi was someone who I never missed the chance to follow around. It wasn't just that he was brilliant, or nimble, or ruthless, or fun. When I looked into his eyes and saw the doors and mirrors opening and closing, I knew that I was seeing not just the essence of the man but of the country to which he'd returned. L'etat c'est lui. Chalabi was Iraq...

I asked Chalabi about the negotiations on the Iraqi constitution. It was the summer of 2005 and the dead line was near. The Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds were at a standstill. Chalabi was intimately involved in every aspect of the negotiations. He spoke perfect English and perfect Arabic and his energy and intelligence were limitless. Even so, I had to be careful whenever I chose to rely on him. Chalabi always had his own agenda, usually several of them, which he worked on different levels, like a game of three-dimensional chess. Chalabi wanted a unified Iraq, but he was a friend of the Kurds, who wanted autonomy. He was an entirely secular man, but he had pulled close to Muqtada, who wanted an Islamic state. He wore suits and he wore dishdashas. Who was he this time? I felt like any member of the American government must have felt in dealing with Chalabi: was I getting more out of Chalabi than he was getting out of me? Or was I being conned and charmed into submission?

"We are on the brink of an agreement," Chalabi said. "Everything has been settled."

I took out my notebook. This was news. Chalabi's face was blank. What was settled, exactly? I asked.

"Oil", Chalabi said, spooning some ice cream.


"It's settled," Chalabi said, face still blank.

We talked details, about which Chalabi was distressingly vague. What's left to be settled? I asked.

Well, said Chalabi, there is no agreement yet on the role of Islam in family issues..."whether to allow clerics on the Supreme Court has not been decided."

I sighed. There wasn't much point in asking Chalabi where he stood on all these issues. I knew him too well for that; he would not have answered.

"It's the same old story", I told him, "You call it progress, you say you are near an agreement, but at each session you maybe solve half your differences. And then the next day you resolve half of what is left. But it never ends."

"Yes", Chalabi said crisply, glancing in Jim's direction. "Zeno's Paradox".

Jim nodded knowingly.

"An infinite converging series", said Chalabi.

"It's called Zeno's Paradox" , Jim said, jumping in, "You add an infinite number of smaller and smaller numbers together and get a finite sum. In other words, an infinite number of meetings and you get to the constitutional agreement in a finite time."

"Yes, exactly",said Chalabi with a smile.

"You'll never get there, I said, trying to pick up the metaphor, whatever it was, "because it's infinite."

"No," Chalabi said, smiling blankly. "That's not right."

Jim laughed. I tried to change the subject.

"Okay, you seem to be backpedaling on women's rights. You say you are secular, but if you let Islamic courts get involved in family disputes, then you are inserting Islam into the state. You are doing the Islamists' bidding."

"Absolutely false", he said

"But how can you square being secular with allowing imams to settle divorces and inheritance?" I asked

"Have you heard the joke about the rabbi and the priest on the airplane/"

How could I refuse? I didn't know the joke.

"A priest and a rabbi are riding on a plane," Chalabi said, leaning back in his chair. "After a while the priest turns to the rabbi and asks, 'Is it still a requirement of your faith that you not eat pork?'

"The rabbi says, 'Yes, that is still one of our beliefs."

"So the priests asks, 'Have you ever tasted pork?'

"To which the rabbi replies, 'Yes, on one occasion I did succumb to the temptation and tasted pork'."

Chalabi was grinning widely.

"The priest nodded and went on with his reading. A while later, the rabbi asked the priest, "Father, is it still a requirement of your church that you remain celibate?'

"The priest replied, 'Yes, that is still very much a part of our faith.'

"Then the rabbi asked him, 'Father, have you ever succumbed to the temptations of the flesh?'

"The priest replied, 'Yes, Rabbi, on one occasion I was weak and broke my faith.'

"The rabbi nodded understandingly for a moment and then said, 'A lot better than pork, isn't it?'"

Chalabi beamed at his joke, and Jim and I laughed. After a few more minutes it was time to go. Past curfew. The streets of Mansour were dangerous in the fall of 2005. Kidnappers and insurgents everywhere, even in Baghdad's best neighborhoods. Chalabi uttered something to an attendant, and we said goodbye. As we drove from the compound, a row of Iraqi police cars appeared, their blue lights flashing, getting in line to escort us back across town.


  1. We drove east out of Baghdad, in a convoy as menacing as the one we had ridden south to Mushkhab on the campaign trip earlier that year. After three hours of weaving and careering, we reached the end of the plains of eastern Iraq, and the terrain turned sharply upwards into a ridge of arid mountains. We had come to the border, the ancient boundary between the Ottoman and Persian Empires. To our right lay the abandoned fortifications and rusting hulks of the Iran-Iraq war. Then we crossed over into Iran itself, and the ruins of Iraq gave way to swept streets and a tiny border post with shiny bathrooms. A different world.

    Chalabi got out of his SUV as an Iranian cleric approached. They shook hands. Then the cleric said something strange: "We are disappointed to hear that you won't be staying in the Shiite alliance, we were really hoping you'd stay." I considered the irony. For a moment, the border between Iran and Iraq had disappeared.

    Chalabi ducked into the bathroom and reappeared in a well-tailored suit and tie. Then we drove to Ilam, a nearby city, where an eleven seat Fokker jet was idling on the runway of the local airport. We took off for Tehran, flying over a dramatic landscape of canyons and ravines. We landed in Iran's smoggy capital, and within a couple of hours Chalabi was meeting with the highest officials of the Iranian government. One of them was Ali Larijani, the national security adviser.

    I met Larijani the next morning. Chalabi arranged it. "Our relationship wit Mr. Chalabi does not have anything to do with his relationship with the neocons," Larijani told me. His red-rimmed eyes, when I met him at 7am, betrayed a sleepless night. "He is a very constructive and influential figure. He is a very wise man and a very useful person for the future of Iraq.... America should consider his power legitimate. They should not fight it."

    A couple of hours later came a meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president. I was with a handful of Iranian reporters who were led into a finely appointed room just outside the president's office. First came Chalabi, dressed in another perfect suit, beaming. Then came Ahmadinejad, wearing a face of childlike bewilderment. He wore a pair of imitation leather shoes and bulky white athletic socks, and a suit that looked as if it had come from a Soviet department store. He and Chalabi, several inches taller, stood together for photos, then retired to a private room.

  2. When the meeting ended, Ahmadinejad asked Chalabi if there was anything he could do to make his stay more comfortable. Chalabi said, Why yes, in fact, there was: would he mind if he, Chalabi, took a tour of the Museum of Contemporary Art?

    In a few moments, we were there, in the middle of a country still in the throes of an Islamic revolution, strolling past one of the finest collections of Western modern art outside Europe and the United States: Matisse, Kandinsky, Rothko, Gaugin, Pollack, Klee, Van Gogh, five Warhols, seven Picassos, much more, and a sprawling garden of sculpture outside. The collection had been assembled by Queen Farah, the shah's wife, with the monarchy's vast oil wealth. On this day, the gallery was all but empty. We had the museum's enthusiastic English-speaking tour guide all to ourselves.

    "Thank you, thank you, for coming!" Noreen Motamed exclaimed, clapping her hands.

    We walked the empty halls. Chalabi move deliberately, nodding his head, pausing at a Degas and a Pissarro.

    "Wow," Chalabi said before Jesus Rafael Soto's painting 'Canada.' "Look at that."

    The only clue we had that we were in Tehran, and not New York or London, was the absence of the middle panel from Francis Bacon's triptych, 'Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendant', which depicts two naked men.

    "It is in the basement, covered," Motamed said with a disappointed expression.

    Finally, we came across a pair of paintings by Marc Chagall, the twentieth century modernist and painter of Jewish life. The display contained no mention of this fact.

    Chalabi gazed at the Chagalls for a time. Then with a rueful smile, he turned, to no one in particular, and said loudly: "Imagine that. They have two paintings by Marc Chagall in the middle of a museum in Tehran."

  3. "The Forever War" by Dexter Filkins, foreign correspondent for the N.Y. Times; Alfred A Knopf, N.Y., 2008

    People asked me about the war, of course. They asked me whether it was as bad as people said. "Oh definitely," I told them, and then, usually stopped. In the beginning, I'd go on a little longer, tell them a story or two, and then I could see their eyes go after a couple of sentences. We drew closer to each other, the hacks and the vets and the diplomats, anyone who'd been over there. My friend George, an American reporter I'd gotten to know in Iraq, told me he couldn't have a conversation with anyone about Iraq who hadn't been there. I told him I couldn't have a conversation with anyone who hadn't been there about anything at all.

    Back in the world, people were serious, about the fillings in their sandwiches, about the winner of last night's ball game. I couldn't blame them, of course. For me the war sort of flattened things out, flattened things out here and flattened them out there, too. Towards the end, when I was still there, so many bombs had gone off so many times that they no longer shocked or even roused; the people screamed in silence and in slow motion. And then I got back to the world, and the weddings and the picnics were the same as everything had been in Iraq, silent and slow and heavy and dead. Your dreams come alive, though, when you come home. Your days may die but your dreams explode. Not with any specific recollections; they were more the by-products of the raw material I carried back. Rarely anything I ever actually saw.