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Ahmed Chalabi, Iraqi Politician Who Advocated For U.S. Invasion, Dies


Ahmed Chalabi was part of a group of Iraqis who lived outside the country during the rule of Saddam Hussein. That group provided information it said could prove that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.


Chalabi, who was educated in the U.S. and was part of a prominent Shiite family, advocated for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He died today in Baghdad at the age of 71. And Robert, you spoken with Chalabi just after the invasion.

SIEGEL: Yes. And I asked him if he was confident that the U.S. would find these weapons. Here's what he said.


AHMED CHALABI: I believe there are such weapons hidden in Iraq now, and I think with diligent work and getting Iraqis involved in the process, these will be found.

MCEVERS: That, of course, did not happen. Earlier today, I talked to Zaid al-Ali. He's a research scholar at Princeton University, and we played him part of that interview. I asked him what he thought about hearing Ahmed Chalabi's voice.

ZAID AL-ALI: What I think is that Chalabi was used by the Bush administration in order to provide a pretext for the war, but I wouldn't describe him as the architect for the war. I would say that he was aiding in abetting an effort that already been decided. But if Chalabi hadn't been around and hadn't been peddling his misinformation about the weapons, the Bush administration would have found another source or another pretext to go to war.

MCEVERS: So on a day when people are saying the reason America went to war in Iraq has died, you're saying it could have been anybody.

AL-ALI: I don't think it could have been anyone, but the Bush admin had made up its mind that they wanted to go to war for a variety of reasons, and weapons of mass destruction was very low their priority. So it certainly wasn't Chalabi's influence that led them to make that decision, and it certainly wasn't the information or misinformation that he was providing that caused the trigger.

MCEVERS: Ahmed Chalabi was born in Iraq. His family was a prominent Shiite family in the capital, Baghdad. But then they moved outside of Iraq for many decades, and he only came back after the 2003 invasion. How did Iraqis view him at the time?

AL-ALI: So Iraqis weren't very familiar with him prior to 2003. They had some information about him which had been provided by the Ba'ath Party - Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party's propaganda machine - as this Iraq trader. That's the way in which he was basically portrayed.

After 2003, he was very well-known in Iraq, so he was always in the media and very prominent in Iraqi circles but not very well liked. People always were very suspicious of him mainly because of his association with all these financial scandals and also his association with the misinformation about the weapons of mass destruction. Even Iraqis who were happy that the United States had invaded the country were nevertheless suspicious of Chalabi because he'd constructed this monumental lie about the weapons of mass destruction which anyone, in their right mind, must have known was a lie.

MCEVERS: And you talk about financial scandals. There was a banking scandal in 1992 and then, you know, allegations that he misused money that the U.S. government gave him over the years. Is that why Ahmed Chalabi was never able to rise through the ranks of Iraqi politics?

AL-ALI: Very possibly, yeah. I mean, he really tried his best to overcome that legacy. So he had a lot of charity work, for example, that he organized in Baghdad, which - he delivered a lot of help to a lot of individuals. But he was never able to break through that aura of dishonesty, untrustworthiness, so on, so forth. So he was appreciated in elite circles. Amongst the broader public, he was never some that people would turn to as a source of leadership.

MCEVERS: He eventually did get a seat in parliament as part of a larger political slate in 2010. But he was involved in this continuing project call de-Ba'athification, and this was purging people who had been assumed to be associated, at one time, with Saddam Hussein. Many saw this as a sectarian witchhunt. Is that another reason why he was not popular in Iraq?

AL-ALI: Well, what I would say is that the way in which people understand de-Ba'athification as the - one of the keys that pushed Sunnis into the arms of insurgent groups fighting against Baghdad and Americans - I don't really agree with that because most of the individuals who were de-Ba'athified were given full pensions.

However, what I would say, is that amongst political circles, if you weren't connected to one of the Shia Islamist parties and if you were a former member of the Ba'ath Party, then you were much more liable to be de-Ba'athified than if you were connected.

MCEVERS: So it almost sounds like you're saying more than sort of stoking the fires of sectarian conflict in Iraq, it was a way to reward your friends and keep them in power.

AL-ALI: Absolutely. And there's no one that's going to dispute this in Iraq.

MCEVERS: How do you think Ahmed Chalabi will be remembered in Iraq?

AL-ALI: I think he'll be remembered as someone who had a role in the war in 2003. He's certainly not a national hero. I don't know if anyone's portraying him that way. That's not the way in which he's perceived. But you know, aside from the people that he directly helped with through his charity work. I don't think many Iraqis will feel sorry over his loss.

MCEVERS: Well, Zaid al-Ali, who wrote the book "The Struggle For Iraq's Future," thanks so much for doing this today.

AL-ALI: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.