Ahmad Chalabi – Understanding the Man Behind the Mission
When I first met Ahmad Chalabi over a sushi lunch in April, 1991 in Washington, I knew that we had found the man who could eventually liberate Iraq from tyranny. I didn’t know how; I didn’t know when, but I knew it would happen. Within minutes of sitting down with him, I understood exactly why Prof. Bernard Lewis - who had met Chalabi days a few days before - had called me and had told me that I must meet Chalabi. I was soon to discovered that Chalabi was one of the most brilliant, talented, and fascinating people I had ever met. And his sense and justice, fairness, inclusion, and depth of character would be revealed by his actions with time.
I had met so many Middle Eastern and Islamic world opposition leaders by then, and was, to put it mildly, convinced that they were all talk and no action. They sent so much time criticizing other opposition leaders and glorifying themselves.
Chalabi did neither. He was single-minded about his drive to remove Saddam from power, and end the suffering and tyranny of his people. Whatever their politics or religious affiliation, he wanted all Iraqis included, and he went to great lengths to include Sunni Arabs and Kurds in his circle, because he knew Iraq would disintegrate if any group was excluded.
I also knew that liberating Iraq was a daunting task, and one which the American political establishment would not wish to take on. Saddam was, after all a Sunni, and even though he threatened the Saudis and other Gulf countries, he was one of them, and was closely tied to the Sunni establishments which ruled these countries. What these Arab Sunni establishments wanted to do was liberate Kuwait, and find a way to impose another Arab Sunni dictator on Iraq, who would keep Iraq under wraps, and prevent Iraq’s Shiite majority from taking control. These Arab rulers were already threatened by Shiite Iran, and feared that another Shiite-run state would make their task of controlling their own Shiite subjects even harder.
These Sunni rulers hated Chalabi, first and foremost because he was a Shiite. And the American establishment seemed almost clueless as to the religious-sect make-up of Iraq. (So many American specialists on the Arab world swallowed the Arab Sunni rulers’ claim that Iraq had a Sunni Arab majority – lock stock and barrel.)
Ahmad Chalabi was one of a kind; he was at home in Western culture, yet at the same time equally at home in his native Muslim culture. He was a visionary, yet at the same time very practical when it came to using any avenue in order to liberate his beloved people and homeland – Iraq – towards which he felt a deep sense responsibility and commitment. A scion of a wealthy family, he could have, should he have chosen to, spent his time living a life of luxury in the West, unbothered by what was happening to his people in Iraq.
But duty called him, and he answered his inner voice/soul which compelled him to make tremendous personal sacrifices – to do everything he could – to liberate his homeland and his people. That meant at times living in some of the most appalling conditions, far away from the luxuries he had experienced as a child growing up in Baghdad.
Chalabi lived in London and later in the US where he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in mathematics, which never was far from his mind. We would often go to bookstores in Washington DC and elsewhere, and he would always make a bee-line directly to the mathematics section. He could spend hours browsing books on this subject.
But Ahmad was interested in many other things as well. I remember, in the early 1990s, that he would ask me to get him copies of artwork on line, he then downloaded onto his laptop which he took with him to northern Iraq, where he spent a lot of time trying every way possible to end Saddam’s rule.
I checked around with others whom I had long admired and trusted regarding the Middle East. Those who knew Iraq in their gut – whatever their background – made it clear that Ahmad was one of the most gifted and remarkable people they had met. But that raised red flags in some quarters – especially in the American establishment – because Chalabi was not easily controlled, which was a characteristic so many American officials looked for. Chalabi said what he thought. He was an Iraqi patriot and would not kowtow to the whims and desires of so many US and foreign government officials who were so used kowtowing Middle Easterners who said one thing to their American counterparts, but then did other things behind the Americans’ backs. Chalabi stood his ground wasn’t easily controlled.
Probably the best way to gain insight into who Ahmad Chalabi was is through a series of vignettes which demonstrate the character of this unique individual.
Chalabi was interested in everything! He knew the intricate details of many things, because his knowledge and interests were so vast.
One of the first things that illustrated his broad breath of knowledge was a controversy that was brewing outside of Philadelphia, regarding the contents of an obscure mansion filled with $1.6 billion worth of paintings.
Unbeknownst to me, Art - both Western and Islamic - was one of Chalabi’s true passions. During the first month after I met him in April, 1991, I told him that I was going to my native Philadelphia to visit friends and family for the weekend. He asked me where I was going. I answered: “to Lower Merion, just outside of the city. He immediately asked me how close I was going to be to the Barnes Foundation. I mentioned that where I was staying was just off the street where the foundation was located. Somewhat startled, and not yet knowing of his breath of his eclectic interests at that time.
There was a controversy surrounding the Barnes foundation; its neighbors on that street were trying to have it closed on weekends because so many people were coming to visit the foundation and parking their cars on that street, making it sometimes impossible for the traffic to pass. Ahmad immediately started to talk about it with me. How could Ahmad know so much about such an obscure controversy? I asked him how he knew about that art museum which housed a huge number of paintings. The museum was in a mansion which had belonged to the late owner of the paintings, and who had lived there along with his dog. Ahmad proceeded to tell me about the lawsuit the neighbors had brought against the museum because of the enormous traffic and parking problems visitors to the museum created, which blocked the roads of this narrow street. His knowledge of the small details of this problem struck me, because this was exactly the street on which my friends lived, and my friends were very much involved in the legal battle against the museum.
Years later, Chalabi & I spent more than four hours strolling through an art museum in London where he explained to me the intricate details of the paintings at which we were looking, and about the history and interests of these painters. Later, as I realized that Chalabi never forgot anything, and had a photographic memory to boot.
It was of no surprise to me that when, in the early 1990s, Chalabi moved to American-protected no-fly zone in Northern Iraqi Kurdistan, that he had asked a few of his friends in DC to download for him copies of images of paintings housed in many American museums. Chalabi said he wanted them so he would “visit” these museums during the wee-hours of the night, when he needed to find ways to break the tension surrounding him.
Chalabi was a futurist thinker. While most people think about the next moves of a chess board, Chalabi was thinking about moves far into the future… 8 – 10 steps ahead, taking into account what possible moves his adversaries might make. That was one of the reasons that he so admired Iranian culture, which is strategic by nature, and encourages people to come up with the goals they want to attain, and then develop a strategy to get there, while at the time taking into account every move one’s opponents might make.
In the late 1990s, Chalabi was traveling with some friends on a long flight. One of his friends noticed that he was deeply engrossed in reading a huge book about post-World War II Germany. When Chalabi finished a chapter, his friend asked him what the book was about and why he was reading it. Chalabi looked over and said… “I want to learn how America and its allies helped rebuild Germany after the war – i.e., what worked and what didn’t work.
Chalabi realized that when Iraq would finally be liberated, that the horrors of the Saddam and Ba’athist era wouldn’t just fall by the wayside, and that the country would have to go through a long period of reconstruction. Chalabi understood the value of history; he wanted to learn from similar past experiences and how to apply those lessons when eventually Saddam would fall. How sad it was that the Americans and their allies weren’t prepared to help do the same, as they had done in Germany and Japan after World War II. Had Chalabi been given the opportunity to apply what he was learning, Iraq might not have been in the dire straits that it was today, long after the 2003 liberation of Iraq.
One of Chalabi’s closest friends who had grown up with him from the time that they were little, used to refer to him as “EO” – i.e., the “eternal optimist”. No setback was every too great to make him abandon his mission of liberating his homeland, no matter how devastating that setback might have been.
And Chalabi had many setbacks. from his family’s need to flee Iraq after the Hashemites were overthrown in 1958 when Chalabi was only an earlier teenager. Ahmad told a story about his family hiding a senior Hashemite official on the farm outside of Baghdad. The revolutionary forces came to that farm. They demanded that Ahmad show them where people might be hiding. Ahmad knew exactly where people were hiding. But rather coolly, as described by someone else who was there, Ahmad, an early teenager at the time, handled the situation, and the people hiding there were not caught.
This is to be one of the first of many difficult situations that Chalabi endured. And in typical Ahmad-fashion, he found a way to defuse the situation, if only temporarily. To say that Ahmad was a cat of 9 lives is an understatement. He never let anything get the better of him, and also kept his eye on the mission. A normal person who have long succumbed… but not Ahmad. He was one of a kind.
Many Middle Easterners, whether government officials, opposition leaders, or simply average people spend a lot of time blaming and belittling their adversaries. They also constantly blame others for their misfortunes and wallow in their sorrows. I’ve witnessed this over and over again, which made me very skeptical of people from that part of the world.
I saw heard Ahmad do this. During the many years I knew him, he always had his eye on the mission, and didn’t waste his time blaming others. I once asked me about this, and why he and so few other Middle Eastern leaders had this gift. Ahmad laughed and said, “Why blame others? What good would it do? It solves nothing and makes you waste your energy on things you cannot change. It prevents one from focusing on the mission. It is also why Middle Eastern tyrants encourage their adversaries to sit around and blame others. And it allows the rulers’ intelligence services to acquire information on their opponents, because so many were prepared to work with the regimes they opposed against their adversaries. That most assuredly is one of the reasons Saddam hated Chalabi so much, because Saddam couldn’t tempt him or bribe him. Chalabi cared more about bringing his political opponents into the room, to discuss how they could work together to liberate Iraq.
Chalabi actually worried about his political adversaries. He spent a great deal of time trying to find Arab Sunni Iraqi leaders to bring into the INC. Chalabi knew they were an important element in Iraqi society, and could not be ignored. How remarkable. It requires great skill to keep people in the system, and not turn them into enemies. Chalabi did his best to bring everyone in and joint the mission to liberate Iraq.
Chalabi had time for all Iraqis, for the very rich to the very poor. In the late 1990s, a man managed to escape southern Iraq and find his way to distant relatives then living in the Detroit area. Shortly thereafter, he made his way to Washington where he contacted Ahmad. He wanted to come and ask Ahmad for help for his family he had left behind, and to help liberate his homeland. Chalabi was scheduled to have lunch with me that day. He called me a few hours before and said that a man from the Basra area had come to him, and that Ahmad could not abandon him and wanted to bring him lunch.
I of course agreed. We all met at an Iranian restaurant. We all took food from the buffet and sat down to eat. Almost immediately, the man from Basra started going on about how great Ahmad and his family were, citing all sorts of things Chalabi’s family had done for the people in southern Iraq. He went on endlessly with stories of bravery and danger, telling how unique the Chalabis were.
Ahmad grew a little embarrassed and tried to get the man to stop lauding the Chalabis. I screamed at the Ahmad… “Let him talk!” Ahmad relented.
When the man paused to put some food in his mouth, I asked Ahmad to come up with me to the buffet to take more food. As we filled our plates, I explained to Ahmad why I wanted to hear the man out. I said, “look, this glory comes at a price. He’s come to you for help. If YOU can’t help him, he’ll simply go on to the next leader/notable and do sing the praises of that person instead. You have an enormous responsibility here; you MUST deliver!” Ahmad sighed and breathed deeply… I’m glad you understand what enormous pressure I am under, and you know me, I will deliver!”
Ahmad was kind and generous to a fault. When my mother died in May, 2000, Ahmad had been scheduled to flight from London to Washington a few days later. But when he heard about my mother’s passing, Ahmad moved up his flight be a few days so that he could visit me and my wife during the 7-day mourning period we Jews observe. He arrived early so we could talk and express his condolences. I was a good friend, and Ahmad did what he could to help friends.
Some years later, he went with his family to visit a nephew who was living in Spain. On the trip, they visited the place where Maimonides, a great Jewish scholar and medical doctor to various Muslim rulers had lived. At his house, Ahmad saw a little roundel with a Star of David – the Jewish national symbol - and bought it for me. This was typical of the sometimes small yet always kind gestures which typified this great leader.
About six months before Saddam’s regime was toppled, there was a huge conference of Iraqi dissidents, Americans, Europeans, Iranians, and other people interested in regime change in Iraq. I attended along with Chalabi, many members of the INC, and other Iraqi dissidents. There were many Americans, Europeans, Iranians, and others interested in regime change in Iraq as well.
At the conference, I met some Iraqi ex-patriot Jews who were passionately devoted to Iraq. I began to ask them about Jewish life in Iraq, a subject I had long studied and in which I was very interested. These Jews told me that there was a man then in his 90s who lived in London and knew a lot more about Iraqi Jewish history than they. They kindly arranged for me to meet this gentleman; shortly thereafter I took a taxi to his house. After we exchanged pleasantries for about 10-15 minutes, and I asked him bluntly about the Iraqi opposition, and whom he trusted and why. He said he wanted to tell me a story about the Chalabi family.
During the 1941 Farhud pogrom against the Jews in Baghdad, this man and his family ran to the Chalabis for help – his father having been a business associate of Ahmad’s father. The Chalabis couldn’t have been kinder. They took in not only this man’s family, but also sent many others who came to the Chalabis for protection to a huge farm they owned. There they stayed until the pogrom died down. I was surprised by the story, because I have known Ahmad for about 12 years by that time and I had never heard say anything about what his family had done to save Jews in their time of need. Ahmad simply never brought it up.
After that meeting, I went over the Ahmad’s and brought up the story. “Why,” I asked him did you never tell me this? You know how much stories like this mean to me!” Ahmad shot back, “Why should I have told you this? All my family did was act humanely! Why should we take credit for doing the right thing?”
I backed down, knowing him so well and knowing why he would never mention this himself. But I was so grateful to learn that my understanding of this remarkable man was so on target.
But back to the story, Ahmad then told me that his mother told him (He was born three years after the Farhud), that the Jews would only eat hard boiled eggs because the food at the Chalabis was of course not kosher. How kind; how decent, how Ahmad!
Ahmad Chalabi, Shiism, and Iran
Ahmad was a visionary. It pained him greatly to see how the Islamic world, long ago a leader in science, mathematics, and other fields, was now so backward that all of the great scientific advances of the Muslim world’s past were but distant dreams. It bothered him tremendously and Muslims no longer contributed to the advancement of mankind as they had in the past.
Over the decade and a half that we knew each other, this topic was never far from our minds.
Why was this the case? Clearly the Muslims had the intellectual and brain capability; the history of the Islamic world proves that. So why today, do Muslims contribute almost nothing to modern science etc.?
Ahmad laid this very much at the feet of the Sunni authorities who, almost 1,000 years ago, closed the gates of Ijtihad (independent and critical thinking). Muslims were no longer allowed to think for themselves – at least according to the ruling authorities. All issues, according to the ruling ideology, had been addressed; one could only look for analogies (in Arabic: qiyas) from the previous 400 years of Islamic history, to find solutions for contemporary problems.
This deadened the mind. But Shi’ism had an answer. For Shiites, the gates of Ijtihad had never closed. Shiite Grand Ayatollahs and those directly below them in the religious hierarchy, were encouraged – actually even demanded that they use their powers of reason to address problems.
As such, Ahmad and I both agreed that this aspect of Shiite Islam provided a way for the entire Muslim world to again join the scientific “family of nations” and resume the Muslims’ rightful place in the advancement of scientific knowledge.
At another time, we discussed the decline in Shiite religious thought in Iran, which occurred after the Iranian revolution. Beforehand, the level of Shiite reasoning, so obvious from reading pre-revolutionary Iranian Shiite religious decisions, was quite high.
But both of us agreed that it plummeted in Iran, after the revolution. Why?... we asked ourselves. I postulated that maybe it might be because the best and the brightest of the Shiite religious “intellectuals” in Iran were going into government, and finding ways to “make a lot of money,” instead of remaining in the religious seminaries. Ahmad readily agreed.
Then, I asked him, “if you truly believe that Shiism has answers for the Muslim world to take its place in the modern scientific world,” could you make an argument that it is therefore Iran’s revolutionary government which has caused the decline in Shiite thought capabilities, and is therefore hurting both Iran and the entire Muslim world? Ahmad blurt out a resounding “YES!”.
For Ahmad, Shiism was a means to save Islam from destroying itself in today’s world. It was a way for Islam to take its rightful position and join the modern world. But the Iranian government was destroying that possibility, and also the greatness of Shiism.
Ahmad feared that Iran, whose culture he so deeply admired, could end up, because of its present government, contributing to the freefall of the Islamic world, which he so passionately wanted to save.
So, I asked him, why do you maintain such deep relations with the Iranian government? Sadly, he smiled and said, “well, you refuse to confront and take out Iran’s government, which wants to destroy America and is destroying the Islamic world. “You have run from them, and you leave me no alternative other than to accommodate them because they are Iraq’s immediate neighbors. “They breathe down our noses of us in Iraq; we are too weak to stand on our own. We do have great Shiite religious figures who could help make the situation better, but they have no alternative other than to kowtow to Iran, because otherwise, the Iranian government could kill them.
If only the Americans would have been capable of understanding Ahmad’s intricate relationship with the Iranians, and his deep admiration for Shiism, Iraq might have looked differently today, and maybe also Iran. And just maybe the Iraq that Ahmad envisioned and worked so hard to create might been ended up differently.
But despite Ahmad’s tremendous efforts, few Americans ever understood his greatness and potential, because so few really understand the culture in which he grew up, or cared much about how to use that culture to bring the Muslim world into the modern world. Yes, Ahmad failed, but not for lack of trying. He never gave up, and had God granted him more years of this earth, Ahmad might have found other ways to implement his vision.
But that was no to be. We lost a great but highly misunderstood leader. We lost of practical visionary who, had we been smarter, might have eventually been able to put the Muslim world on the road to true freedom. But that task, if it can be accomplished, will have to wait for others who might be able to fill part of Ahmad’s shoes.
People with Ahmad Chalabi’s characteristics are unique. Leaders of his ilk appear maybe once or twice in a generation. The world has lost a great man… a great leader. We have lost a great man, a great leader, who died long before his selfless mission was accomplished.
May God grant mercy on his soul. And may Ahmad Chalabi look down upon us from Paradise and his wisdom and passion serve as models others to carry on his mission.