“We liberated Iraq.”
—Ahmad Chalabi’s campaign slogan in Iraq, 2005
“We have undertaken to liberate the beloved homeland,” announced the voice on the radio through the static one early morning in Baghdad in 1958. The calendar showed it was July 14, Bastille Day, the anniversary of the start of the French Revolution. Iraqis had slept on their rooftops to avoid the summer heat, and now, all over the city, people began to stumble out into the street. The radio crackled on, repeating a lengthy message. “We have undertaken to liberate the beloved homeland from the corrupt crew that imperialism installed. Power shall be entrusted to a government emanating from you and inspired by you.”
In the palace, the Crown Prince, the power behind the throne, got out of bed and turned on the radio to hear the news of his downfall, and then rushed out to surrender. The story goes that when the royals gathered in the courtyard, an Iraqi army captain slaughtered them, riddling their bodies with machine-gun fire in one long-sustained burst.
It was still the early hours of the morning when members of the wealthy Chalabi family, at their homes in the Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya, learned of the coup. Three majestic adjacent homes all belonged to the Chalabis, a close-knit clan. The Chalabis gathered hurriedly to consult on what to do in this new and sudden crisis. The children had slept on the roofs too, under the Baghdad sky, and now they watched the adults as they debated in fright. Children can sometimes sense these things, and the children there had a foreboding that this day was different, that it symbolized an ending of things as they had known them. The grown-ups quickly reached their decision, and then they acted.
Young Ahmad Chalabi, thirteen years old, black-haired and serious, was herded with his mother and the others into a convoy of big American sedans to flee their mansion. Ahmad left behind the basketball hoop he had helped to set up. He left behind the ping-pong table, which slid behind a specially constructed wall. Abandoned as well, just for a time that day, were the pet parrots in the massive cage — almost as big as an aviary — squawking away in the excitement. The brightly colored birds were just one of the delightful and distinctive things in their stately home that the Chalabis were leaving behind. The family split up. Some of the men, joined by the foreign minister of the country, Fadhil al-Jamali, and by Chalabi’s much older brother Rushdie Chalabi, fled from town to hide. The rest, including Ahmad and his mother and several siblings and nephews and cousins, drove to Khadimiya, back then just a suburb just north of Baghdad. Khadimiya, a Shiite stronghold, had been the Chalabi family’s main base going back for generations. In fact, Medina Abdul Hadi was an adjacent enclave named for Ahmad’s father. Luckily, on this day Ahmad’s father, Abdul Hadi Chalabi, was out of town; he was in Tehran when the revolution began.
But according to family lore, the Chalabis did not even venture into their compound in Khadimiya, called Seef, which had been a splendid place to play and hunt and celebrate in a well-tended orchard — a wonderland where Iraq’s royalty and elite held their parties and festivities. No, the family didn’t even go there; instead they crowded into the home of an ally in Khadimiya. They needed somewhere to hide from the soldiers and mobs. While the rest of Iraq was celebrating the bloody revolution, the Chalabis were targets, clustered in their host’s estate for shelter.
Born October 30, 1944, toward the end of World War II, when the British still quietly pulled the strings in Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi was his parents’ ninth and final child. He was born nine years after his next oldest brother, Hazem, and their mother, Bibi, used to joke occasionally that Ahmad was a “mistake,” an “accident.” Yet she doted on her youngest son. And since some of his older brothers were old enough to be his father, it was as if he had a half-dozen parents tending to him. The Chalabis were a leading Shiite merchant family, entwined with the monarchist government of Iraq. Before the monarchy they had allied themselves with the British occupiers and before that with their Turkish overlords. In the context of the Middle East, they had converted to Shiism relatively recently. Family members say that Ahmad’s great-great-grandfather was a Sunni who adopted the Shiite faith. Perhaps the zeal of the convert impressed itself on his offspring, because they became pillars of the Iraqi Shiite community.
‘A sigh of relief’ after forebear's death
Iraqi historian Hanna Batatu describes Chalabi’s great-grandfather as an extremely brutal and powerful man, with his own “special prison at his disposal” and a “bodyguard of armed slaves” that he used to impose his will on the Shiite community of Khadimiya. “When he died the people of Khadhimiyyah heaved a sigh of relief,” Batatu wrote, citing Jawad Chalabi, Chalabi’s elder brother, as the source.
Chalabi’s father, Abdul Hadi, shed the oppressive reputation of his forebear. He functioned as a financier of the Iraqi monarchy, but also of the Shiite clerical leadership in Najaf. Family members say he gave a percentage of his wealth to the Shiite religious leaders, as was expected of those in his position. As for rulers of Iraq, in 1938 Abdul Hadi “got in the good graces of the regent-to-be, ‘Abd-ul-Illah, by coming to his assistance with loans.” The prince, a gambler, “in due course made him a minister of public works and eventually the vice president of the Senate.”
Indeed, a year after young Ahmad Chalabi was born, Prince ‘Abd-ul-Illah brought Abdul Hadi with his entourage to the United States on a state visit. They stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York before going to Washington, D.C., where the prince overnighted at the White House. The Chalabi family was part of the old Baghdad business elite: the word “Chalabi” — of Turkish origin — originally was an honorific applied to high-ranking merchants. As Batatu summed it up, “Translating economic power into political influence, and political influence into economic power, the Chalabis climbed from one level of wealth to another, and on the eve of the 1958 revolution surpassed other business families.”
Pampered and happy, Ahmad Chalabi was a studious boy. And in the play room of his father’s big house, he played ping-pong with Jasseem, the son of a police official who helped to protect the place. He and Jasseem — boys of a different class entirely — played against each other, rhythmically tapping the ball back across the fragile table. Chalabi would later evoke the pleasant times in Iraq that preceded those atrocities of 1958. From his childhood perspective, waist-high to the wealthy, well-educated men around him, this Iraq was an eclectic, tolerant place, where Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Jews, and even Yazidis worked together. Chalabi kept a photograph for decades that he would show to his friends. “It was the board of his father’s company,” as one man recalled, “and it was a Turcoman, a Jew, an Assyrian, a couple Shiite, a couple of Sunni. It was like a cross-section of Iraqi Society, and his big thing was, this is how Iraq was. This is how we were, this is how we will be again!”
It was, in one account by a Chalabi supporter, a “golden age.” He wrote that “Iraq had a constitution, elections, a reasonably free press, a market economy, expanding public schools, a rising middle class.” Another writer described it this way: “Iraq in the 1950s was multiracial and increasingly prosperous.” That Iraq was a place to which anyone would want to return.
And indeed, for the rich, the Iraq of the day was a dreamland. The Iraqis mimicked the British nobility. Iraq even had the only foxhunting between Rome and Peshawar, diplomats would quip. But that Iraq existed for only a privileged few. The real Iraq of the day was nothing like it. Even the young Ahmad Chalabi must have caught a glimpse, or a smell at least, of the poverty of that other Iraq. The year before the coup of 1958, he has said, he had traveled to London. Like any boy, he must have looked out the car window on his drive to the Baghdad airport to see the surroundings: “clusters of medieval mud huts, holes for windows, a rusty piece of sheet iron for a door.” That was the way the Washington Post described it at the time. One historian writes, “Throughout the 1950s massive slums spread around Baghdad, with the hovel inhabitants periodically swamped by muddy overflows from the Tigris.” “The infant mortality [rate] is 250 per thousand. A woman has a 50:50 chance of raising a child to the age of ten. There are no social services of any kind. . . . On the adjacent dumps dogs with rabies dig in the sewage and the slum-dwellers pack it for resale as garden manure.”
Aram Roston is an investigative producer at the award-winning NBC News investigative unit. He has also worked as a correspondent for CNN and a New York City police reporter. His work has been published in Maclean's, The Nation, the London Observer, GQ Magazine, Mother Jones Magazine and The Washington Monthly.