Iraq is looking for someone to put the country back together again — if that’s even possible — and one of the most disgraced names from the war era is suddenly part of the discussion.
Ahmed Chalabi, the Shiite politician whose discredited information about weapons of mass destruction was part of the Bush administration’s justification for invading in 2003, is being talked about as a candidate for the prime minister post.
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Chalabi, 69, a former Iraqi exile leader who lived for years in the United States and Britain, has won at least the partial support of a bloc of parliament loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric.
He has met with American officials in recent weeks, although U.S. officials downplay the importance of those meetings. And he is allied with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme Shiite leader.
The people who have watched the country most closely during the war years freely admit it’s a head-scratcher. Iraq’s three factions, the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds, all have reason not to trust Chalabi.
At the same time, they say, his particular set of skills — glad-handing, deal-making, leveraging his immense charm, constant personal reinvention — may be just right to take advantage of the chaos that has enveloped Iraq in recent weeks.
“He’s sort of really charming and delightful, in a way that’s hard to comprehend,” said Aram Roston, who in 2009 published a book about Chalabi, “The Man Who Pushed America to War.”
“And there’s nobody else,” said Roston, now a correspondent for Buzzfeed, who has written about Chalabi’s chances. “Weirdly enough, Chalabi really is more competent than most of these people.”
U.S. officials have stopped short of calling for the resignation of Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, a Shiite who has marginalized Sunnis and Kurds since American troops left three years ago.
But his job is increasingly in doubt since a vicious Sunni militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), rampaged across the Iraqi north last month, captured strategically important cities and vowed to build a vast Islamic caliphate.
U.S. officials have said that Iraq must find a political path that gives the Sunnis and Kurds more of a voice. Time is short: The Kurds are talking more about breaking away entirely, and the Kurds and Sunnis both walked out of a parliament meeting this week.
Sensing weakness in Maliki, political rivals, including Chalabi, have begun positioning themselves to replace him.
“We want to put anybody in there but Maliki,” said Rick Brennan, senior political scientist for the Rand Corp. consulting firm, who served as an adviser to top American commanders in Iraq from 2006 to 2011. “But because of the internal fighting, Sunni and Shia, nobody can figure out who that person is.”
Brennan said that he does not see Chalabi as a viable candidate, citing his inability to pull together a coalition in parliamentary elections in 2010. He said he doubted Chalabi’s abilities as a power broker, describing him as “a cheerleader from outside and trying to get press.”
Chalabi’s chances are limited by the antipathy many Sunnis feel for him in Iraq. He was in charge of de-Baathification, the process that banned loyalists of Saddam Hussein and other Sunnis from serving in government. He has called for that process to be rolled back.
A decade ago, Chalabi was a Washington favorite. He was a guest of President George W. Bush at the 2004 State of the Union address.
But the intelligence that he and his Iraqi National Congress peddled as evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and of Iraqi ties to al Qaeda, was ultimately discredited. The United States later tried to prove that he was spying for Iran.
Deepening his falling out with the United States, Chalabi appeared to boast about his mistakes in a 2004 interview with a British newspaper, saying that “we are heroes in error” because Saddam was gone no matter what.
An American representative for Chalabi did not return a request for comment. U.S. officials have said repeatedly that the decision on who will lead Iraq belongs to Iraqis alone.
A State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, told reporters this week that American officials had met with Chalabi “as part of our normal outreach to different Iraqi leaders.” Chalabi holds a seat in parliament.
“We don’t support any one person or any one candidate,” she said. “What we’ve said is we will work with the government of Iraq when it’s formed if they govern in an inclusive way, no matter who it is.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
First published July 5 2014, 8:58 AM