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Ahmad Chalabi, Leading Voice Behind Iraq WMD Claims, Dies

Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking Iraqi politician who played a role in persuading the United States to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, has died.

BAGHDAD — Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking Iraqi politician who played a role in persuading the United States to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, has died. He was 71.

His secretary confirmed to NBC News early Wednesday that Chalabi had suffered a fatal heart attack. His death was also reported by state TV.

Ahmad ChalabiODD ANDERSEN / AFP File

Chalabi, a secular Shiite politician who lived in exile for decades, was a leading proponent of the invasion to remove Saddam from power. He provided false information indicating that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Many in the Bush administration had viewed him as a favorite to lead Iraq after the 2003 intervention.

However, he had a falling out with the Pentagon following the invasion amid accusations that he had passed information to arch-foe Iran.

Chalabi was also largely sidelined by other Iraqi leaders and never managed to rise to the top of the country's stormy, sectarian-driven politics.

He was later charged with leading the purge of Saddam's Baath Party, a move that would prove costly. Al Qaeda capitalized on the security vacuum that followed, triggering a sectarian civil war with attacks on the majority Shi'ite population that would plunge Iraq into chaos for years.

The first deputy speaker of parliament, Sheik Humam Hamoudi, lamented Chalabi's death as a "big loss" for Iraq, calling him "an example of perseverance and dedication."

The scion of a wealthy Baghdad family, Chalabi fled Iraq as a teenager when the monarchy was overthrown. He earned a bachelor's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965, and then went on to get a PhD in mathematics at the University of Chicago.

He became a leading figure in Iraq's exiled opposition in the 1990s and cultivated close ties with the future Vice President Dick Cheney and Washington's so-called neo-conservatives, who favored a more muscular U.S. policy in the Middle East.

U.S. administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer (left) sits next to Ahmad Chalabi in Baghdad on July 13, 2003.if / AFP/GETTY IMAGES, file

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Chalabi played a key role in convincing the administration that the Iraqi government had weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaeda, unfounded claims at the heart of the case for war.

Following the invasion, Chalabi was appointed to the 25-member Iraqi governing council and earned a seat directly behind First Lady Laura Bush during the 2004 State of the Union.

A former top banker, he was also convicted of embezzlement by a court in Jordan and sentenced in absentia to more than 20 years in prison.

Chalabi had been serving as the chairman of parliament's finance committee, and was previously a deputy prime minister.

Reuters reported that Chalabi had been found dead in his bed at his Baghdad home.