Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)
Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Chalabi’s last supper

Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi remains controversial even in death, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Since Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi’s death on 3 November, family and other interested persons have been waiting for the release of an autopsy report, hoping it can provide some answers about the mysterious death of the man many blame him for the current catastrophes in Iraq.

Iraqi officials said Chalabi, a 71-year-old banker who turned politician to campaign for the overthrow of the Baath Party regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, “died of a heart attack.” They said he was found lying dead in his bed at his home near the Baghdad suburb of Kadhimiya.

Chalabi’s death brought tributes from officials in the Iraqi government and politicians whom he had helped to rise to power after the US-led invasion in 2003 which he had pushed for relentlessly. However, detractors blamed him for serving the American occupation in its destruction of Iraq and of much of the Middle East.

As every analyst would point out, Chalabi had always been a divisive politician throughout his political career. But now it is clear that Iraqis cannot unite about the causes of his death either. Many Iraqis say they believe foul play was involved in what they see as a mysterious death.

Iraqi politician and former vice-president Ayad Alawi, who is related by blood to Chalabi, has requested an autopsy. Chalabi’s family have reportedly hired two doctors, one American and one Briton, to unravel the mystery about his unexpected death.

Ezzat Al-Shahbandar, an Iraqi politician who said he had spent the night before Chalabi’s demise at a dinner with him at Baghdad’s Shooting Club, described Chalabi’s health as “very good” but “he seemed depressed and in pain about what is going on in Iraq.”

So, what happened to Chalabi remains a puzzle. The government has maintained its silence, and a “symbolic” funeral has been held by the parliament in which mourners paid their respects to an empty casket. Chalabi was buried two days later in the courtyard of a Shia holy shrine in Kadhimiya.

The London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper has reported that Chalabi’s body remained under guard inside a freezer brought to his sprawling villa. The two foreign doctors had taken specimens for examination in London, the paper said, without specifying what kinds of tests they would be submitted to.

However, Niyazi Muamaruglo, the Iraqi parliamentary secretary, said an autopsy was conducted at the request of Chalabi’s family because they believed that he was “in good condition and he had not complained of any health problems.”

He said a report was expected to be submitted to the parliament soon.

Chalabi’s unexpected death has sparked great media interest and spawned blogs, Facebook comments and Twitter hashtags. Many have questioned the reports of a natural death and speculated about a possible death by poisoning.

Most of the speculation about Chalabi’s death is about the possibility of his being poisoned because of threats he had been making to release documents linking senior political figures to major corruption cases.

For months, a Facebook page profiling Chalabi has been publishing horrendous accounts of graft by Iraqi government officials and politicians on line. The revelations were particularly significant because they were coming from Chalabi, who served as the head of the country’s Parliamentary Finance Committee.

In an exchange with this writer before his death, Chalabi confirmed that the Facebook account was his own after the Weekly published a detailed report in June about his allegations that helped to ramp up the popular anger against the Shia-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and other leaders.

Surprisingly, Chalabi’s campaign, which run under the slogan “For a Better Iraq,” did not shy away from admitting that the US-led invasion, which he supported more than 12 years ago, had been the main culprit in the massive corruption that has plagued Iraq since then.

He cited two ministers appointed by the US-installed Coalition Provisional Authority who spirited away millions of dollars in graft before disappearing.

For months, Chalabi continued to explain how corruption had gone viral throughout the two terms in office of former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki from 2006 to 2014. After taking over from Al-Maliki, Al-Abadi has not only failed to fulfil election promises to curb corruption, but has also let the epidemic phenomenon continue and grow, Chalabi wrote.

Later, Chalabi took his anti-corruption campaign from social media to television seeking larger audiences. In a series of interviews, he disclosed huge graft on shadowy weapons contracts under Al-Maliki’s government which had cost Iraq billions of dollars.

He also disclosed graft and kickbacks in ministries including the Baghdad Municipality, Iraq’s Independent Election Committee, and the country’s Islamic Endowment. 

Still, the focus of Chalabi’s anti-corruption drive remained the Iraqi Central Bank (ICB), which he accused of mishandling the country’s foreign reserves through an auction system that he said was largely flawed and beneficial to banks owned by the ruling oligarchy.

He said that cash shipments had pushed the Iraqi financial system to the brink of collapse.

On Sunday, a Baghdad newspaper started publishing some of Chalabi’s documents about fraud in Iraq’s banking system in which he accuses several banks of skimming off billions of dollars through the ICB distribution system.

Chalabi had also reportedly sent some of the documents to the United States government, alerting it of possible money laundering by Iraqi banks. 

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US Federal Reserve and Treasury Department had temporarily shut off the flow of billions of dollars to Iraq’s Central Bank this summer amid concerns about currency handling in Iraq.

The paper said the administration was alarmed by the rising volume of dollars being shipped into Iraq and the lack of clarity about where the cash was ending up. The paper said the move was linked to fears that the currency was ending up at Iranian banks and possibly being funnelled to the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

Critics who have long seen Chalabi as a charlatan who arranged for the American invasion to topple Saddam in order to grab the reins in a post-Saddam government suspect that Chalabi’s campaign was politically motivated and have accused him of using his influence for personal gain and settling scores.

In recent months his name had emerged as a compromise candidate for prime minister as Iraq’s government crisis began to worsen.

Though he held several ministerial posts in Iraq’s post-invasion governments, Chalabi failed to fulfil his dream of replacing Saddam, whom he had helped to topple by falsifying reports about Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction which were used as a pretext by the Bush administration to invade Iraq.

Rivals mocked Chalabi as an unexpected warrior in the fight against corruption before his death, referring to the shadowy career of the banker-turned-politician, including his involvement in a bank scam in Jordan in the 1980s. They also pointed to Chalabi’s Islamic Bank, which is one of the financial institutions believed to be part of Iraq’s banking scams.

Whether Chalabi’s death was natural or not, it will long be debated. Many Iraqis believe that his revelations about the corruption cases made his silence warranted. Some have said he ate poisoned food at the Baghdad Shooting Club, which has been under his control since he seized it after the US-led invasion in 2003.

Until the mystery of his death is solved, Chalabi’s last supper will be a lingering subject for speculation and conspiracy theories such as those raised in US author Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code.

A man whose loyalty was only to his ambitions and a politician with a long history of intrigues and manipulation, Chalabi made many enemies throughout his political career and many of them may have wished him dead.

“Only death could stop the political ambitions of Ahmed Chalabi,” Jane Aaraf, a veteran Western reporter on Iraq, quoted a former US official who dealt with Chalabi extensively as saying in an obituary in the US Politico magazine.

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