Ahmad Chalabi and Ayad Allawi, two rival Iraqi opposition politicians who were instrumental in pushing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, are setting aside their differences for the time being to try to create a formidable counterforce to Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, according to Iraqi and American officials.
The surprising alliance comes as U.S. forces are finally leaving Iraq, driving in huge convoys across the border to Kuwait. Maliki, who has consolidated his power, is often accused of dictatorial tactics. The State Department reported last year that claims of human-rights abuses in Iraq “continued to be common.” Human Rights Watch said Iraqi officials used torture “routinely,” and the International Committee of the Red Cross was barred from inspecting a jail run by a unit under Maliki’s authority.
Those familiar with the current maneuverings by Chalabi and Allawi say their budding alliance is momentous, especially given the circumstances. “The system has come full circle,” said one former CIA official who knows both Allawi and Chalabi, and who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Historical opposition figures are working together against another tyrannical government in Baghdad. It just drips with irony.”
Chalabi’s American representative, Francis Brooke, downplayed the development in an interview with The Daily Beast, but acknowledged that Chalabi and Allawi are communicating. “They definitely are talking more about politics more,” he said. “I give you that.”
Maliki’s office did not immediately respond to questions, although he has previously disputed allegations that torture took place in Iraqi prisons during his tenure as prime minister. A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad emailed that no one was available to discuss this story.
Experienced Iraq hands are well aware that Chalabi and Allawi had been bitter political adversaries for years, even before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when both men were exiles. Chalabi controlled the Iraqi National Congress opposition group, while Allawi headed the similarly named Iraqi National Accord, in a grimly comical competition for American recognition and funds. The two exiled leaders, who are distant cousins, often tried to undercut each other’s efforts.
Chalabi was famously a favorite of the neoconservatives who briefly gained influence in the Bush administration, while at the same time he always kept close ties to Iran’s ayatollahs and that country’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to those who know him. Although he is a former banker with a fraud conviction in Jordan, Chalabi’s group collected tens of millions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers before the war, and spread false stories about Saddam Hussein in an effort to influence American policy, according to a 2006 report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Allawi, a former Baathist who turned against Saddam and fled Iraq in the 1970s, was known to be close to the CIA and to British intelligence, intelligence sources say, although neoconservatives who backed Chalabi disliked him. British newspapers have identified his group, the INA, as the one that passed on the source for the September 2002 claim by then–prime minister Tony Blair that Saddam could launch chemical and biological attacks within 45 minutes. While that’s never officially been confirmed by British intelligence, an official government report in England confirmed that the “45 minute” claim was erroneous, had come from a single source, and should not have been included in Blair’s prewar dossier.
Briefly appointed Iraq’s prime minister in 2004 by the American occupation government, Allawi has continued to be popular in Iraq, especially among Sunnis. In 2010, his political party won more votes than Maliki’s party. But Malaki—ironically, with the help of Chalabi at the time—fended off the results of the election with political maneuvering, and remained in possession of the prime minister’s palace.
An Iraqi who knows both Chalabi and Allawi says the alliance between the two men against Maliki came about earlier this year, when Chalabi suffered a series of setbacks.
First, a Chalabi aide, who ran a committee that banned Baathists from government, was gunned down in Baghdad. The aide’s brother was killed a month later. In the spring there was more writing on the wall for Chalabi, who had retained immense influence in banking in Iraq. His nephew Hussein al-Uzri ran the troubled Trade Bank of Iraq, which had a monopoly on billions in government business. In June, though, al-Uzri was accused of fraud and fled Iraq; he has denied any wrongdoing. Chalabi, the Iraqi source close to him says, “realized his days were numbered.”
Brooke disputes that Chalabi saw this as a personal affront, and says that while Chalabi and his nephew were close, Chalabi did not have a hand in the bank’s business.
The former CIA officer says that this summer Chalabi reached out to Allawi. “Chalabi initiated the contact,” the source says.
The Iraqi source says, “Chalabi contacted Ayad, and he said, ‘Why don’t we work together?’”
Soon the collaboration blossomed. The Iraqi says the two former adversaries talk frequently. “They are like husband and wife,” the source says.
The former CIA officer says the relationship between the old competitors is cordial, but wary. “There is no trust there,” he says. “You shake the guy’s hand with one hand, and you have a dagger in the other.”
Still, he says, Chalabi is a useful asset for Allawi. “He’s very organized ... and he’s got access to a lot of money.”
Brooke argues that the development is not that significant, insisting that whatever their disputes of the past, Chalabi and Allawi were always friendly.
He says that while Chalabi and Allawi are talking about politics now, they are not trying to oust Maliki, but simply to “change the tenor of the Iraqi government,” so that it provides services, security, and economic growth. He says there is no conspiracy by the two, who are both members of Iraq’s Parliament. And speaking diplomatically, Brooke disputes any characterization of Maliki as “dictatorial.”