Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi who helped spur the U.S. invasion of his country, would be viable as its next prime minister though close ties he established with Iran pose an impediment, said Paul Wolfowitz, a top American national security official when the war launched.
“The man is a survivor,” Wolfowitz said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capitol with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend. “That’s impressive. I think he wants to succeed in what he does, he’s smart; maybe he’ll figure out a way to do it.”
Chalabi, 69, currently serves in Iraq’s Parliament as government forces battle insurgents who have destabilized the country and prompted calls for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s resignation.
Chalabi’s political group, the Iraqi National Congress, supplied Wolfowitz and others in President George W. Bush’s administration with information that tied then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda and alleged he was developing weapons of mass destruction -- the justification for the U.S. invasion in March 2003.
The information was later discredited and in May 2004, U.S. soldiers raided Chalabi’s house and offices in Iraq to investigate allegations of fraud and grand theft against him.
“We really actively went after him in 2004, and I think some of it may have been fair, some of it was unfair,” said Wolfowitz, 70. “We’ve put him in a situation where, in my view, he’s much too close to Iran” in his workings as an Iraqi politician, he said.
Chalabi served as Iraq’s deputy prime minister from 2005 to 2006. In June 2004, shortly after he was targeted by the U.S. raid, he gave U.S. state secrets to Iran, according to a report by the New York Times.
“Chalabi is not an angel, no one in that system is an angel,” Wolfowitz said. “You have to be careful who you work with, but I think you need to try to work with everybody.”
With the Sunni militant group now known as Islamic State controlling swaths of Iraq and threatening to extend its gains, Wolfowitz said the U.S. should “at least arm” moderate insurgents in Syria who have been battling Islamic State fighters in that country. The Obama administration announced last month it would seek $500 million from Congress to arm and train “appropriately vetted elements” of the opposition.
“We may have reached a point where we need to do more than that,” said Wolfowitz, who served as U.S. deputy defense secretary from 2001 to 2005.
Asked if he thought U.S. forces should be again sent to Iraq, Wolfowitz said, “I hope we don’t have to.” Still, if the Islamic State is allowed “to triumph in Syria and Iraq, and there’s nobody left fighting them, then it’s possible that we would actually confront that problem,” he said.
The Iraqi army’s collapse in the face of the insurgent blitzkrieg across the country is due to mismanagement by Maliki, who “badly demoralized the army, removed a lot of the best generals because they weren’t loyal to him,” Wolfowitz said.
The U.S. also bears responsibility for the crisis, Wolfowitz said, because of the decision by President Barack Obama to pull all American troops from Iraq in December 2011. Obama’s administration tried and failed to negotiate a deal with Maliki that would have kept a residual force stationed there.
Wolfowitz rejected suggestions by analysts such as Leslie Gelb, former president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, that the U.S. consider alliances with Russia, Iran and even Syria to stem the Islamic State advances.
“I think there’s huge danger in that,” he said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has done little to battle the insurgent group, which developed in Syria to fight his regime, Wolfowitz said. Assad instead has targeted moderate opposition fighters.
As for Iran, its leaders have harbored senior al-Qaeda leaders when it served their interests, he said.
“I’d just be awfully careful about working with a country that has so vocally portrayed us as the enemy and actively supports terrorism,” Wolfowitz said.
The Iraq war resulted in the deaths of 4,491 Americans, according to Defense Department data, and could cost U.S. taxpayers more than $2 trillion, according to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The best estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties exceed 125,000.
Asked if the war was a mistake, Wolfowitz said, “it’s possible. And it was costly; it was more costly I think than it needed to be if we had gotten the strategy right earlier on. We could have ended it sooner.”
He said that impetus for the U.S. invasion remains sound because, as evidenced now by the successes of the Islamic State, Iraq was a haven for terror groups.
“We needed to do something,” Wolfowitz said. The Islamic State “was basically in a different name created by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was operating out of Iraq as early as January of 2002.”
Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006, was working on terrorist plots that targeted Europe, rather than Hussein, he said.
“Whether we had to do exactly what we did is, I think, open to more debate,” Wolfowitz said. “But the idea that we could’ve lived for another 10 years with Saddam Hussein and that we’d be better off today if he were in power, I can’t agree with.”
Wolfowitz, who served as head of the World Bank after leaving the Bush administration, is a scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute policy group and chairman of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council.