Tamara Chalabi’s chronicle of her family might make for an ideal TV series, recounting as it does a comforting upper-class idyll complete with loyal attendants, marred only by revolution, exile and controversy and concluding with a triumphant return home to prosperity. An honest recounting of the story would have to feature among its climactic episodes the chequered career of the clan’s most famous member, Tamara Chalabi’s father Ahmad, the collapse of his banking empire in 1989, a subsequent conviction in absentia for embezzlement and 22-year jail sentence, his ensuing career in the 1990s as a CIA ‘asset’ leading to brilliant success as a manipulator of US politicians and media and culminating in the invasion and occupation of his own country. Needless to say, Late for Tea at the Deer Palace does not present his story quite this way.
During Ottoman rule, the Chalabi family prospered as tax collectors in the Shia enclave of Kazimiya, just north-east of Baghdad. Some of them fought for the Ottomans in the First World War. In 1922, as Tamara Chalabi relates, her great-grandfather, Abdul Hussein Chalabi, defied the Shia religious establishment by accepting the post of education minister in a cabinet that otherwise consisted entirely of Sunnis. He was ostracised by angry ayatollahs, who rejected any co-operation with a regime under foreign control, but the decision to forsake Kazimiya for Baghdad proved a shrewd one. Favoured by the court and British grandees such as Gertrude Bell, Abdul Hussein was regularly chosen for cabinet posts throughout the 1920s. His eldest son, Hadi, an able and energetic businessman, meanwhile bought state lands and built a thriving agricultural business that expanded rapidly once he entered into close partnership with the British shippers and grain dealers Andrew Weir & Co. Another son, Muhammad Ali, prospered as the chief executive of the government-owned Rafidain bank.
The Chalabis were now comfortably established at the top of Baghdadi commerce and society. The city was undergoing a renaissance after centuries as an Ottoman backwater. Cinemas showed the latest Egyptian and Hollywood films. The progressive Abdul Hussein rose in social esteem when he allowed Hadi’s wife Bibi to attend a concert by the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum. She still had to wear an abaya, but it was not long before a change in mores allowed her to abandon the formerly mandatory head covering. (Not that the Chalabis had done away with tradition entirely. When a few years later Hadi was unjustly jailed, Bibi sent prayers for his release to the Twelfth Imam, the ‘Master of Time’ venerated by the Shia, by little reed boats launched on the Tigris.)
The historian of Iraq Hanna Batatu delivers a more instructive account of the Chalabis’ adroit political manoeuvrings under the ancien regime in his exhaustive work The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (1978). Batatu, who even interviewed prisoners awaiting execution after the 1963 Baathist coup, cites Ahmad’s elder brother Jawad as his source in reporting that during the Ottoman era, the Chalabis profited from their status as one of the few Shia families favoured by the sultans’ proxies in Baghdad. Ali, Abdul Hussein’s father, benefiting from the lucrative tax-collecting concession for Kazimiya, was known as ‘a very harsh man, who kept a bodyguard of armed slaves and had a special prison at his disposal. When he died, the people of Kazimiya heaved a sigh of relief.’
Abdul Hussein continued the family role – a British intelligence report from 1925 described him as ‘safe and accommodating’. Again citing Jawad, Batatu reports that Hadi entered the good graces of the unpopular regent Abdul Ilah thanks to a timely supply of loans. ‘The prince, who had a passion for gambling at the races,’ Batatu writes, ‘never repaid Hadi, but in due course made him a minister of public works and eventually the vice-president of the Senate.’ Growing ever richer, Hadi ‘expanded his interests in many directions, making good use of the knowledge and connections that his official appointments brought him.’ Meanwhile his brother Muhammad Ali took control of the Rafidain bank, attaining ‘almost dictatorial power’ over Iraqi finance. Thus, Batatu concludes, ‘the Chalabis … on the eve of the 1958 revolution surpassed other business families, at least, in easily realisable capital.’
The pyramid of wealth they dominated was both very new and very narrow at the top. In 1958, only 23 families in Baghdad were worth at least a million dinars (roughly $4 million), and only one of those had been notably wealthy twenty years earlier. Until 1948, Iraqi Jewish merchants had overshadowed their Muslim compatriots, but with the creation of Israel this ancient community was induced to leave, creating business opportunities that were filled by Shia groups, among them the Chalabis as well as other rising merchant families such as the Baghdadis, Damirjis and Mirjans. (Six storeys high, the Damirji head office was the tallest secular building in Baghdad, the source of the expression ‘fall off Damirji’: ‘suffer a financial catastrophe’.) Between them, on Batatu’s calculation, this select group controlled almost two thirds of the country’s entire business capital. Most of the population remained miserably poor, cut off from all but the barest contact with commercial life.
The Hashemite monarchs, whose patronage was essential to the Chalabis, were benevolent enough rulers, certainly by comparison with their successors. Faisal I, displaced by the French from a brief reign as king in Damascus, then plucked by the British to rule in Baghdad, proved earnestly determined to tackle his new homeland’s problems. His most trusted friends were firm nationalists, former Ottoman army officers of modest backgrounds who had joined him in the initial ‘Arab revolt’ during the First World War. Many of the women teachers in Iraq’s expanding school system were recruited from Palestine and other more developed countries across the Middle East.
The notion of an independent Iraq was largely a façade. Britain maintained a tight grip on the country’s affairs, especially after the discovery of oil in the late 1920s. British air power kept at bay fanatical Wahabist Ikhwan militias across the border of what is now Saudi Arabia. When Faisal caused the colonial administration irritation, the planes would stay on the ground, giving raiders free rein to cross the border, pillage and massacre – a reminder of how cold-blooded the British could be in running their empire. For generations afterwards, the British long vanished, Iraqis would characterise the devious manoeuvres of an invisible but potent outside power as the work of ‘Abu Naji’. Often assumed to be a mythical figure akin to Ali Baba, Abu Naji was in fact Gertrude Bell’s butler. After waiting on Bell as she and other British officials discussed their schemes, he would repair to the local coffee house and regale friends with his knowledge of secret imperial policy.
Britain’s aim in Iraq was to make money. The discovery of oil offered the richest rewards, garnered by the Iraq Petroleum Company, but elsewhere too British firms dominated Iraq’s economic life. Riverboat freight on the Euphrates was monopolised by Stephen Lynch & Co. When the Chalabis set off for their frequent trips to Lebanon and elsewhere they travelled on the coaches of the Nairn Transport Company. Andrew Weir & Co, for whom Hadi Chalabi was the principal grain buyer, dominated the country’s barley trade and its lucrative packed date exports.
In 1958, this state of affairs, happy for some, came to an abrupt end when a revolution spearheaded by army officers massacred the royal family and other prominent figures of the ancien regime. The Chalabis tried to protect their friend the politician Nuri Said, but he was seized in flight dressed as a woman. His body was hacked up and dragged through the streets. Tamara Chalabi describes a 13-year-old Ahmad heroically defying the revolutionaries, brandishing the late king’s portrait. One by one, the family made their way abroad, with the help, no doubt well compensated, of Hamed Qassim, brother of the revolutionary leader Abdul Karim Qassim. Before young Ahmad left he hid his ping-pong table behind a wall at the family estate, so Aram Roston tells us in his biography The Man Who Pushed America to War (2008).
The revolution cost Hadi the bulk of his fortune, but after a brief period of austerity in a small London flat – the younger generation endured the misery of British boarding schools – the family were soon on a financially sound footing again, thanks largely to Bibi’s safely smuggled jewellery collection. Tamara Chalabi records that the courier was one of the children, though Baghdad gossip contended that Hamed Qassim had once again been of service.
Relocated in Lebanon, where they soon married into the local Shia elite, the Chalabis rebuilt their fortunes, this time through international finance. In the 1980s Petra Bank, directed by Ahmad and buttressed by connections with the Jordanian royal family, became a commanding force in the Jordanian economy. Mebco, controlled by Ahmad’s brothers, flourished in Beirut as the ‘Shia bank’, and was trusted by the Lebanese underclass with its savings. Other outposts of the often subterranean family network sprouted in Geneva and Washington. It all collapsed in August 1989, when the bank was seized by the Jordanian authorities as Ahmad made his exit across the border. An Arthur Andersen audit found Petra’s books riddled with errors – or fraud – but it was clear enough that at least 40 per cent of its outstanding loans, many of them to members of the Chalabi family, were ‘non-performing’. Companion Chalabi enterprises imploded at the same time in Beirut – where ruined depositors hung ‘al-Chalabi’ in effigy – and Geneva. One investigator still looking years later to salvage something for their creditors told me he had traced much of the money to offshore entities in the Caribbean, where it ‘disappeared, who knows where?’ In 1992 a Jordanian court convicted Ahmad Chalabi of embezzling $30 million from Petra and sentenced him to 22 years of hard labour.
This is not the way Tamara tells the story. Her version faithfully follows the one spun by her father: the bank’s finances were fine, the collapse was engineered by Saddam Hussein, Ahmad Chalabi himself fled to escape being kidnapped by Saddam, the Arthur Andersen audit was incompetent and the report’s publication by Jordanian authorities ‘a flagrant abuse that has never been addressed’. The concurrent downfall of the other Chalabi banks isn’t mentioned. (It should be noted that the damning audit passed without notice in the British and American press.)
Ahmad Chalabi turned back to politics. Bruised and battered by the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent Shia and Kurdish uprisings, Saddam Hussein appeared vulnerable. The CIA, under congressional pressure to undertake covert action against him, cast about for an ally they could control, and found what they were looking for in Chalabi – or at least they thought they had. Chalabi, for his part, was happy to accept secret US funding. Other Iraqi opposition groups less inclined to take orders and cash from Langley assumed that his sudden supply of cash was loot from the Petra Bank. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) was dominated by the al-Hakims, an Iraqi Shia family more powerful than the Chalabis.
Descended from a long line of ayatollahs, the al-Hakims were one of the grander dynasties of the Shia religious establishment in Najaf, along with the al-Sadrs and the al-Khoies. They had been less politically active than the Sadrs, but were galvanised when Saddam murdered Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr in 1980, began a brutal purge of the Najaf clergy and invaded Iran. The Iranians founded SCIRI and selected Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim to lead it. The Dawa Party, originally founded by al-Sadr, was deemed too independent by the Iranians and left to go its own way. For the rest of the war SCIRI served as Iran’s proxy, fielding a military arm, the Badr Corps, made up of exiles and ‘turned’ Iraqi POWs. (The last Iraqi offensive of the war was spearheaded by the Iranian opposition MEK, Iranians fighting for Saddam, only to be halted by the Badr – Iraqis fighting for Iran.) In the wake of the failed Iraqi Shia uprising of March 1991, which SCIRI sought in vain to control, Saddam took revenge on the al-Hakim family, murdering some eighty of those within his reach.
While the Iraqi opposition in general heightened its international profile after 1991, SCIRI remained firmly under Tehran’s control – a fact not immediately apparent in the otherwise informative book by Hamid al-Bayati, currently Iraq’s UN ambassador, about his years as the party’s London representative and his post-invasion career in the Iraqi government. Bayati gained his original position at SCIRI when his predecessor accepted an invitation to the inaugural convention of the Iraqi National Congress, designed by the CIA to consolidate Iraqi exile efforts under the direction of Ahmad Chalabi. Ayatollah al-Hakim vetoed involvement with the new congress, summarily dismissed the erring representative and appointed Bayati in his place. Anxious to widen contacts with Western governments that paid lip-service to the notion of overthrowing Saddam, Bayati was a tireless campaigner, in particular championing the cause of the unfortunate Marsh Arabs. Instructions from home didn’t always make life easier. Time and again he secured opportunities for Ayatollah al-Hakim to meet with senior Western politicians only to have them rejected on grounds that it was unfitting for a senior ayatollah and leader of SCIRI to meet with anyone other than a prime minister or president. (The archbishop of Canterbury passed muster.)
These and other directives from headquarters are recorded by Bayati without reference to their place of origin: Tehran. SCIRI’s Iranian connection has always been a millstone. Whatever Iraqis have thought about Saddam, they have not looked favourably on those who actively supported the other side in the war. Further damaging SCIRI’s reputation with many Iraqis were reports of the violent means by which POWs in Iranian camps were press-ganged into the Badr Corps.
Nor did the Iranian connection help foster good relations with Washington, where the Clinton administration proclaimed the counterintuitive policy of ‘dual containment’ of both Iraq and Iran. Bayati is more interested in Ahmad Chalabi’s tireless attempts to assert personal control over the Iraqi exile opposition, especially when there was money at stake. In 1993, al-Hakim secured a promise from the Kuwaitis to supply aid to the Marsh Arabs through SCIRI, but Chalabi, to Bayati’s fury, tried to persuade the Kuwaitis to give the money to his Iraqi National Congress. The theme recurs throughout the book. Chalabi conceives an ‘unrealistic’ plan to overthrow Saddam ‘excluding [SCIRI] and the Kurdish forces from planning but numbering their troops as INC fighters’. Prior to the invasion his allies in the Pentagon threaten the rest of the opposition into accepting Chalabi, and Chalabi opts to give American companies ‘a big shot at Iraqi oil’, and so on.
Both men were destined to be disappointed. Thanks in part to Chalabi’s manipulations in Washington, the US duly invaded, displaced Saddam and ended the era of Sunni rule. Chalabi, the object of neoconservative devotion, was never installed as leader of the new Iraq as he had hoped and schemed. Ironically, he fell out of favour with the occupation regime partly because of a belief among American officials that he was an Iranian agent. At the same time he failed to garner popular support among Iraqis because he was seen as an American stooge and enabler of the occupation. Yet thanks to his skills in backroom intrigue, he established himself as a player in Iraqi politics and was even deputy prime minister for a time. As usual, political influence appears to have benefited business. As Roston reports, the day Chalabi was appointed deputy prime minister (and acting minister of oil) the Trade Bank of Iraq, a multi-billion-dollar government-owned corporation – headed by a Chalabi grandnephew possessed of no obvious qualifications – signed a deal with a Chalabi-owned company headed by another close relative.
SCIRI, still led by Muhammad al-Hakim, also returned to Iraq on the heels of the US military. Al-Hakim himself was assassinated in August 2003 and was succeeded as leader of the group by his brother Abdul Aziz, who lacked his sibling’s charisma and religious credentials. Despite initial US suspicion, relations soon warmed, not least because Muqtada al-Sadr, a scion of the rival Najaf clan, rapidly emerged as the nationalist champion of the Shia masses, with a formidable militia, the Mahdi Army, to back him. Thus SCIRI, long the handmaiden of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, became the favoured Shia ally of the occupiers (dropping ‘Revolutionary’ from its name, as Bayati had long urged, in 2007). Meanwhile Chalabi forged a political partnership with al-Sadr, champion of the Shia underclass, and is currently earning the ayatollah’s approval by championing the oppressed Shia of Bahrain.
Not long after his initial return to Baghdad, Chalabi went to the Deer Palace, his abandoned family mansion in Adhamiya, and retrieved the ping-pong table he hid there as a teenager on his way into exile. But the war he worked so effectively to promote has wrecked the last vestiges of the cosmopolitan culture he left behind in 1958. The fault lines between Sunni and Shia have hardened into near impassable barriers; politics consists largely of disputes among kleptocrats; the war has driven five million Iraqis from their homes; Tamara must wear the abaya her grandmother discarded.