IRBIL, Iraq — Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile whose rarefied Washington access and later-discredited claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons arsenal helped spur the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, has died of a heart attack, his office said Tuesday.
He was found dead in his home in Baghdad on Tuesday, according to his spokeswoman Dalila Ahmed. Mr. Chalabi was 71.
Mr. Chalabi, born into a privileged Shiite merchant family in the Iraqi capital, basked for more than a decade in a high-flying Washington portfolio as policy-shaping lobbyist, favored security adviser and U.S.-bankrolled opposition leader.
It all culminated with the war — which many claim he helped spark with faulty and fabricated intelligence — and began to unravel in the ensuing years of bloodshed and unrest.
But even as Mr. Chalabi’s reputation eroded among his onetime American patrons, he managed to remain within clawing distance of the top tiers of political power in Iraq. Up until his final years, Mr. Chalabi was often mentioned as a possible candidate for leadership roles.
“He will use whatever vehicle or platform that presents itself to further his own agenda,” Ryan C. Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, told The Washington Post as Mr. Chalabi campaigned in the 2010 elections.
But his legacy will be forever linked to the build-up of the Iraq invasion and its main architects, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H.Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.
Mr. Chalabi, who had lived outside Iraq since the 1950s, was pivotal in peddling questionable and sometimes bogus information about Hussein’s alleged weapons-of-mass-destruction program and linking him to al-Qaeda.
Among the sources offered by Mr. Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress — which received tens of millions of dollars from the CIA and other U.S. agencies — was an alleged Iraqi defector, famously code-named Curveball, whose allegations about Hussein’s biochemical stockpiles were added to classified dossiers used by military planners in the United States and Britain.
Years later, former CIA official Tyler Drumheller dismissed Curveball as a “guy trying to get his green card” in Germany and “playing the system for what it was worth.” Curveball admitted — after being exposed as an Iraqi immigrant in Germany named Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi — that his claims were false but said he was happy that they led to Hussein’s downfall.
The American-educated Chalabi took a similar line as his claims proved unfounded. “We are heroes in error,” he told Britain’s Daily Telegraph in February 2004, adding: “The tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad.”
But he was later dogged by allegations of corruption and lacked popular support among Iraqis, where critics often poked fun at his duality: Western mannerisms and suit-and-tie formality versus his connections with Shiite clerics and other allies of Iran.
Mr. Chalabi also was accused of developing secret channels with Shiite power Iran, which swiftly exerted its influence in Iraq after the fall of Hussein’s Sunni-led power structure.
“I have never passed any classified information to Iran or have done anything — participated in any scheme of intelligence against the United States,” Mr. Chalabi said on “Fox News Sunday” in 2004. “This charge is false.”
Still, he retained his presence on Iraq’s political scene with posts such as interim oil minister and deputy prime minister. When Nouri al-Maliki was ousted as prime minister last year, Mr. Chalabi again attempted to make a comeback, positioning himself as a consensus candidate. He most recently served as chairman of the finance committee in parliament.
And, for a time after the war, he was even able to reinvent himself among his conservative U.S. backers as a voice of democracy in Iraq even as the country descended into civil chaos. During President Bush’s 2004 State of the Union address, Chalabi was seated behind first lady Laura Bush.
The first deputy speaker of parliament, Humam Hamoudi, called Mr. Chalabi “an example of perseverance and dedication.”
“Our national and political arena has lost a prominent figure who dedicated his life to serve the country,” Hamoudi said in a statement shortly after Chalabi’s death was announced.
In an interview last month in his home in Baghdad’s Hurriya neighborhood — a family farm surrounded by palm groves — Mr. Chalabi appeared frail and claimed to no longer have his sights on leadership. He painted a bleak picture of the future of the country, where the Islamic State militant group has seized vast swaths of territory since last year.
“Iraq is a mess. Daesh is organized, with one command, united and well run, and we are so fragmented,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “We have no discipline, no command structure, no effective plans.”
In the wake of the 2003 invasion, Mr. Chalabi was among the key Iraqi Shiites promoting the de-Baathification process, which attempted to purge figures from Hussein’s Sunni-led Baath Party from Iraq’s new political system. Critics said it helped to drive division in the country, which spiralled into sectarian war.
In an apparent admission of past mistakes, Mr. Chalabi said in the interview, “We undermine any Sunni leadership that emerges, we try to make them less credible.” He said Shiite parties are still “bent on revenge” over their years of suppression under Hussein, who hailed from Iraq’s Sunni minority.
Born Oct. 30, 1944, Mr. Chalabi sent his early boyhood in Baghdad as part of a well-connected clan of Shiite merchants and traders. In the late 1950s, his family left the country after military factions overthrow King Faisal II.
Mr. Chalabi earned a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago before turning his hand to banking — and his first taste of personal scandal.
In the 1970s, the Jordanian government accused him of bank fraud after the failure of Petra Bank, which he set up.
Mr. Chalabi fled Jordan. He was convicted in absentia and ordered to return $30 million in embezzled funds. He has maintained that the case was an attempt by the Iraqi government to undermine him.
During the horrific 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war — in which the United States backed Hussein — Mr. Chalabi and many other exiles were left conflicted between Iraqi patriotism and disdain for the Iraqi leader. But Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the U.S.-led war to drive out the Iraqis the following year, brought a flood of Iraqi exile support to Washington and its allies.
Mr. Chalabi and other exiles founded the Iraqi National Congress in London in the early 1990s. It would later serve as a route to deep pockets in Washington.
After assisting a fizzled Kurdish resistance in northern Iraq in the mid-1990s, Mr. Chalabi concentrated his leverage on Washington. In 1998, he lobbied Congress and the Clinton administration for passage of the Iraq Liberation Act, which authorized nearly $100 million to support Iraqi opposition groups. The lion’s share was funneled through the Iraqi National Congress.
After the Hussein regime collapsed in 2003, Mr. Chalabi was flown back to Iraq as a potential new leader. But corruption allegations reemerged, and he became viewed as part of the Shiite power base that was settling scores with the once-ruling Sunnis.
In 2004, U.S. troops raided his Iraqi home and office over allegations of fraud and kidnapping.
Mr. Chalabi performed badly in Iraq’s 2005 elections, after a campaign that included posters proclaiming “We liberated Iraq,” and was appointed interim oil minister. He claimed to have survived at least two assassination attempts, including a suicide bombing in 2008.
As his political star faded, he was often quick to assign blame for Iraq’s struggles or pick apart U.S. policies. But he avoided a public accounting of his role — preferring to cast others as greedy or shortsighted.
“A handful of people have made billions,” he said of Iraqi graft during the interview. “Corruption has been rampant for eight years, but no one said anything because there was money. Now there’s no money.”
Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report. Murphy reported from Washington.