Of all the curious features of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, none has been curiouser than the administration's love affair with the erstwhile Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi. His generous monthly stipend was cut off recently, and even some of his strongest supporters at the Pentagon seem to be backing away from him now amid charges that key members of his organization, the Iraqi National Congress, passed secret intelligence to Iran. Yet historians will ask not only why he ultimately fell from grace, but rather how he could possibly have maintained his position as the administration's favorite Iraqi for so long in the face of a nearly unblemished record of error and deceit over the years.

Prior to his recent problems, Chalabi was most notorious for his role in feeding faulty intelligence to the United States and others about the urgent and dire threat posed by Saddam's unconventional weapons programs. The source of many of the Bush administration's starkest and now discredited prewar charges, Chalabi himself had few regrets, telling London's a few months ago that he and his colleagues were "heroes in error. As far as we're concerned we've been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important."

Long before the intelligence scandals, however, Chalabi had been a controversial figure. He was convicted of embezzling millions of dollars from a Jordanian bank in the 1980s, and the CIA soured on him when he failed to deliver on promises to galvanize a viable opposition to Saddam Hussein during the early and mid 1990s. By the late 1990s, however, Chalabi had reemerged as a tireless advocate for the idea that Saddam could be overthrown at little cost and with little effort, were U.S. officials only willing to give the INC some support and help it take some Iraqi territory.

Appearing when Americans were increasingly uncomfortable with the existing policy of containment, Chalabi's views about "rollback" found favor with a number of influential critics of the Clinton administration. The notion that Saddam could be toppled without a full-scale U.S. invasion was appealing, because in the pre-9/11 world such an invasion was politically unthinkable. Chalabi and his supporters held out the hope of an easy way out, a path beyond the various unpalatable alternatives considered feasible by mainstream analysts.

The only problem, as we noted in our article "," was that the Iraqi opposition's military plans were ludicrous, and trying to put them into practice would likely lead to a replay of the fiasco with Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. This was not welcome news in Washington in 1999, and for pointing out that the INC emperor had no clothes we were roundly attacked as scoundrels or defeatists. As one neoconservative critic put it, "This reflects how unimaginative, cynical, embarrassed and apologetic our foreign policy establishment is now."

According to Bob Woodward's book , variants of an opposition-based war plan were being pushed by high-level civilians at the Bush Pentagon well into 2001. In the event, of course, the administration wisely chose to reject such ideas, and Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled not by Ahmed Chalabi and his minions but by one of the most powerful military machines ever assembled.

With the course of the war having proved that Chalabi's approach , one might think that Chalabi's star would have dimmed. Yet oddly enough, it was precisely Chalabi's strongest backers who were entrusted with , and they managed to see to it that he and his organization were given prominent roles -- and lavish perks -- in the new Iraq.

As the occupation has followed its checkered path over the last 15 months, Chalabi and his organization have played a central role at many steps along the way. They have been responsible for providing a good amount of solid intelligence on the whereabouts of insurgents and former regime officials, but have also gained new critics for a variety of abuses. The heavy reliance on Chalabi and other exiles, moreover, helped dim the luster of the Coalition Provisional Authority in the eyes of many Iraqis.

Anticipating being denied a role in the new government scheduled to take over from the CPA in July, Chalabi has recently become an increasingly vocal critic of American policy. The scandal over the alleged transfer of intelligence to Iran might end his affair with the Bush administration once and for all. Why it began in the first place and continued for so long remains a mystery.

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