Extended family man

<strong>The Man Who Pushed America to War: the Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahma

The dust jacket of this book characterises the author, Aram Roston, as someone who "specialises in covering national security, law enforcement, white-collar crime and corruption" - all qualifications ideally suited to investigating the career of Ahmad Chalabi, one of the more colourful figures thrown up by the US-led invasion of Iraq. It is a lively and entertaining read, fast-paced and well-told, informed throughout both by Chalabi loyalists and by those who have fallen out with him.

These personal likes and dislikes figure prominently in Chalabi's career. Mistrustful of institutions, exasperated by rules and regulations, he has made it his business to charm, impress and, some would say, hoodwink those whom he thinks can be useful to him. Whether in his financial dealings or in his political ambitions, the personal relationship is always the most important. It has been both his strength and his undoing. This is not simply some quirk of his personality; it was a marked feature of the world and the class into which he was born. His family's fortune was founded on the networks of personal trust, on hierarchies of patrons and clients which were - and to a large degree still remain - part of the very fabric of doing business in the Middle East. At the heart of it stood the extended family, its connections and influence multiplied by strategic alliances and marriages with other clans.

Following the Iraqi Revolution of 1958, the Chalabis shifted their operations to Europe and Lebanon, using the same methods in their business ventures. Having abandoned his academic career, Ahmad Chalabi played an active part, along with cousins, brothers and nephews. However, family favours and fiscal propriety sit uneasily with each other. As Roston skilfully untangles the various threads, we see banking regulators first in Switzerland, then in Jordan and in Lebanon beginning to suspect that something was amiss. In the late 1980s they closed down most of the Chalabi operations, bringing lawsuits and criminal charges against Ahmad Chalabi among others.

It was then that he became more active in the politics of the Iraqi opposition in exile. At a time when most western governments were supporting the dictatorship in Iraq, this effort went nowhere. But everything changed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Suddenly the very states that had supported Saddam Hussein scrabbled around for ways to undermine him. For Chalabi, this was a golden opportunity, and CIA funds soon came his way. They were meant to promote the insubstantial Iraqi National Congress, but seemed rather to allow Chalabi himself to indulge in various acts of self-promotion.

Roston brings out well the ways in which Chalabi used his skills to cement personal alliances within the US Congress and in the curious half-world of lobbyists, think tanks and other anterooms to power. His account shows equally that Chalabi managed to alienate a host of US officials, partly because of his proprietorial attitude to US public funds and partly because he could never deliver even a fraction of what he had promised.

This is where a critical question arises concerning the degree to which Chalabi was responsible for pushing the US to invade Iraq in 2003, as the title of the book suggests. On balance, the author goes along with the view of some of Chalabi's most ardent supporters - and of Chalabi himself - that, were it not for his lobbying skills in the US from the late 1990s onwards, the US army would not now be in Iraq. Yet, as with so many of the other claims made by Chalabi, one should take this with a pinch of salt.

In fact, a recurrent theme is the ease with which he could be brushed aside, outflanked by those with greater clout and dumped by a variety of patrons. This puts him in a position where he is always restlessly on the lookout for new sponsors, sidling up to those with power in the hope of making himself indispensable. In doing so, of course, he becomes a lesser figure, an opportunist trying to insert himself into games, the rules of which are determined by others.

This has been very much the pattern of his career since 2003. In a telling echo of his financial dealings, his experience in Iraq during these years has been to use personal connections, cultivating the powerful, surrounding himself with some very strange people, bullying and submissive by turns, spinning stories to make himself appear more central than in fact he was. However, when the crunch came, the political capital was missing: there never was a constituency that could back up his claim to be taken seriously.

This has not prevented Chalabi from bouncing back periodically. Indeed, the present political situation in Iraq - with powerful patrons using networks of influence, with public finances and accountability in complete disarray, and with government-backed militias seeking to get by force that which cannot be achieved by law - is in many ways a congenial setting for someone of his talents. This in itself is a depressing testimony to Iraq's current predicament.

Charles Tripp is professor of politics with reference to the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. His most recent book is the third edition of "A History of Iraq" (Cambridge University Press, 2007)