Published in the July 2003 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Chronicle of a War Foretold” follows Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi in the first few months of 2003. The story is free to read in full through November 9. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for instant access to our entire 165-year archive.
A headline on a newspaper outside the Metropole Hotel, where factions of the Iraqi opposition are convening this week, declares: “Troops Start Countdown to War.” One can feel the expectation among the exiles, hundreds strong, in the hotel’s lobbies and cafes. War is coming, and on its winds they will be carried back to Iraq, where they imagine they’ll govern. But among the turbaned mullahs and dark-suited Arabs and Kurds are the men from Washington: State Department, Defense, White House, and CIA are all here, conspiring in corridors. On the fourteenth floor, George W. Bush’s special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad-fresh from his king-making exercise in Afghanistan-pulls the strings of the Iraqi marionettes below.
This, a sign says, is “The Iraqi Opposition Conference, London, 14–16 December 2002. For Democracy and Salvation of Iraq.” It’s a bit of the Middle East in England, so the conference begins late and with a recitation from the Koran. On a dais before the 320 delegates are the principal figures of the Iraqi opposition: Jalal Talabani, Massoud Barzani, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and Ahmad Chalabi. Talabani and Barzani, who represent the two main Kurdish parties, are the only Iraqis here who can be said to govern any part of their country. They fought a civil war from 1993 to 1996 and divided Iraqi Kurdistan into two, Barzani running the northwest, Talabani the southeast. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and his older brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, head the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Supported by Iran, they represent much of Shiite Muslim religious sentiment in Iraq. The fourth, Ahmad Chalabi, runs the Iraqi National Congress (INC). He represents … what he represents is not clear. He is a Shiite Muslim exile, a brilliant mathematician, a banker who was convicted in absentia of fraud in Jordan, a secular democrat, and the Iraqi whom most of the new crowd at the Pentagon like. He is also the best-dressed man here, smooth-faced and short, in a tie that is pure silk and a suit that looks Savile Row. His record of opposing Saddam Hussein, going back to when Saddam exercised power through the nominal president, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, is more consistent than that of any other politician. The State Department and the CIA have their own man, Iyad al-Allawi, and disparage Chalabi.
Outside, some fifty demonstrators chant and hold signs: “Bush and Blair Will Murder Thousands for Oil” and “We Demand an End to Western Interference in the Islamic WorId.”
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