Ahmed Chalabi rolled into a displaced persons camp in northern Iraq on Saturday with his entourage, and held an impromptu press conference that looked very much like a campaign stop.
KALAK, Iraq — Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki may not be the man to lead Iraq, but no one else is either, say many Iraqis. It’s too late for any single person to unify this country, they say.
Ahmed Chalabi begs to differ. He rolled into a displaced persons camp in northern Iraq on Saturday with his entourage, and held an impromptu press conference that looked very much like a campaign stop.
As US officials meet behind closed doors with potential Maliki replacements and Iraqi politicians negotiate tricky alliances, Chalabi, former head of the Iraqi National Congress, a CIA-funded Iraqi exile group that pushed for the US invasion, isn’t wasting time.
In a dark-blue blazer and T-shirt, he ambled the length of Kalak camp outside Erbil, where thousands have come, fleeing violence at home in Mosul and elsewhere in northern Iraq where the militants have claimed large swaths of territory. The UN estimates Kalak camp to be Iraqi Kurdistan’s largest.
“I’m here to look at the suffering of these people,” he said from within a swarm of bodyguards, local politicians and press attaches.
He talks about goodwill, but it’s politics that’s brought Chalabi out to this dusty camp during the oppressive midday heat.
Last week his name appeared on a short-list of possible leaders in a post-Maliki government. Also mentioned were Adel Abdul Mahdi and Bayan Jaber, both also from Shia blocs.
At the entrance to the camp, Chalabi removed his sunglasses for the cameras and began to speak. Men who had heckled him when he first arrived, calling him a criminal, quieted down.
Unfazed, Chalabi promised a quick end to the crisis. He praised the Kurdish Regional Government and slammed Baghdad for military failures and humanitarian shortfalls.
“The Iraqi Army are brave people, it’s not their fault that this collapse happened,” Chalabi said, referring to the mass desertions that helped usher in the Al Qaeda-inspired militants that now threaten the capital. “It’s the fault of the incompetent and corrupt leadership and we have to change that.”
Asked if he was hoping to be the new leader, Chalabi deflected: “That’s not the issue.”
After a few minutes, Chalabi and his entourage got back into their SUVs and rumbled away.
His promises seemed to fall on deaf ears.
“I told him you are a corrupt man, you get millions from Bahrain and what do you do for us?” shouted a man named Muthab, who arrived five days ago from Salahaddin, a town outside Mosul.
“Even Daash is more honest than Chalabi,” he said with a laugh, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), the group leading the offensive on Baghdad.
Muthab and his family arrived at the camp with nothing. They’ve been living on aid rations ever since that Muthab says aren’t enough to feed his family.
“Everyone was asking him: ‘Why are you here? You can’t do anything for us,'” said another camp resident, Yousef Muhammed, his face wrapped in a white scarf to keep out the clouds of dust. “He was just here to show himself.”
A construction worker from a neighborhood in Mosul once named after Saddam Hussein, Muhammed says he doesn’t believe Chalabi has what it takes to lead the country and hold Iraq together.
“I don’t think any leader can manage Iraq right now,” he said, echoing a sentiment shared by many. “The only solution is to divide it into three parts,” he added, referring to Sunni, Shia and Kurdish regions of Iraq.
Many Iraqis displaced by violence talk about the country as if it’s irreversibly fractured, but many of Iraq’s politicians say that’s not an inevitability.
Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Kurdish politician, said Iraq’s political institutions were reconstructed poorly following the US-led Iraq War and are in dire need of reform.
“Things were built in the wrong way. They divided Iraq into Sunni, Shia and Kurds,” he said. A truly federalist system with a strong constitution could hold the country together, he added.
“Anybody who comes up after Maliki, they should change his policies and there will be partnership,” he said. “It’s not a matter of Maliki. It’s a matter of policy.”
As for Chalabi, Othman says, “I don’t think he has a chance.”