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Iraqi Politician Ahmed Chalabi Dead Of A Heart Attack, State TV Reports

Ahmed Chalabi in 2010.
Karim Kadim
Ahmed Chalabi in 2010.

Updated at 11:15 a.m. ET

Ahmed Chalabi, a former Iraqi exile who played a major role in persuading the U.S. to wage war against Saddam Hussein, has died of a heart attack in Baghdad. He was 71.

His death was reported by Iraqi state media and confirmed to NPR by Hashim al Moussawi, who works in his office, and by former parliamentarian Hassan al Alawi.

Chalabi headed the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group based in Washington that long lobbied against Hussein. As The Washington Post noted last year, Chalabi was a wealthy, politically connected exile who for years funneled intelligence to U.S. officials:

"For that, he was dubbed 'the George Washington of Iraq.' Of course, it was later discovered that the information was false, and, after that, a new nickname was found: 'The Man Who Pushed America to War' (or, as the New York Times put it, 'Neoconner')."

NPR's Alice Fordham tells Morning Edition that under Chalabi's leadership, the Iraqi National Congress received substantial financial backing from the U.S. government:

"[The group] was very close to the United States government, funded by the United States government, to the tune of millions of dollars for things like opposition TV channels. But they're mainly known for propagating the idea that Saddam Hussein presented a threat because he had biological weapons, weapons of mass destruction.

"In later years when he was challenged about this, Chalabi was more or less unrepentant in the interviews that he gave. He seemed to imply that the important thing was that Saddam Hussein was gone."

Chalabi returned to Iraq after the war and was elected to parliament, but because of his long absence from the country, he was not fully trusted by Iraqis, Alice says.

Back in Iraq, Chalabi headed the country's de-Baathification program, which purged the government of Saddam loyalists, most of whom were Sunni Muslims.

In person, Chalabi could be an urbane and charming figure, recalls Alice, who interviewed him many times:

"He was very expansive. He had a quirky fashion sense. He was very clever, especially on the financial stuff. He was very dismissive of what he saw as stupid questions, and he had an amazing ability to win people over. I've seen a room of cynical journalists who I'm sure had questions about his motivation, about what he had done, who had been working in Iraq for years, just laughing at his jokes. He was really a world champion at winning people over."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.
Marie Andrusewicz