Walking 100 yards through Baghdad this weekend with Ahmad Chalabi -- the former Iraqi exile who helped justify the U.S. led invasion – was a nightmare.
At least eleven Kalashnikov wielding security guards, some wearing black masks that covered their faces, formed a circle around the portly politician and his aides.
Their eyes and gun barrels scanning rooftops, the guards hustled the small entourage from the Baghdad Hunt Club, where Chalabi had just held an American-style town hall meeting, to his home.
When I lagged behind momentarily fussing with a camera, one of the guards grabbed my wrist and yanked me back inside their circle. He offered no pleasantries or apologies.
I couldn’t blame him.
The day before, Iraq’s leading Sunni politician, Harith al Obaidi, a crusader for human rights, was slaughtered at a nearby mosque after delivering the Friday prayers.
Three of Obaidi’s guards died in the ensuing shoot-out with the assassin; a 15-year old boy sent by al Qaida in Iraq, police said.
Once inside Chalabi’s house, in the upscale Monsour neighborhood just outside the Green Zone, the mood changed completely.
There, surrounded by fine art, exquisite oriental carpets and soothing dark wood, Chalabi starred blankly at me when I asked him how many guards usually escort him.
“I have no idea,” he said, “were there a lot?”
Chalabi, who is viewed as a master manipulator by his countrymen, and who was the darling of neo-conservative hawks during the run up to the 2003 invasion, said he is worried that President Obama is turning his back on Democracy in Iraq.
“It’s unfortunate some people in the new administration view this as a Bush personal project,” Chalabi said. “They’re clearly trying to distance themselves.”
As U.S. combat troops prepare to leave Iraqi cities by the end of the month, and all American forces are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011, Chalabi said “the quicker we end the military relationship, the better for both countries.”
But he said he wants the U.S. to help pay down Iraq’s foreign debt, and to help cover the costs of reparations demanded by Kuwait.
He also said he wants American experts to help develop a real estate market in Iraq, and the Federal Reserve to conduct professional bank examinations.
When I pointed out how funny it sounded that anyone would want American banking and real estate expertise these days, Chalabi said “that’s how troubled these sectors are in Iraq.”
Chalabi's secular Iraqi National Congress didn’t win a single seat in the last election, but he's trying to rally them to re-engage the political process. The two dueling sects of Islam, the Shiites and the Sunnis, dominate parliament now.
“These people have been good at getting power, but they’re not so good at implementing it,” he said.
Chalabi was born into a family of wealthy Shiite bankers. Though Shiites constitute more than 60 percent of Iraq’s population, many felt pushed aside under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Baath party.
Chalabi worries that without significant improvements in the standard of living for average Iraqis, fragmentation of the now ruling Shiite alliance will open the door for a return of the Baathists.
“We still have 15 to 20 percent of the vote going to people sympathetic to the old Baath party,” Chalabi said, “and they are represented by competent people.”
A big contributor to the incompetence and corruption of the current government, Chalabi said, is the quota system for hiring government employees from the three major sects, which includes ethnic Kurds from the north.
One way for the majority Shiites and their allies to hang on to power is to replace the relatively messy, multi-party parliamentary system with a presidential system modeled on the United States.
Allies of current Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki have suggested making the change.
That’s where Chalabi, who chaired the committee devoted to ridding the government of Saddam's old deputies, turns ironic.
“The advantage of the American system is a strong executive authority,” he said. “In Iraq, we have not historically suffered from a lack of strong executive authority."
With that, an aide knocked on the door and ushered another group of visitors into a side room.
While Chalabi hasn’t attracted many votes lately, he keeps a steady stream of journalists and emissaries from other parties coming through his door. Whether they blame him for the collapse of civil society after the invasion, or envy his ability to bring the might of the United States down on his bitter enemy Saddam, Iraq’s political elite clearly like to keep an eye on Chalabi.
They assume he’s always up to something.