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Ahmad Chalabi dies; Iraqi exile behind false claims on WMDs was 71

Ahmad Chalabi, the cunning Iraqi exile whose false claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaida helped persuade the George W. Bush administration to invade Iraq to execute regime change, was found dead at his Baghdad home yesterday of an apparent heart attack. He was 71.

A controversial but indisputably influential political force in Washington and London as well as his homeland, Chalabi never achieved his ambition to lead postwar Iraq and left a legacy replete with missteps.

The U.S.-educated mathematician-turned-political-lobbyist founded the Iraqi National Congress with other exiles in 1992 and six years later persuaded Congress to pass the Iraqi Liberation Act that declared the Bill Clinton administration's aim of toppling Hussein.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Chalabi and his London-based political exile faction funneled intelligence from Iraqi exiles and opposition figures to Bush administration neoconservatives eager to oust Hussein. The reports alleged that the Iraqi leader had hidden stores of chemical weapons and nerve gases that al-Qaida-linked forces were ready to deploy against Western adversaries.

It was that intelligence -- later discredited -- that prompted the March 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S.-led forces and the occupation of the volatile country that was soon consumed by sectarian violence and chaos.

Chalabi was remembered by Iraqi leaders yesterday as an ardent advocate of democracy and brave mediator in his homeland's internal conflicts, as well as a tainted political figure dogged through his lifetime by accusations of corruption and self-dealing.

"The deceased had a large role in fighting the dictatorship and initiating the building of a democratic Iraq," said Iraqi parliament head Salim Jabouri, describing Chalabi as someone "who dedicated his life to the service of the country."

Iraqi President Fuad Massoum said in a statement that Chalabi's death was "a great loss" for Iraq.

But Chalabi was a divisive figure, and critics took to social media to accuse him of having steered Iraq into disaster.

He was the target of an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber in 2008 that killed six of his bodyguards and intensified the heavy security cordon that surrounded him for the rest of his life.

Although Chalabi never attained the high office he sought after Hussein was driven from Baghdad in April 2003 and eventually captured, tried and executed, he remained active in Iraqi politics to the end. He served in the inaugural U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in 2003 and was later tasked with heading the De-Baathification Committee charged with rooting out Saddam loyalists.

The latter role stirred resentment among Iraq's Sunni minority that helped feed the sectarian strife still consuming the country.

Chalabi is survived by his wife, Leila Osseiran, the daughter of a prominent Lebanese politician, and their four children.

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