BAGHDAD, IRAQ - A tall Texas engineer in a John Deere cap and cowboy boots spoke slowly and a little too loudly to make sure a visiting Iraqi dignitary could grasp the mechanics of a power plant in a dusty village south of Baghdad.
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi listened calmly to the contractor's carefully enunciated syllables, the kind a teacher might use with an ignorant student. Then, the MIT-educated mathematician shot back with an eloquent stream of jargon-laced comments that made the engineer's eyes widen.
"So, can we see the turbines now?" Chalabi finished with a grin. "Absolutely," the humbled Texan replied.
The contractor was only the latest American to learn lesson No. 1 in dealing with Chalabi: Never underestimate him. A year after observers pronounced him finished spurned by one-time American sponsors and with no apparent political base in Iraq Chalabi has emerged more powerful than ever.
From his deputy premier's seat in the elected Iraqi government, Chalabi, 60, oversees Iraq's vast oil resources as chairman of the energy council. He presides over a board that regulates multimillion-dollar rebuilding contracts.
He commands the controversial purge of former Baath Party members from government posts and the Iraqi Special Tribunal prosecuting Saddam Hussein. Until an oil minister was named, Chalabi held that job. A top aide, Entifadh Qanbar, is headed for a plum job at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington. Chalabi's Harvard-educated nephew is the finance minister; rebel Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is an ally.
On a visit to a hospital in southern Iraq, the secular Chalabi was introduced as "the pride of the Shiites," suggesting that some members of the majority claim him as their own.
"Chalabi is a clever politician who knows how to get ahead," said Sheik Khalaf al Alayan of the Iraqi National Dialogue Committee, an umbrella group for Sunni factions. "In any place related to money, you can be sure to find Chalabi's people in control."
A comeback like Chalabi's is hard work. He'd become a scapegoat for the invasion of Iraq after peddling false or exaggerated intelligence to the Bush administration to fulfill his dream of Saddam's ouster.
His pagoda-style villa in Baghdad was ransacked during a probe into allegations of counterfeiting and kidnapping, and U.S. officials accused him of passing secrets to Iran. The Jordanian government asked for his extradition on a 1992 embezzlement conviction.
Abruptly spurned by his hawkish friends in Washington and faced with little street support in Baghdad, Chalabi's star dimmed. Then came a makeover. He turned critical of the Americans.
He helped build the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition that swept the January elections and installed him as one of three deputy premiers.
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