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On November 8, Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi arrived in Washington for an eight-day visit. His agenda included meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and national security adviser Stephen Hadley. To many pundits, Chalabi's visit marks a change in fortune for an Iraqi politician not long ago dismissed as irrelevant by diplomats and intelligence officials alike.

Disdain for Chalabi runs deep in the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and U.S. Central Command. As an advocate of both regime change and democratization, he became a lightning rod for criticism among proponents of the status quo.

Both before and after Iraq's liberation, State Department officials criticized Chalabi as an exile with little connection to his own country. CIA analysts seconded such pronouncements. On September 6, 2004, for example, Judith Yaphe, a former CIA Iraq analyst now at the National Defense University, told the Associated Press that "over the years, [CIA favorite Ayad] Allawi's contacts were proven to be real while Chalabi's were never what Chalabi told us." Former Defense Intelligence Agency official W. Patrick Lang described Chalabi as "basically an émigré politician" and told an Australian radio station that the CIA and State Department "didn't trust what he said [and] didn't think he understood Iraq, really." General Anthony Zinni, head of U.S. Central Command, belittled Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress as "some silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London."

But, in the months before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Chalabi returned to Iraq. And after liberation, he became an irritant to Washington policymakers. While Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer sought to run Iraq by diktat, Chalabi agitated for direct elections and restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. He clashed with Meghan O'Sullivan, now deputy national security adviser for Iraq, when she worked to undermine and eventually reverse de-Baathification. He undercut White House attempts to internationalize responsibility for Iraq in the months prior to the 2004 U.S. elections when his Governing Council auditing commission began to investigate the U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal.

In a West Wing meeting, then–national security adviser Condoleezza Rice called Chalabi's opposition to the ill-fated Fallujah Brigade "unhelpful." Soon afterward, she directed her staff to outline ways to "marginalize" Chalabi. There followed espionage and counterfeiting charges — the former never seriously pursued by the FBI and the latter thrown out of an Iraqi court. Following the June 28, 2004, transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, John Negroponte — then U.S. ambassador to Iraq and now the director of national intelligence — refused to meet Chalabi. Cut off from U.S. patronage and without any serious Iraqi base, the analysts said, Chalabi would fade away.

He did not. Nor has he simply reinvented himself, as a State Department official suggested following Chalabi's November 9 address at the American Enterprise Institute. Rather, his relevance has remained constant. Unlike those of other Iraqi figures embraced by various bureaucracies in Washington, Chalabi's fortunes have not depended on U.S. patronage. His survival — and, indeed, his recent ascent against the obstacles thrown in his path by Washington — underlines the failures of diplomats and intelligence analysts to put aside departmental agendas to provide the White House with an objective and accurate analysis of the sources of legitimacy inside Iraq.

While the CIA has politicized its intelligence products to support its own proxies, its analytical failures go beyond institutional axe-grinding. Most analysts are in their 20s and 30s; recruited fresh out of college or graduate school, few have significant experience in the countries to which they are assigned. Security officers look with suspicion on anyone with too many foreign contacts and too much time spent in adversarial countries. While many CIA analysts gain book knowledge of their subjects, they lack cultural understanding. They study politicians, but have no sense of personalities. Too often, their products reflect mirror-imaging of the analysts' own thought-processes into their subjects. Cultural equivalence, too, pollutes analysis: Family may be important to Americans and Iraqis alike, but it means much more for Iraqis. To Americans, genealogy is a hobby. To Iraqis, it is honor.

And here Chalabi has an advantage. Chalabi's grandfather built modern Kadhimiya, a sprawling Shiite town that has since been absorbed into modern Baghdad; his father was president of the Iraqi senate during the monarchy. Genealogy gives gravitas. In contrast, even as Iraqis suffered under Saddam Hussein's rule, they expressed disdain for Saddam with reference to his uncertain paternity. (In post-liberation Iraq, the CIA's blind eye toward genealogy has been evident in its embrace of powerful Baathist families — the Bunias and al-Janabis, for example — even as many Iraqis dismiss such figures as déclassé and embarrassing beneficiaries of Saddam's largesse.)

The charge that Chalabi was an out-of-touch exile also turned out to be off the mark. One out of six Iraqis fled the country during Saddam's rule. But — unlike the case of Chinese mainland exiles in Taiwan, for example — there were no genetic differences between Iraqis living in their homeland and those abroad. The diaspora remained integrated with the Iraqi nation. Far more important to Iraqis than their politicians' continued residency in the country is that the politicians remain independent and untainted by Baathism. The true Iraqi power brokers — Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani; Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim; firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; and Chalabi himself — all live outside the heavily protected "Green Zone" and operate without U.S. security. While all the other Governing Council members appropriated large houses abandoned by officials of the previous regime, Chalabi returned to his family's home — and the symbolism was clear to Iraqis. Ayad Allawi, in contrast, hemorrhaged support after accepting a house in the Green Zone and employing American security contractors.

Still, diplomats continued to brand Chalabi irrelevant, citing polls showing him to be among the least popular Iraqi politicians. Polling, though, does not translate well across cultures. Americans and Iraqis approach polling questions differently. Americans view popularity in terms of like and dislike. Iraqis are more likely to complain about effective politicians. Irrelevant figures are not worth condemning. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi television poured vitriol upon Chalabi, not upon Allawi or al-Hakim. Chalabi was the threat; the others a mere nuisance. The same polls that found Chalabi unpopular suggested that elder statesman and State Department favorite Adnan Pachachi was popular. But in the January 30, 2005, elections, it was Chalabi who was victorious; Pachachi's forces won not a single seat.

The roots of Chalabi's legitimacy have also been obscured by American analysts' failure to understand the religion factor: Most of American officialdom remains blind to Iraq's network of religious patronage, which has no parallel in Western society. A great deal of Chalabi's political base rests in his connection to the Kadhimayn Shrine. The resting place of both the seventh and ninth Shiite Imams, Kadhimayn is, after Najaf and Karbala, the holiest pilgrimage site in Iraq. Its proximity to Baghdad has made it a focal point of Shiite-Sunni sociopolitical and religious interaction. Chalabi's father financed the shrine's renovation.

While many other Iraqi politicians were trying to ingratiate themselves to Bremer, Chalabi spent his time outside the Green Zone fishbowl, revitalizing his family's Kadhimayn network of both Shiites and Sunnis. While Allawi trumpeted his Washington ties in quest of legitimacy, and al-Hakim turned toward Tehran for both guns and butter, Iraqis have seen Chalabi hold fast to Iraqi nationalism.

Chalabi's American detractors may wring their hands about his U.S. visit. Pundits may speculate about the White House's pragmatism. Conspiracy theorists may suggest that Chalabi's rise is part of a preconceived plan. But in reality, Chalabi has made no comeback: The sources of Chalabi's legitimacy have remained constant. What has changed is the growing realization that neither Langley nor Foggy Bottom has accurately assessed the Iraqi political scene. Part of the problem may be that reality did not mesh with their political agendas, but a far more serious American handicap has been an inability, more than two and a half years after the fall of Saddam, to understand the sources of legitimacy in Iraq. Washington may run the Green Zone but, for Chalabi, it is the rest of the country that matters.

Mr. Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.