The passel of neoconservatives who pushed for war in Iraq in 2003 believed fervently that the war would change the face of the Middle East.

How right they were! The Middle East is changed forever, only not in the way the neocons had hoped. Rather than usher in an era of greater US influence in the region, the destruction of the government in Iraq in 2003 has allowed Iran to expand its political, economic, and military influence westward into the vacuum left by the elimination of Saddam Hussein. Belatedly — slowly, slowly — a few neocons here and there are starting to recognize that the vaunted democracy in Iraq is in grave danger of looking like the not-so-democratic "Islamic democracy" next door in Iran.

It’s a process that’s long been obvious to more objective observers of the Iraq war and its aftermath. And another thing that’s obvious: Ahmed Chalabi, the darling of the neocons, the bosom buddy of Richard Perle, the favored Arab of the likes of Danielle Pletka and Michael Rubin, the comrade of Fouad Ajami, is Iran’s best friend, ally and agent. It was, of course, Chalabi and his partner, Ali al-Lami, who together control Iraq’s occupation-era "de-Baathification commission," who ran the Iranian-instigated purge of more than 500 candidates in the March 7 election. Earlier this week, I asked General Odierno about Chalabi and Lami, and he said point blank that the US has "direct intelligence" that Chalabi and Lami "clearly are influenced by Iran," and that they meet regularly with an nian official who "sits at the right-hand side of the Quds Force commandant, Qassem Soleimani."

Yesterday, speaking at the US Institute of Peace, Ambassador Christopher Hill was asked whether he agrees with Odierno’s assessment. "I am in 100 percent agreement with General Odierno," said Hill.

Yet even as a neocon here or there denounced Lami and his Iranian backers for the purging of hundreds of Iraqi nationalists on trumped-up charges of Baathism, they can’t quite bring themselves to denounce Chalabi, their former darling, as well, and when they do, they don’t even bother to engage in self-criticism about their former love affair with Chalabi.

Take for instance, the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Kim and Fred Kagan. When Odierno spoke, Kim Kagan was sitting right next to him, and to her credit she questioned Odierno hard on Iran’s role in Iraq. But in the op-ed, co-written with her husband, Fred Kagan — who is based at the American Enterprise Institute, which was Chalabi’s home-away-from-home before the war and in its early phases — the Kagans gloss over Chalabi’s role. The note, in passing, that the rotund Iraqi wheeler-dealer is "a leading member of the Iranian-backed Shiite list," but they say no more on that subject. They go on to note with alarm Iran’s growing influence in Iraq:

"Tehran seems to know what answers it wants regarding Iraq’s future. Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, worked doggedly in 2009 to rebuild the coalition of the three major Iraqi Shiite parties that had run in 2005 as a bloc."

But after providing a fairly accurate run-down of Iran’s machinations in Iraq, the Kagans want to blame not themselves, for the bungled, misguided war itself, but — get this! — President Obama! 

"Against this continuous Iranian campaign of engagement, intimidation and political machinations, the Obama administration has offered little more than moral support."

What they propose, apparently, is that the United States prepare to slow down, or reverse, its pledged withdrawal from Iran. Perhaps the Kagans haven’t noticed that the sovereign Iraq is in control of what the US does now. Perhaps they haven’t noticed that the United States can’t easily switch gears and keep its forces in Iraq beyond the deadlines of August 2010, for the reduction to 50,000 troops, and the end of 2011, for the complete withdrawal. Perhaps they’d like to undo what’s been done, but the fact remains that Iran’s influence in Iraq is semi-permanent. If anyone is going to force Iran to back down in Iraq, it will be the Iraqis themselves, not only at the ballot box but, it appears, in what may require a new outburst of violence, too.

A more thoughtful analysis comes from Clifford May at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who — in a piece for National Review — cites yours truly for raising the right alarm over the Iranian-backed purge of candidates by Chalabi and Lami. He writes:

"Robert Dreyfuss is a journalist of the left with whom I seldom agree; he writes for The Nation, a publication of the far left that usually makes my eyes roll. But in his Nationblog, Dreyfuss correctly notes that as the campaign gets underway for Iraq’s March 7 elections, close to 500 candidates have been banned for alleged ties to the Baath Party by the Justice and Accountability Council, ‘an unelected panel headed by an Iran-linked terrorist, Ali al-Lami.’ 

"Among those barred are ‘the No. 2 and No. 3 candidates in the main opposition bloc, the Iraqi Nationalist Movement, which is led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi [a secular Shia]. Already, two members of Allawi’s party have been assassinated while campaigning. . . . Allawi, who many observers say had a credible chance of winning enough votes to lead a governing coalition after the election, has suspended his campaign. . . . Many Sunni leaders are talking about a boycott.’"

May quotes me accurately — but, nowhere in his piece does he mention the name "Chalabi." Like many of his fellow neocons, May doesn’t seem to want to open the Pandora’s box of the Chalabi question. But it’s fundamental to the problem. More than anyone else, it was Chalabi who convinced the neocons that he and his Shiite religious friends would install an American-friendly democracy in Iraq, and they suggested that the US invasion of Iraq would create momentum that would topple the domino next door, in Iran. Unfortunately, Chalabi and his allies, including the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Dawa Party — that would be the party of Prime Minister Maliki, who supports the purge — were Iran’s friends and allies, and in some cases, outright agents. Oops!

Here’s the reality of Iraq in 2010: The damage is done. Seven years after the US invasion, Iran has the upper hand by virtue of its alliance with a network of Shiite religious politicians, from Chalabi and Lami to the Hakims to Muqtada al-Sadr to Maliki himself. Iran is multiply connected to the Kurds, as well. It has vast economic influence in Iraq. It’s beyond absurd to suggest, as the Kagans do, that Obama is to blame for that. When he took office, he inherited a disaster in Iraq. The plan to drawdown US forces was pretty much already written in stone by the US-Iraq accord negotiated in 2008 by President Bush — and Obama simply ratified it. (In fact, Obama slowed down his own Iraqi plan, in which during the campaign he called for a pullout of US forces much quicker than what he settled on.)

In his piece, Cliff May asks, in the headline, "Who’s Losing Iraq?" In fact, it should have been: "Who Lost Iraq?"

If the neocons want to blame someone for the loss of Iraq, they ought to look in the mirror.

Of course, it isn’t over. The Iraqis may surprise us all by voting on March 7 to kick out Maliki, the Shiite religious parties, and their friends, and elect a coalition of nationalists, ex-Baathists, secular Sunni and secular Shia, advocates of a strong central government, and other fierce Iraqi partisans who want Iran out. By the same token, many centrist Iraqis may realize — even after the election — that Iraq’s economic future lies with the West, with its Arab neighbors, with Turkey, and with investment and technology from a wide range of US, European, Russian, and Chinese oil companies who can help Iraq boost its oil output from just over 2 million barrels a day to 10-12 million barrels by the end of the decade. But revolutionary Iran, embroiled its own domestic turmoil and stuck in a bitter dispute with the world over its nuclear program, sees Iraq as an important bargaining chip. It isn’t going to give that up easily.

UPDATE Megan Ortagus, the spokesperson for the Institute for the Study of War, sent the following note after this post was written:

"Kimberly Kagan and Frederick Kagan were both professors of history at West Point in 2003, and consequently not involved with the Bush Administration interactions with exiled Iraqi leaders and the restoration of civilian government in Iraq. Kim and Fred Kagan have never supported Ahmad Chalabi nor advocated for him to play any role in Iraqi politics.

"Kim and Fred Kagan entirely agree with the comments General Ray Odierno and Ambassador Chris Hill have made this week about the role that Chalabi is playing and has been playing for some time–a role that is heavily influenced by Iran and specifically the Qods Force, and that has done significant damage to the cause of cross-sectarian political development in Iraq. In no way do they deny or minimize Chalabi’s malign influence in Iraq."

In their op-ed, I wish they’d been that specific. Since 2003, the neoconservatives have generally aligned themselves with the Iran-influenced Shiites in Iraq, that is, the religious Shiites, and the folks at AEI — including Rubin and Pletka, along with Michael Ledeen and Reuel Gerecht, who’ve since left AEI — were generally enthusiastic since 2003 about radical de-Baathification. They relished Chalabi’s role in continual purges of Iraqi nationalists and nonsectarian politicians for the past 7 years, and they were widely known to have supported the so-called "80 percent solution" for Iraq, so called because it was designed to include Shia and Kurds (80 percent of Iraq) and exclude Iraqi Sunnis. It’s all on the record. So I wonder if the Kagans will extend their unhappiness about Chalabi to include the people who supported him.