BETTING ON AN OLD HORSE

Politics doesn't get much spookier than the way it's played in Iraq. Back when Saddam Hussein ruled, the opposition consisted of numerous sworn rivals, each with his own team of covert operatives and dirty-tricks artists. Nowadays those old spymasters belong to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. The 22 members, ranging from Kurdish warlords to Shiite clerics to wealthy former exiles, have continued to feud and squabble, pausing now and then to denounce the United States or even the agency that used to bankroll some of them: the CIA. Over the decades, their disputes led to one covert fiasco after another. The most disastrous, in 1996, ended when Saddam eradicated a huge chunk of the underground opposition inside Iraq. When the crackdown was over, Saddam's agents used an opposition member's CIA-supplied satphone to ring up and taunt the agency's station chief in Amman.

Suddenly--for a moment--the backstabbing seems to have stopped. The Governing Council unexpectedly closed ranks last week behind a former exile, Dr. Ayad Allawi, as its unanimous choice to become interim prime minister on June 30. Surprisingly, the move was blessed by the U.N. special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who was tasked with choosing interim leaders for Iraq's next step toward independence. Only days earlier, Brahimi thought he'd found the next prime minister in Hussain Shahristani, a nuclear scientist who spent most of the 1980s imprisoned at Abu Ghraib for opposing Saddam's WMD efforts. But that suggestion brought furious protest from Governing Council leaders who wanted the prime minister's job for one of their own. One of the loudest was Allawi.

The 59-year-old former neurologist is exactly the sort of politically ambitious and somewhat shadowy former exile Brahimi didn't initially want for the interim government. Allawi had been a Baathist until he defected in the'70s and became secretary-general of the Iraqi National Accord (INA)--barely surviving an assassination attempt along the way. The INA was an anti-Saddam group that began receiving support from the CIA and Britain's M.I.6 after the agency broke with Allawi's rival exile leader (and cousin by marriage) Ahmad Chalabi. "Allawi is more acceptable to the Iraqi people," said a Western diplomat in Baghdad. "Though whenever I see him, I have to force myself not to think of Tony Soprano." Allawi's supporters have something much grander in mind. "He should be prime minister, period," one of his aides said recently. "Not just interim P.M."

That's a potential problem. When Brahimi began his search for an Iraqi government that might actually be seen as legitimate by a majority of Iraqis, he wanted only technocrats to fill top posts, fearing that politicians might use official powers to manipulate the planned general elections, which are to be held by next January. No one is better equipped for such tinkering than Allawi, whose supporters gained influence in Iraq's military and security forces (such as they are) during his tenure on the IGC. He has some real political strengths, too. Like Shahristani and Chalabi, he's a secular follower of Iraq's majority Shiite faith; lately he's been courting labor unions, Sunni sheiks and Shiite clerics. But can Iraqis and other Arabs overlook his reputation as America's man? If the old Langley ties don't hurt his credit, it will be the biggest coup of all.

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