Many Iraqis denounce former exiles for leading gilded lifestyles abroad while their compatriots back home suffered in hellholes such as Abu Ghraib prison. But Ayad Allawi wasn't a stereotypical "Gucci guerilla." He had wealth, to be sure, but his three decades in exile had their horrors. While living in London, Allawi and his wife were sleeping in bed one night in 1978 when an ax-wielding assassin attacked them. He was struck in the head, chest and right leg, which was nearly severed at the knee. It took him a year to recover from the wounds.
Arriving back in Baghdad on the heels of U.S. forces last year, Allawi began searching for documents related to the assassination attempt. He quietly put the word out to former military and intelligence personnel. Some of them were the very Baathists that Allawi's opposition group, the Iraqi National Accord, had been trying to convert during Saddam Hussein's regime. About a month after American troops entered Baghdad, a former intelligence officer came to Allawi bringing documents and photos. "He confessed he knew about the attack against me," Allawi recalled to NEWSWEEK. The documents spelled out the identities of two hit men, one of them a notorious intelligence-agency assassin who'd murdered victims in Lebanon and Europe. Allawi hired a lawyer to pursue the case. In early December, a formal arrest warrant was signed, naming four suspects--including Saddam Hussein. Allawi recalled, "I felt like I was flying in the sky."
Now Allawi is Iraq's new prime minister. While critics have found much to denounce in the selection of Iraq's new interim government, including Allawi's longstanding links to U.S. and British intelligence, Allawi and President Ghazi al-Yawar now represent Iraq's best hope for stability and growth. This week, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, weighed in, silencing many of the critics. Sistani urged the new government to lobby the United Nations Security Council for a transfer of "full sovereignty" to Iraqis on June 30, in order to "erase all traces" of the American-run occupation.
Still, nobody knows exactly how Allawi, Yawer and their deputies and ministers are going to perform in the difficult months ahead. Much will depend on whether Iraqis perceive themselves gaining genuine sovereignty after June 30--or simply entering another phase of the U.S. occupation with a new set of American puppets. The factors shaping Iraqi perceptions aren't all, or even mostly, in the hands of the new Iraqi government. In New York, diplomats continue to tussle over a new U.N. resolution that would offer Baghdad enhanced authority over security matters. The United States and Britain have offered a revised draft that would give the new government authority over Iraq's army and police--and would send all U.S. troops home by January 2006. Allawi hastily dispatched Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to New York with instructions to elbow his way into the U.N. deliberations.
During the past year, Allawi has largely shunned the media spotlight that some of his fellow politicians have hogged, but he's hardly been passive. As head of the Iraqi Governing Council's Security Committee, he devoted long hours to issues regarding Iraq's new military and intelligence apparatus. His handling of the security portfolio, said former IGC member Mahmoud Othman, is precisely why the IGC unanimously backed Allawi. But the prime minister doesn't see the solution to Iraq's problems in solely military terms. In an interview with NEWSWEEK in late March, just before violence spiked in Fallujah and in southern Iraq, Allawi made the following comments about the challenges facing Iraq:
On the June 30 transfer of sovereignty: "Once sovereignty is assumed there will still be two areas ... that lag behind, where we'll need [international assistance.] Those are security and the economy. We'll witness an escalation of violence before things get better. But [eventually] the democratic process in Iraq will influence the region and be a setback for terrorism."
On how long it will take to stabilize the country: "That depends on how quickly we can establish security and our institutions. It also depends on our neighbors ... we need to reduce the number of border crossings and increase cooperation with other countries. Fighting terrorism is largely an intelligence issue."
On the country's new Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS): its charter is "unprecedented in the region" because of its built-in checks and balances. It will not have the authority to detain citizens, its director is limited to a five-year term, and its activities will be subject to legislative oversight. "It'll be like its counterparts in Europe and the U.S. ... It won't have the machinery for domination or control over the population the way Saddam's [intelligence service] did."
On Iraqi politics and ethnic tensions: "You can't have political leadership without institutions ... Iraq's political life is developing its own dynamics ... at the same time we need to tackle the economy, unemployment, financial [issues] and the building of government institutions. We need to develop civil society, so that a sense of Iraqism prevails over Shiism or Sunnism."
Allawi is pro-American, though not slavishly so. In his formal introductory speech, the country's new prime minister thanked the international Coalition "led by the Americans who have sacrificed so much to liberate us." (The other new government members avoided thanking the United States.) Allawi also acknowledged that Iraq would need international help "in defeating the enemies of Iraq." But Allawi hasn't been shy about criticizing Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) policies. From the very start, he made it clear he didn't approve of civilian administrator Paul Bremer's decision to disband the Iraqi armed forces, a move championed by the controversial Ahmed Chalabi who was the Pentagon's undisputed darling at the time.
Allawi also criticized the CPA's overzealous efforts to "de-Baathify" postwar Iraq. That was another unpopular campaign identified with Chalabi, whom Bremer appointed to head the IGC's de-Baathification committee. Bremer eventually acknowledged that "irrational and unfair" procedures resulted in unemployment for tens of thousands of teachers, civil servants and army personnel with only superficial links to Saddam's Baath party--virtually pushing them into the arms of the anti-Coalition resistance. In early April, Bremer softened the de-Baathification practices dramatically. Allawi is expected to accelerate efforts to reach out to former Baathists, especially those with professional, bureaucratic and military expertise. On taking office Allawi promised to facilitate the rehabilitation of former army personnel--and to increase their pensions and pay.
Detractors say Allawi is intent on bringing former Baathists back to power. It is a fact that key aides in the Iraqi National Accord (INA) were former military and intelligence officers who spent much of the '90s trying to topple Saddam in a coup. Paradoxically, his ability to work with ex-Baathists is also the reason why some Sunnis approve of Allawi, who is a secular Shiite. (Saddam's government was dominated by Sunni officers, including many from his own clan.)
Above all, Allawi has devoted decades of his life trying to win friends and influence people. When Saddam was in power, he and his INA cohorts specialized in enticing armed forces and intelligence personnel to defect. One Jordanian source with detailed knowledge of the INA's covert wars credited Allawi "with some serious intelligence work." He said Allawi personally journeyed into Iraq before the U.S.-led Iraq war and held "covert meetings with Iraqi military commanders to tell them 'Saddam is finished, so just stay home when the fighting begins.' Many did."
After liberation, Allawi also resorted to more conventional, Western-friendly methods to get his message across. Last year, his supporters dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying efforts where they count most: in the United States. Among the hired guns were the firm Preston Gates, which opened doors on the Hill; a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, who did public relations work, and even a New York advertising firm which once worked on behalf of the Beatles.
In recent months Allawi and his aides have been in political mode, schmoozing important constituencies. They've made quiet but methodical trips to the hinterland, lobbying labor unions and religious groups of all stripes. "Allawi has been out politicking," said a senior Bush administration official in Iraq, "I'm not in charge of his scheduling but he's been politicking with Sunni tribes and in Najaf," the holy city where most of the country's top Shiite clerics are based. One of his former INA colleagues, Gen. Abdullah Mohammad al-Shehwani, recently spent time in Najaf and Karbala on the margins of mediation efforts between Shiite luminaries and renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
These low-key but persistent efforts are one reason Allawi won the IGC's unanimous backing with what seemed to be remarkable ease. (Even a representative of Ahmed Chalabi, Allawi's longtime rival, endorsed him.) Now he must try to convince the rest of the Iraqi population--including armed anti-U.S. Shiite militias in the south and combat-hardened insurgents in the violent Sunni triangle--that he's an Iraqi patriot and not an American puppet. After decades of practicing his powers of persuasion in the shadows, it will be Allawi's toughest test.