Iraq's Mr. Cellophane

He was there, one of only four Iraqi dignitaries present, when President George W. Bush dropped in at Baghdad airport for Thanksgiving turkey with the troops. He was there again, a few weeks later, when Saddam Hussein, freshly dragged from a "spider hole" near Tikrit, was forced to confront a few men who'd fought against him for decades. If you look closely, in fact, he seems to be just about everywhere in the New Iraq. Yet Mowaffak al-Rubaie is often overlooked, like a Mr. Cellophane, on press rosters of Iraq's rising stars.

His problem: he's hard to categorize. He's not a Kurdish nationalist leader with guerrilla followers in colorful clothes. Or a longtime CIA asset. Or the brother of an assassinated ayatollah. Or a onetime convicted swindler who talked his way to the hearts of American neoconservatives. So from the outside, al-Rubaie tends to blend in with the other mostly faceless characters in the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council that was appointed last summer by the United States. Yet al-Rubaie epitomizes, in fact, the subtle complexities of Iraq's emerging politics. He's a critical link to key members of Iraq's powerful Shiite clergy: Grand Ayatollah Hussein al-Sadr in Baghdad and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf, the holiest city in Iraq. Without the tacit support of the Shiites, who make up a 60 percent majority of the population and look to these ayatollahs for guidance, the American occupation of Iraq would be unsustainable.

Soft-spoken, bearded, bespectacled and courtly, al-Rubaie, 55, was the international spokesman for one of the most feared terrorist organizations in the Middle East during the 1980s, the Iraqi Dawa Party. But he's also a prosperous British-educated physician. He practiced medicine in London for the better part of three decades. (His British patients, for the most part, knew him by his Anglicized name, Mow Baker.) While pious, he is also perfectly comfortable in secular Western society. "Shall we dine and not wine?" he used to joke with guests when inviting them to dinner at his house. And while Western policies toward Iraq went through many changes, al-Rubaie's goal was always consistent: the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

American officials in Iraq are well aware of al-Rubaie's ability to navigate in both worlds; when President Bush landed in Baghdad for Thanksgiving dinner, clearly he'd been briefed. As al-Rubaie remembers their encounter, the president pointed at him and said, "Dr. al-Rubaie, I want you to convey this message to Mr. Sistani. Tell him that I pray to the same god he prays to... Tell Sistani I have nothing but praise for your religion. I have many millions of Muslims in my country back home."

Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf, it should be noted, tolerates the American presence in Iraq, but does not talk to Americans directly. Ayatollah Hussein al-Sadr does talk to the Americans, but as one political operative at the Coalition Provisional Authority explained, the ayatollah in Baghdad "let it be known that Mowaffak is the dearest of all to his heart."

"Access is power," says the same official, "and if you have access at the Oval Office and in Najaf, that's not bad."

When al-Rubaie met the captured Saddam this month, his first question was why the dictator murdered two revered ayatollahs from the al-Sadr family. Saddam responded with a coarse joke. Al-Rubaie has since led the call to put Saddam on trial in a matter of weeks. While it's unlikely the Americans will bend to that particular demand, many others will surely follow, probably growing more contentious as occupied Iraq tries to become, truly, liberated Iraq. And al-Rubaie is likely to be at the forefront of political developments.

But what kind of Iraq does he envision? Would it be a sort of postmodern version of Khomeini's Iran? He insists not.

Al-Rubaie says the Islamist movement has come full circle. In Algeria and Sudan, for example, "we saw a tyranny in the name of Islam," he says. "This is very dangerous--politicizing religion or religicizing politics." In purely practical terms, al-Rubaie explains, Iraq is "like a bunch of flowers. There are Sunnis here, Christians, Muslims, Turkomans and Orthodox, Kurds, Assyrian. So what religion do you impose? The diversity of Iraqi society should dictate democracy and decentralization. That's the alternative vision to Saddam's tyranny of fear."

In the meantime, like most Iraqis, he wants to see his countrymen taking a greater role in bringing order to their homeland, while the Coalition forces step to the rear, ready to back up the regime, but interacting as little as possible with the people. "The Americans don't understand the culture, the different religions, the psychology," al-Rubaie says as he sits in his sparsely furnished office in the building that houses the Iraqi Governing Council.

A few days before, he says, he was given a full body search by American soldiers as he tried to enter the building--searched right down to the soles of his shoes. "This is humiliation in the eyes of our people," he says in frustration. Yet even while lobbying for greater Iraqi involvement in security matters, he warns that Washington shouldn't rush Iraqis into accepting full sovereignty: "People are not ready. People have not voted here for more than 50 years." Al-Rubaie speaks of the "Baathist virus" implanted by Saddam Hussein "in the software upstairs." "We need to rewrite the software," he says. "We need to rehabilitate the Iraqi people. This will take a long time."

And meanwhile al-Rubaie continues building his own personal constituency. Last summer the holy city of Karbala was draped with banners extolling his virtues. His clan, the al-Rubaie, is large and powerful, and he's worked hard to make sure he keeps its support. But politics remains a high-risk occupation. At least one other member of the Council has been shot dead; the driver of another member was killed when American soldiers opened fire on his car. And then there was the October attack on the Baghdad Hotel, when al-Rubaie himself was injured. Does he feel endangered? "I'm not afraid to die," he says, smiling. "Thank goodness I believe in the hereafter. So I am ready to go." If he survives--and that's a big if for any Iraqi politician--he could also be ready to rule.