Is Iyad Allawi a new Saddam?

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Aug. 3 2004 8:48 AM

Iyad Allawi

Is Iraq's new strongman strong enough?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

In late June, just before he took office as Iraq's prime minister, Iyad Allawi lined up six prisoners in a Baghdad prison and executed them with a handgun while 30 people watched. So an Australian reporter claims, though he won't reveal his two eyewitnesses. Another story making the rounds in Baghdad: Allawi had two insurgents shot in front of him. And then there's the rumor that he chopped off a guy's hand. Iraq's new boss denies all these allegations to the press, but who cares? The Iraqis love them, and Allawi seems happy to let the rumors lurk. They fit perfectly into the image he's cultivating as Iraq's new strong man.

He needs all the help he can get as he leads Iraq toward elections in January. Allawi has to be tough enough to overcome his reputation as a Western stooge, but not so tough that he becomes a new Saddam. He has to be aggressive enough to pacify Iraq and to give himself a shot at getting elected, but not so aggressive that he provokes a U.S. crackdown or a revolt.

Advertisement

Allawi could also use some new rumors to shake the old ones that he's a traitorous lackey of the Americans. As a young medical student in the 1960s, Allawi was friends with Saddam Hussein during their bright young days in the Baath Party, occasionally seeing the hypochondriac Saddam as a patient. In 1971, Allawi went to the United Kingdom to study medicine and continue working for the party. What he did for them is uncertain, though TheNew Yorker's Seymour Hersh quotes an ex-CIA man saying, "Allawi has blood on his hands from his days in London." In 1978, he got axed from the Baath Party. Literally. Left for dead in his U.K. home, Allawi spent a year hospitalized under MI6 protection. The reasons for his break with Saddam are vague, perhaps because he had begun working for the British spy agency. While recovering from his ax wounds, he began recruiting other disgruntled Baathists into a group that later became the Iraqi National Accord.

Allawi learned how to play politics and how to butter up the West. He informed on Saddam's regime for 20 years, lobbied aggressively to overthrow it for 10, and orchestrated an attempted coup that failed spectacularly in 1996. The Iraqi National Accord fed MI6 the infamous claim that Saddam could mobilize WMD in 45 minutes, and may have produced other pieces of inflammatory pseudo-intelligence for the United States. In the run-up to war, Allawi spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Washington lobbyists to ensure he would be well-positioned for the new Iraq.

Since assuming power six weeks ago, Allawi has struck a pose as a classic Middle Eastern strongman—or perhaps not a pose, since it seems to be the only way he knows how to operate. Iraqis are looking for somebody ruthless to stamp out violence and get some kind of democratic process underway, and tall, rough-spoken Allawi fits the bill. "He's kind of gritty. He's not a polished diplomat or a politician. He's more of a party boss type guy," explained Samer Shehata, an expert on Iraqi politics at Georgetown University. Iraqis want Allawi to play hardball, to use Saddamite tactics without becoming Saddam. He's happy to oblige: As a secular Shiite, a former Baathist, and an exiled spy to boot, Allawi isn't anyone's natural ally. Without a constituency, he has to work twice as hard to convert his current tepid popularity into real support.

To do that, Allawi is consciously distancing himself from the American occupation and working to revive parts of the Baath Party. Within a day of entering office, he brought back capital punishment (banned by Paul Bremer) and, despite U.S. misgivings, introduced a set of emergency powers to deal with insurgents. He maintains that disbanding the Iraqi army was "a big mistake" and has said he plans to reconstitute divisions and rehire former officers. According to Newsweek, "He's started a new General Security Directorate, otherwise known as the secret police," and Time notes that his intelligence chief is rapidly churning out spies from "covert college" and calling for "reinstating Saddam-era mukhabarat intelligence professionals."

So far, the Iraqis are going along with him. "By and large, many more Iraqis seem to be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt—almost taking a wait-and-see attitude—than anyone expected," noted Marina Ottaway, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Another way of saying that Allawi has no natural allies is to say that he has no natural enemies, either. That he isn't strongly attached to any particular ethnic group also means he isn't strongly opposed by any particular group: Iraqis may tolerate him because they have no reason to mistrust him. (This contributes to one quality of Allawi's that is particularly pleasing to American occupiers: Unlike so many of his countrymen, he thinks of Iraq as one nation, not as three or four or 10. In other words, he believes Iraq can be ruled by one government.)

Allawi's Saddam impersonation is so far unpersusasive (fortunately), because his control of Iraq is so obviously tenuous. Attacks and kidnappings continue, and his toughness has mostly been rhetorical. Strongman talk has not been followed by strongman actions. His government hasn't exercised any of its emergency powers, reconstituted the army, or used the new death penalty. Allawi even had to delay caucuses for the temporary national council, originally scheduled for last weekend, in order to try and cajole more hold-out groups to join in the voting.

Allawi has also cautiously courted the opposition. He told one reporter that he's been meeting with members of the insurgency in secret, calling it his "outreach" program. Recently he allowed Muqtada al-Sadr's newspaper al-Hawza to reopen, though Sadr is still boycotting the election process. Allawi's boldest move so far has been to offer amnesty to insurgents, limited to minor crimes after U.S. insistence.

With luck, the Saddam-lite formula will get Allawi through the next few months and create stable conditions for the January elections. But that's when things will really get complicated, because the fissures among Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites will widen. The smart move then will be to switch gears and play politics, but that may simply be beyond Allawi. Saddam responded to those splits with brutal repression. If Allawi is feeling powerful by winter, he will be tempted to crack down with traditional Baathist zeal if things go sour. The dilemma is clear: If Allawi's not Saddam-like enough, the security situation will worsen and the country could spiral out of control. If he's too Saddam-like, the United States will be responsible for the Middle East's newest dictatorship.