Iyad Allawi made his fateful decision last November when top Shi'ite leaders, including senior cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, made a rare trip into the Green Zone to invite the interim Prime Minister to run on the election ticket they were putting together under the guidance of Shi'ite Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, Iraq's most revered authority. "He listened very positively and said he would answer in three days," says interim Finance Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, one of the visitors. "He never did." Instead, Allawi decided to run on his own. In a country where voters don't know the names, much less the faces, of the candidates, the campaign poster for List 285 shows just a pair of hard, piercing eyes. Allawi is betting that Iraqis voting blind would get the message in his gaze: this is one tough guy.
Tough is how friends and rivals alike routinely describe Allawi. The Bush Administration saw the steel in him last April, when it backed the dark-horse secular Shi'ite over better-known candidates to become Iraq's transitional leader. In office, Allawi has talked the talk. Critics, and there are many, view him more as a thug, a diehard ex-Baathist familiar only with the ways of authoritarianism. Allawi's defenders say that's precisely what Iraq needs.
But Allawi's tenure has been a season of bitter discontent. Every election is in some sense a referendum on the incumbent. In this case, the man in the hot seat for the past seven months has presided over a steady worsening of just about everything in Iraq. Police on the streets wearing black balaclavas to hide their identities are a visible sign of how little his iron-hammer approach has done to quell the insurgency. Moreover, the government remains unable to give Iraqis the basics of life, from water and power to fuel for their cars in an oil-rich country.
And so, as Iraqis prepare to go to the polls, the candidate into whom Washington has poured its support is waging an all-out blitz to hang on to the job he calls "horrible." He's the most visible campaigner in Iraq, using the money and media access that accrue to an incumbent like any other savvy politician anywhere. He is all over the airwaves in everything from hourly ads on radio and government TV to a glowing seven-part series on "the man and his country" broadcast in prime time on the popular Dubai channel al-Arabiya. Last week he announced that he would give $100 stipends to all university students and would allocate $10 million to restoring water in Fallujah. He's practically kissing babies, venturing out of his fortified Green Zone office for a brief trip to distribute gifts at a Baghdad orphanage on the Muslim holiday 'Id al-Adha. "The government has a big plan to support Iraqi families and improve welfare," he said as he hugged a child.