Allawi Gets a Ba'athist Endorsement

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Nader Daoud / AP

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Iyad Allawi's bid to become Iraq's Prime Minister again has received an endorsement from an unexpected source: the Ba'ath Party. A spokesman for the exiled leadership of Saddam Hussein's old party told TIME that Allawi "is the best person at this time to be given the task of ruling Iraq." He said he hoped that Allawi would pave the way for the Ba'ath Party to "return to the political life of Iraq, where we rightfully belong."

The spokesman, known only as Abu Hala, said the Ba'ath leadership under Saddam's deputy, Izzat al-Douri, were "more than willing to work with Allawi, because we see him as a nationalist and Iraqi patriot, and not a sectarian figure." He said the party didn't agree with all of Allawi's policies when he headed a transitional Iraqi government in 2004, but "we have no doubt that he would represent the interests of Iraq, not of Shi'ites or Sunnis or any other group."

Abu Hala said the Ba'ath leadership has had several meetings with Allawi, and "we found him open-minded and fair." Allawi has previously told TIME that he has for some time had channels open to exiled Ba'ath leaders, many of whom live in Jordan and Syria. Allawi has criticized the government of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for its de-Ba'athification policies, saying they hurt many blameless Iraqis. But he has never called for the party's return to Iraq's political stage.

A former member of the party himself, Allawi broke with Saddam Hussein in 1975 and lived in exile in London. He survived an assassination attempt by Ba'ath agents in 1978. But since his return to Iraq after the fall of Saddam, he has consistently argued that the entire party membership should not be criminalized. Many Iraqis joined the Ba'ath under duress, or because it was the only way to get jobs or advance careers.

In recent months, Allawi has mounted a campaign to return to power, seeking a new parliamentary alliance of secular, Sunni and Kurdish parties to offset the strength of the dominant Shi'ite coalition behind Maliki. A powerful Washington public-relations firm has also begun to aggressively lobby Senators and Congressmen to back Allawi.

The endorsement from the Ba'ath leadership is a mixed blessing. It may buy Allawi some goodwill with Sunnis, the main beneficiaries of Saddam's rule. A Shi'ite himself, Allawi antagonized Sunnis when he signed off on the massive American military offensive on Fallujah in the fall of 2004.

But the Ba'athist backing will have the opposite effect on his fellow Shi'ites, especially for the Islamist coalition that is the largest block in the Iraqi parliament, and on Kurdish parties that comprise the second-largest block. Shi'ites and Kurds bore the brunt of Saddam's repression and regard the Ba'ath leadership as mass murderers. Many members of Allawi's own secular coalition regard the Ba'ath as anathema.

What’s more, the American politicians Allawi is courting will likely find it uncomfortable to be on the same side as Saddam's old party.