After Win, Will Former U.S. Front Man Rule in Iraq?

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ALI AL-SAADI / AFP / Getty Images

A poster of Iyad Allawi becomes a backdrop for an Iraqi soldier in Baghdad

Once seen as an American puppet, Iyad Allawi is the new Comeback Kid of Iraqi politics. The results of the general election announced Friday, March 26, show that Allawi's secular Iraqiya block has won 91 seats in the 325-seat Iraqi parliament — well short of a majority, but two more than its nearest rival, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law slate.

It's far from certain that Allawi will get al-Maliki's job. State of Law and other blocs have already indicated they will contest the results and demand recounts. Even if the results announced today hold up to scrutiny, there's a chance al-Maliki will be able to pull together a coalition to form the new government and retain the Prime Ministership. Meanwhile, the main Shi'ite bloc, the National Iraqi Alliance, won 70 seats; the main Kurdish alliance got 43. A simple majority of 163 seats is needed to govern.

But as Iraq braces for what could be weeks and weeks of political horse-trading, there's no doubt Allawi, 65, a physician, has momentum on his side. Such a comeback seemed highly unlikely just three years ago, when Allawi was regarded as a political has-been.

Appointed Prime Minister of Iraq's first post-Saddam government in 2004, Allawi headed a corrupt, inept administration that set a poor tone for Iraq's fledgling democracy. As an American appointee, he lacked street cred. He projected himself as a democratic strongman — a contradiction in terms that convinced few of his countrymen. Although a Shi'ite, he alienated many among the majority sect by espousing a secular view of Iraq. Many Iraqis were suspicious of his ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, even though Allawi had left the party in 1975 and had survived an assassination attempt ordered by the dictator.

When elections were held for a transitional government at the end of 2005, Allawi was easily trounced by a coalition of Shi'ite religious parties. Nor did he fare much better in the first full general election, in 2006. He then went into something of a funk. Even though he was an elected member of parliament, he showed no interest in playing a constructive role in opposition. Indeed, he was rarely in Baghdad at all, spending most of his time in Jordan and other Arab states. When I asked him about this in 2007, he cited concerns about his security in Baghdad — but plenty of other Iraqi leaders, not to speak of ordinary citizens, were braving death threats.

But as the religious Shi'ite parties began to splinter, Allawi's political fortunes began to turn around. It helped, too, that his successors as Prime Minister — Ibrahim al-Jaafari and al-Maliki — were unable to deliver clean and efficient government. Allawi's party made a strong showing in last year's provincial elections, and that allowed him to unite a strong coalition of secular and Sunni parties under the Iraqi banner.

His challenge now is to persuade Shi'ite and Kurdish parties that he will serve their interests better than al-Maliki did. If history is any judge, he'll have an easier time with the Kurds, who lean toward secularism, than the Shi'ites.