Who's Iyad Allawi, and Why Should He Run Iraq?

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A Company Man? CIA links cloud perceptions of Allawi

Iraqis have a strong sense of irony — every discussion about politics or economics in this country seems to begin with a sardonic or mordant observation: Isn't it odd that a nation with the world's second-largest oil reserves should also have mile-long queues at gas stations? Isn't it strange that the Americans, who made such a big deal of Saddam Hussein's treatment of prisoners, brutalized their own Iraqi captives in Abu Ghraib? And so on.

So, it was entirely appropriate that discussion over the appointment of Iraq's new interim government was laced with its own special irony: The two men at the top of the list announced Tuesday were just last month ranked bottom of a list of potential leaders — by their own countrymen.

A poll conducted in May by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies (ICRSS) asked Iraqis to rank 17 prominent religious and political leaders. Iyad Allawi, Prime Minister of the interim government that will take over administrative power from the Coalition Provisional Authority on June 30, finished in sixteenth place. Behind him, dead last, came Ghazi al-Yawer, who on Tuesday was named president of the interim government.

The most popular leader in Iraq, according to the ICRSS survey, was the country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Also high up: Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a leader of the Shiite Dawa party named as one of two vice-presidents in the new administration, and Adnan Pachachi, the Sunni elder statesman and preferred presidential candidate of the U.S. who was offered the post but turned it down in the face of objections from some the Iraqi Governing Council.

What's more, the results of the ICRSS May survey suggest that the new president and prime minister had both been slipping in Iraqis' estimation — in a similar poll conducted last September, Allawi had ranked Number 10 out of 25, and al-Yawer Number 18.

Why do Iraqis have such a poor opinion of Allawi? Sadoun al-Dulame, executive director of the ICRSS, pointed to one reason: "Every newspaper that has reported about his appointment has mentioned his CIA connection." Although Allawi has sniped at the U.S.-led Coalition in recent months, it's his ties to Langley that seem to have registered with Iraqis. (His organization, the Iraqi National Accord, is funded by the CIA.) "He's a CIA man, like [Ahmed] Chalabi," said Raed Abu Hassan, a Baghdad University political science post-grad. "In this country, CIA connections are political poison." It doesn't help that the Shiite Allawi is also a former Baathist, and a returning exile. Many Iraqis are scornful of politicians who left the country during the Saddam era.

And al-Yawer? Most Iraqis don't know him all that well — one of the reasons he came in last on the poll. Nearly a third of those polled said they had not heard enough about him to have an opinion. As a leading figure in a northern Iraqi tribe, he kept a low profile until the very end of the behind-the-scenes political power play that led to his nomination. Said al-Dulame: "He's a non-controversial figure. He's never been part of the political system, he was never a figure of the opposition during the Saddam era."

Since Allawi will be the one running the government, his lack of popularity could be especially problematic. The danger, say some commentators, is that his entire administration may be undermined by association. "The selection of Allawi means that the very first step towards June 30 is a misstep," said Sheikh Mohammed Basher al-Faidi, spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, the most powerful grouping of Sunni clergy. "And when the first step is wrong, then the journey is bound to be a difficult one."

Tainted by his CIA association, Allawi may find it hard to reach out to groups such as al-Faidi's, that have a substantial following among Iraqis. "We can offer him advice if he asks for it," says al-Faidi. "But we can't put our hands in his hands. Iraqi people would regard us as traitors if we did."

Like many Iraqis, al-Faidi blames the Americans — and especially CPA boss Paul Bremer — for Allawi's appointment. But many also finger Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy who was charged with helping select the new government. Mahmoud Othman, a member of the Governing Council, was pulling no punches. "After weeks and weeks of talking with all sorts of Iraqis, he goes and picks somebody from the GC?" he said. "What was the point of this long, complicated exercise, all those long consultations? And what happened to his ideas about picking technocrats to run the new government?" Asked whether Allawi's CIA ties would make him an unpopular choice in Iraqi eyes, he said: "That's one of the things Brahimi has to answer for."

Still, some Iraqis seem prepared to give the new government the benefit of the doubt. "I don't care who their masters are — CIA, the Saudis, Iran — as long as they stop these daily bombings and provide jobs for people," said Assad Faazi, a Baghdad job-seeker. "I will forgive them everything if they make my life better."