BAGHDAD, Iraq—Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a tough talker who backs up his threats with U.S. airstrikes, is emerging as the biggest challenger to a powerful Shiite Muslim ticket that appears poised to sweep parliamentary elections Jan. 30.
A secular Shiite who offers self-proclaimed "strong leadership," Allawi outlined a platform Monday that hinges on quelling sectarian strife, crushing Iraq's deadly insurgency and maintaining the country as a secular state rather than making it an Islamic one.
Allawi isn't a shoo-in, but he has some advantages: He's a Bush administration favorite, enjoys a good relationship with influential Shiite clerics and has earned wide name recognition from his tumultuous six months in office. However, under his watch the insurgency rages on, Iraqi security forces remain woefully ill equipped to combat it, and residents are suffering from wintertime shortages of fuel and electricity.
In coy terms, he said he'd serve again as prime minister. But that doesn't mean he likes the job.
"It's very tiring, it's very exhausting, it's very demanding, it's very dangerous. I face every day at least two or three attempts to assassinate me," Allawi said during an interview Monday with a small group of Western journalists. "We have to put the country back on its feet. Somebody has to do it. However, I assure you, practically, it's horrible."
After an unremarkable stint on the now-defunct U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, a body widely viewed as illegitimate and ineffectual, Allawi swaggered into the prime minister's seat after the return of limited Iraqi sovereignty June 28.
With a perennial scowl, a gravelly voice and a large build, Allawi quickly earned a reputation as a strongman, which he reinforced with the help of American firepower in a string of offensives against rebels that left key cities in ruins.
The latest and most devastating show of force was last month's battle to wrest control of Fallujah from an insurgent council that had turned the city of 300,000 into a rebel fiefdom. After U.S. forces blew the minarets off mosques and killed hundreds of insurgents, Allawi declared the operation a victory.
Thousands of the city's residents, however, remain homeless in squalid camps as emergency workers try to restore basic services and remove unexploded ordnance before people begin to return later this week. While the rest of the country prepares to vote, not a single election office is open in Fallujah and surrounding areas, and sporadic fighting continues.
In a video released Sunday by a militant group near Fallujah, 10 Iraqi hostages were threatened with death unless their American company pulls out of the country. At least one of the captives read a statement urging other "young men not to work with the traitor Iyad Allawi."
Western diplomats privately favor Allawi, but are careful not to make their support public, lest they remind Iraqis of Allawi's longtime cooperation with the CIA during his years as an exiled opposition leader during Saddam Hussein's regime.
A public opinion poll released in October by the Washington-based International Republican Institute found that only 43 percent of Iraqis considered Allawi's government effective, down from 62 percent last summer. The results were drawn from face-to-face interviews with 2,000 Iraqis from a wide range of ethnic and religious backgrounds.
The Jan. 30 vote, the first democratic Iraqi election in decades, will choose a national assembly charged with drafting a constitution and helping to supervise elections to choose a permanent government by the end of next year. A key test of Allawi's legitimacy will be whether the vote occurs on time and without the anticipated bloodshed.
Although Iraqis overwhelmingly favored religious leaders, Allawi had the widest name recognition of any politician in the poll, with 47 percent of Iraqis supporting him for a seat in the national assembly.
Even in the filthy, freezing camps for displaced Fallujah residents, Iraqis offered conflicting opinions Monday about their premier.
"Iyad Allawi is a spy and he wouldn't dare live in Iraq if the U.S. withdrew," said Mahmoud Saad, 28, who said he fought during the Fallujah battle and was detained by the American military until last week.
But Ahmed Ibrahim, a carpenter whose family has no electricity or water while waiting to return home, said he was grateful to Allawi for giving the orders that freed Fallujah from insurgents' control.
"I don't blame Allawi for what he is doing because if I were in his place, I would do even more to stop what's going on. It's his job," Ibrahim said. "Allawi didn't destroy Fallujah. We destroyed it. We let it get out of control."
Allawi's main political opponent is the United Iraqi Alliance, a slate of prominent candidates formed under the auspices of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's most respected Shiite cleric. Allawi said secular democracy suited Iraq's multicultural makeup better than a government stacked with religious figures.
"I never heard or knew in history when Iraq was ruled by religious political groups," Allawi said. "Never."
Allawi said he enjoyed a close relationship with al-Sistani and frequently sought the cleric's advice. Calling the popular al-Sistani a "good ayatollah," Allawi said he doubted the cleric would support any one list of candidates.
Observers say al-Sistani doesn't have to issue an edict calling for support of the United Iraqi Alliance. Its slate of candidates reportedly includes his representatives in the southern cities of Basra and Karbala.
(A Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent, who's not named for security reasons, contributed to this report from near Fallujah.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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