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Allawi miscalculated and never connected with Iraqis, analysts say

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Sunday's election results suggest that interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and the U.S. administration that backed him made a bad bet.

Allawi's political ticket, which had said it expected to finish strong, ended up a distant third with about 1.2 million votes, far behind the Shiite cleric-led United Iraqi Alliance, which got about 4 million. A coalition of Kurdish parties nearly doubled Allawi's ticket's total.

What happened? Many Iraqi politicians think that Allawi, a longtime exile who was once a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, spent so much time with Americans, behind barricades, that he never connected with the people of Iraq.

Allawi's gamble was that Iraqis wanted a strongman willing to call for U.S. tanks to suppress uprisings, a leader who rode around in expensive armored sport utility vehicles, even a leader whose followers had once taken CIA money.

Other exiles, including top officials in the Iraqi Alliance, failed to connect with fellow-Iraqis, too, when they first came home. But the winners quickly used the shared religion of Shiite Islam to build bridges. Though a Shiite, Allawi never went out of his way to profess his faith in public or seek the favor of Shiite ayatollahs.

While it's too early to write his political obituary—Allawi is nothing if not a crafty politician—he plainly miscalculated in thinking that a strong-willed nationalist could win against a Shiite Muslim population whose clerics wanted a more devout leader.

Iraqi voters agreed, and that was no surprise to Sadoun al-Dulame, director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, a Baghdad think tank and polling center. Dulame's organization's polls showed that Iraqis backed Allawi as an individual politician, but supported more fervently the Alliance and its ultimate leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The Jan. 30 election, while officially a vote for a national assembly to choose an interim government and draft a constitution, turned out to be more a referendum on religion than politics, Dulame said.

It was a dynamic that Allawi did not see until it was too late, he added.

Allawi's campaign also made some tactical errors. He campaigned mainly using TV, for example, although erratic power supplies and poverty made it impossible for many Iraqis, especially in the Shiite south, to watch TV. The Shiite faithful often got their news and commentary about politics from their mosques—not places where Allawi, who lives in the American-patrolled Green Zone behind massive concrete walls and American tanks, had much visibility.

For that matter, when Allawi cast his vote, he wore a navy blazer and khaki pants that would not have looked out of place at a U.S. country club brunch. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the man in the top slot of the Alliance's list, cast his vote wearing a cleric's robe and black turban denoting his lineage to the prophet Mohammed.

As interim prime minister, Allawi gave the green light for U.S. troops to roll into the holy Shiite Muslim cities of Najaf and Karbala. He did the same, without apology, to the Sunni towns of Samarra and Fallujah.

"He represented powerful authority over the people, but not WITH the people," said Amer Fayadh, a political science professor at Baghdad University and a political candidate on a secular list of technocrats.

"Allawi's government hit Najaf, Karbala, Fallujah and Sadr City. And through those offensives he lost his credibility among the people."

As rumors of his disappointing performance seeped out this week, Allawi and his staff became hard for reporters to find. They turned off their cell phones.

Hussein al-Sadr, a candidate on Allawi's list, sounded bitter when asked about the Alliance's progress.

"Those who voted for Allawi list are the intellectual and educated people," he said. "The majority of the naive and simple people voted for UIA because they were under the influence of (clerics)."

Hussain Shahristani, who helped form the Alliance ticket, scoffed when asked about Allawi's future in Iraqi politics.

"A lot of people have buried it," he said. "There are a lot of perceptions that he is the U.S.-backed candidate."

Although Allawi's been working furiously on a deal that would have him remain prime minister, he's not on the newly powerful Iraqi Alliance's list of candidates.

Several people in Allawi's camp said on Sunday that he is already looking to December, when elections for the permanent prime minister will be held.

They would not say whether he planned to remain a secular candidate.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers Special Correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed to this report from Baghdad.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050213 USIRAQ election

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