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Iraq’s Premier Receives High Marks From U.S.

Times Staff Writer

In his first two months as head of the American-backed interim Iraqi government, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has produced something rare for U.S. policymakers dealing with the turmoil in Iraq: a pleasant surprise.

In his first 60 days, they say, Allawi has stamped his authority over the fledgling interim government he leads, focused almost exclusively on the crucial issue of security and, in the process, emerged as a credible Iraqi political figure visibly trying to establish a semblance of law and order.

“He’s smart, he’s tough, he’s resolved,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who frequently has challenged the administration’s postwar strategy. “In light of the capacity he possesses, he’s done a remarkable job.”

In the anarchic confusion of Iraq, success is often measured in the most modest accomplishments. Although Allawi, 59, has convinced many Iraqis that he’s striving to make a difference, the armed insurgency has shown no sign of weakening and the rate of U.S. military casualties since he took the job June 28 has been among the highest in the post-invasion period, according to Pentagon figures.

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Allawi has been accused by some critics of being a “Johnny One-Note” -- concentrating on security to the exclusion of other pressing needs -- and has little experience in the hardball world of Iraqi political power-brokering. Many believe that his effort to negotiate an end to the uprising by Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr in Najaf left him overshadowed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who brokered the deal to end the crisis Friday, and outflanked by Sadr, whose fighters were allowed to leave freely, many keeping their weapons.

Despite all this, U.S. policymakers say, Allawi’s initial actions have combined to give ordinary Iraqis what they have lacked for months: hope that life might begin to get better.

And he has given the Bush administration at least momentary hope for its prospects in Iraq.

“He’s demonstrating political leadership in an extremely difficult situation and meeting the security challenges of Iraq with resolve and determination,” said a senior White House official who declined to be identified by name.

Allawi’s early trips outside the highly protected government compound in Baghdad -- sometimes to inspect bombing scenes -- left an impression among beleaguered Iraqis that he understood their concerns about the urgent need to improve security. The fact he did so despite repeated death threats from insurgents seeking to destabilize the country added to his stature.

His one foreign trip since coming to office, an extended visit that took him to most countries in the region, was also dominated by efforts to enlist the help of Iraq’s neighbors in the battle to contain the insurgency. Collectively, his actions have left the impression among Iraqis that he is engaged in trying to ease their plight, U.S. experts said.

“Allawi has done a lot of good with an extremely weak hand,” noted Toby Dodge, a Middle East specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and a frequent critic of the U.S.-led forces. “He’s appealing to what’s left of the middle class, telling them, ‘I know you want law and order and I’m trying to give you that.’ ”

Americans directly associated with the effort to bring some form of representative government to Iraq are more convinced than ever that by backing Allawi, they made the right choice.

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“He’s succeeded beyond expectations,” said a former senior member of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American-led organization that administered the occupation before transferring sovereignty to Allawi’s interim government in late June.

The same former official noted that Allawi’s earlier focus on the security issue during his months at the Iraqi Governing Council, the U.S.-appointed body formed shortly after Saddam Hussein’s fall in the spring of last year, had given him a unique understanding of the insurgency.

“The consensus among policymakers and members of Congress is that he is the perfect leader for Iraq at the moment, given the security challenges,” the official said.

Even widely publicized reports -- none of them confirmed -- that he personally executed as many as six suspected insurgents at a Baghdad police station shortly before he became prime minister seem to have added to his appeal among those Iraqis desperate to end the chaos.

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“There’s no reason to believe that it’s true, but the story doesn’t serve him badly in the current climate,” said David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute, an independent, Washington-based think tank. “He’s recognized that in a situation approaching anarchy, the critical demands of Iraqis, their neighbors and the U.S. become far more focused on internal security.”

Mack added, “From the U.S. viewpoint, given the dire situation we’re in, he’s doing as well as we can ask for.”

To survive politically, however, Allawi must make good on his pledge to strengthen security, those following events believe. Biden said it amounted to a race against time. Allawi must train, equip and deploy enough strong Iraqi security forces to replace an increasingly unpopular American military presence -- and he must do it before his government is overwhelmed by the insurgency.

Although Allawi came to office with a reputation for toughness, he decided against all-out military action to end to what has arguably been the single biggest challenge to his young government’s authority -- the rebellion by Sadr’s militia in Najaf.

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Although critics claim that the agreement Sistani brokered was more favorable to Sadr than the government, Allawi’s calibrated approach avoided two developments that could have triggered a convulsive backlash against both his government and the U.S. presence: damage to the sacred Imam Ali Mosque during an all-out assault on Sadr’s forces, and a martyr’s death for Sadr, who is highly popular among Iraq’s poor and less well-educated Shiites.

Allawi’s initiatives during the Najaf standoff also may have helped him shed the initial perception among many Iraqis that he was little more than a puppet for American authorities. For a man whose choice as premier was controversial in part because he had worked closely with the Central Intelligence Agency during the Hussein era, that was an important step.

At the same time, Allawi, despite his sometimes tough talk, was unable to remove Sadr from Najaf until Sistani stepped forward and swiftly brokered a deal. And because the deal leaves Sadr with the ability to reconstitute his militia and fight another day, the cleric remains a difficult problem for Allawi.

Allawi’s position remains precarious as long as the level of turmoil in Iraq persists, analysts noted. To consolidate his position further, he must go beyond strong words and actually produce some results, they said.

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“He’s got to follow through on the general commitment to eliminate the role of privately run militias,” Mack said.

The job won’t be easy.

“He’s got no army to speak of, the police are questionable and the dynamics of Washington politics mean U.S. forces aren’t going to take on a major role except in places like Najaf,” Dodge said. “I see no immediate solution to the security problem.”

Other experts argue that Allawi cannot continue to ignore the mountain of equally difficult problems confronting him, such as creating jobs in a country sprinkled with free-fire zones, boosting electricity generation and getting enough oil production back on line to pay for rebuilding the country.

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Attacks on a series of pipelines in Iraq’s southern oil fields near Basra reduced production from the area by half, according to an Associated Press report that quoted an unnamed government oil official. Despite the bleak outlook, some regional specialists insisted that Allawi’s task wasn’t impossible.

Mack suggested that the agreement in Najaf under which Sadr gave up control of the Imam Ali Mosque could help Allawi’s government win back control in other areas without major bloodshed."If you can succeed in one place, it can begin to develop a momentum that might help him to start elsewhere,” Mack said.


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