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Premier Gets Off to Strong Start

Times Staff Writer

Waving a hurried farewell from the steps of a military transport plane, the man whose starched white shirt, cufflinks and desert boots embodied Western authority in Iraq brought the United States’ experiment in occupation to an abrupt end last week.

L. Paul Bremer III, the civilian administrator for Iraq, left without even giving a final speech to the country -- almost as if he were afraid to look in the eye the people he had ruled for more than a year.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 08, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraqi handover -- A news analysis about the new Iraqi government in Sunday’s Section A stated that outgoing administrator L. Paul Bremer III did not give a farewell speech to the country. His spokesman has since said that Bremer taped an address that was given to Iraqi broadcast media. The spokesman said the address was not publicized to the Western news media.

Not so his replacement, a balding, pudgy man in a rumpled suit. He hardly looks well-cast for his part, but interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi could play a far more crucial role than his predecessor in Iraq and the region for years to come.

For now, at least, the plain-spoken secular Shiite has no qualms about looking his people in the eye.

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Although daunting challenges lie ahead, Allawi showed himself to be tough, politically savvy and able to navigate between American demands and Iraqi expectations in his first week on the job.

He talked about security, security and more security -- the top concern of most Iraqis -- and he was lucky enough to enjoy a respite in violence. His first official public move was to exhibit former dictator Saddam Hussein in chains before an Iraqi judge, demonstrating the authority of his new government.

“Allawi has done extremely well on two fronts: He’s managed to project the impression that he’s in charge despite the presence of the American troops, and he’s been very good at dodging questions he’s not ready to answer,” said Marina Ottaway, a senior fellow specializing in nation-building at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based in Washington.

Those questions lie just ahead, beginning with how to improve security rather than only talk about it.

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Allawi’s security forces, though improving, are still inadequate to protect Iraqi citizens. That means he must rely on U.S. forces whose tactics are despised and whose presence reminds Iraqis that in some measure the occupation is not over.

As he works to unite the country, Allawi also must decide how much to include more extreme elements in the political mix. Can he bring substantial numbers of former Baath Party officials, many of whom are Sunnis, into the fold without alienating Iraq’s sensitive Shiite Muslim community?

And while trying to welcome back officers from the Iraqi army that was disbanded by Bremer, he must decide whether he is willing to establish more brigades like the one controlling Fallouja. U.S. Marines withdrew from that turbulent city this spring, leaving it in the hands of former Iraqi army officers with close ties to the insurgents.

Resolving any of these policy issues will be far harder than the steps he has taken so far, which have cost him little but reaped large benefits.

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Knowing that his honeymoon with the Iraqi public may end abruptly when the next major bombing brings destruction and death to Baghdad or Basra, Allawi is trying to forestall that day. He has created a security committee made up of the ministers of defense, the interior, foreign affairs and finance that coordinates with the U.S. military. The police are cracking down on conventional criminal activity: carjacking, kidnapping and robbery. He is reconstituting some of the instruments of the old security state, such as its Mukhabarat secret police and its intelligence service, former agents say.

One problem for Allawi, says Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan, is that no matter how he tries to reach out to Iraq’s many groups, he risks alienating one he needs.

For instance, he is trying to craft an amnesty that could include not only firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr but also Sunni insurgents, among them many of the ex-Baathists.

“I’m not sure that this way of dealing with the past that can survive for very long,” Cole said, adding that what was really needed was a catharsis: “The Sunni Arabs have to find a way to take responsibility and repent for what they’ve done, and Kurds and Shias have to be willing to forgive.”

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Nonetheless, Allawi has gotten considerable political mileage out of talking about policies that appeal to swaths of the population without nailing down the particulars. The new government’s approval rating is above 80%, according to polls done for the former U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

Even before authority was officially transferred to Iraqis, Allawi showed an instinct for how to use the public stage, especially on security issues.

When a car bomb tore through a crowd waiting outside an army recruitment center in Baghdad on June 17, Allawi rushed to the scene. Against a backdrop of blackened, twisted metal, shattered glass and blood-streaked victims, he pledged to “face these escalations.” And he assured Iraqis that his government would be “determined to go ahead in confronting the enemies, whether they are here in Iraq or whether they are anywhere else in the world.”

His appearance was a sharp contrast to Bremer, who rarely left the U.S.-protected Green Zone other than by military helicopter, and to various presidents of the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council, who never appeared at unscripted events, much less bombing sites.

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He projected confidence at the scene of the attack and a willingness to assume responsibility and take charge of the situation. “I am here and you will have to reckon with me,” he seemed to be saying to those who detonated the explosives. A day or two later, when a tape purportedly made by Abu Musab Zarqawi -- whom U.S. leaders have branded the mastermind of a wave of violence in Iraq -- threatened Allawi with assassination, he showed the face of a fighter.

“This is not a threat against me -- it is against the Iraqi people,” he said.

It was Allawi who pushed U.S. officials into handing over power ahead of schedule.

“There is a quality of assertiveness about Prime Minister Allawi that we’ve seen quite a bit,” said a senior coalition official who declined to be identified. “You know, ‘Give me all the ministries, give me sovereignty now.’ He keeps floating these security ideas, sometimes consulting us, sometimes not.”

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Even before he was on the job, he lost no time talking about the emergency measures he hoped to enact: curfews, arrests without warrants, detention without limits. Iraqis were supportive -- as they would not have been if the Americans had made the same suggestions.

At his first news conference, Allawi kept tight control. If a question strayed from the topic that he had announced -- the planned appearance of Hussein in an Iraqi court -- he simply moved on to the next one.

For the moment, such tactics are playing well with the Iraqi people. Although multiple bombings and kidnappings of foreigners are likely to recur, even a brief respite is welcome in this war-worn country.

The lull has given the new U.S.-backed interim government some room to maneuver -- far more than Iraqis were willing to give an occupying power.

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In polls by the Iraqi Center for Research and Strategy Studies, more than a third of Iraqis had never heard of the new prime minister or the new president at the time they were nominated for their posts -- although both had served in the government and Allawi had held high-profile positions over the last year.

“This shows that a significant group of Iraqis just don’t care about the political process in general,” center director Saddoun Dulaimi said.

“Because people have been suffering and have been afraid, their basic needs are paramount and they will not care so much about political actions,” he said. That gives the new government time, he added, but also perhaps allows it to restrict democracy in the name of increasing security.

“Maybe they [the new Iraqi government] will need one month, two months, a year,” said Abdul Majid, 50, a former engineer in the Water Department who was playing backgammon in a small patch of shade in downtown Baghdad this weekend.

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“To gain security is a difficult thing. They need ways to do things that don’t provoke the neighbors but also cannot provoke the internal forces.”

But when asked whether he was comfortable with the activities of the fundamentalist Shiites who have been taking over police stations or with the anti-American Sunnis who now patrol Fallouja, he shook his head. “I am afraid to talk about these things,” he said.

The greatest difficulty that lies ahead will be finding the balance between the country’s many divisions: secular versus religious, Sunni versus Shiite, Arab versus Kurd.

“Even Iraqi nationalists have very different conceptions of what Iraq is, whether it is a country where Shiites predominate or where Sunnis predominate,” said the University of Michigan’s Cole.

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But before Allawi can tackle that, he must clear the first hurdle: providing security.

In Mohammed Said’s small grocery in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, what matters is whether he will be able to let his 16-year-old daughter travel the six miles to school on her own without fear of kidnapping or robbery.

“I cannot always go with her. I am too tired,” said the 65-year-old former Health Ministry worker, who only completed sixth grade himself.

For Said, as for so many others here, security is not just about peace of mind or safety but also about having a future. “I want my daughter to go for medical school, but of course if she cannot get to her classes ...” -- his voice trails off.

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Then, a sliver of hope shone through -- tempered by the expectation of disappointment.

“It’s been better the last few days, no [improvised bombs], no shooting. We see many police on the street,” he said.

“It’s only been five days the new government has been in place; we need to see them in action to see whether they are capable.”


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