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Tough-Guy Rumors Make Iraqis’ Day

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Times Staff Writer

There are many versions of the story on the Iraqi street. In one, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is driving through downtown Baghdad and sees a frail old man being confronted by three armed men attempting to steal his vehicle. The prime minister leaps out of his car and shoots dead the would-be carjackers.

In another, Allawi is in a Baghdad jail where he interviews suspects, hears their confessions, declares that “they deserve to die” and shoots them on the spot.

A third version sets the scene of his armed retribution in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf, which has been racked by violence in recent months.

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Is there any truth to these tales? The stories have been denied by Allawi and dismissed by members of his interim government, the U.S. Embassy and a State Department spokesman. The Iraqi press has refrained from making any mention of the matter. On the other hand, former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook urged the International Committee of the Red Cross to investigate.

The most complete version of the story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, an Australian newspaper. Two anonymous sources said they had witnessed Allawi executing six handcuffed and blindfolded prisoners in a Baghdad jail. The executions were said to have taken place shortly before the U.S. transferred sovereignty to the Iraqi interim government June 28.

However, the rumor began to circulate well before the article, and its numerous iterations serve as a barometer of the mental state of many Iraqis -- quite apart from whether any of the stories might be true.

Such apparent urban myths are particularly potent in a society frayed by violence and divided over whether democracy or dictatorship will best deliver the life people desire. They are also a product of a society stripped of any frame of reference for leadership other than a system that relies on the fear of violence.

“It is totally untrue, but regrettably the political culture in Iraq has come to equate strength with force,” said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih. “In a developed society, strength would come with the rule of law.”

A sampling of Iraqis interviewed in Baghdad tea shops and Internet cafes and on street corners found few who had not heard some variant of the rumor, but their reactions varied widely. The image of the prime minister as judge and executioner is seen alternately as a vicious effort to destroy his reputation, a sign of his strength or simply a rumor that people want to believe.

The third sentiment was by far the most common.

“It is not true, but I wish it were,” said Abu Zaid, a partner in a Baghdad teahouse.

“We really need such tough measures to be taken,” he added. “We really believe Iraqis would accept this if Iyad Allawi did such a thing -- they would be happy. Most people, if you ask them, ‘Do you want these terrorists to be killed in the street or taken into custody and put on trial,’ they will say, ‘Killed in the street.’ ”

The two friends sitting with him nodded. Salim Daoud Saleem, 35, a real estate broker, was even more fervent than his friend the cafe owner. A victim of violent crime -- his 12-year-old son was kidnapped in front of him -- he longs for a sense of safety, at almost any price. His son was released only after Saleem paid a $7,500 ransom.

“If I had the authority and power to do it myself, I would execute them in the same place where they did the crimes,” Saleem said. He has since sent his family to Syria and says he will follow soon even though it means he will have to start over.

Several well-educated Iraqis said they were appalled both by the rumor and by how fast it had spread. “This idea [of the leader as executioner] is something unacceptable among intellectual Iraqis,” said Saddoun Dulaimi, a pollster who returned last year from exile in England. “If he really adopted this procedure, it would destroy our future and we would return to the awful past.”

Psychology professor Qassim Hussein Saleh sees the prevalence of the rumor as a sign of Iraqi society’s struggle to control its fury over the violence that has become a part of daily life.

“Ordinary Iraqis are furious at those who are creating the insecurity,” said Saleh, who teaches at the University of Baghdad. “When they hear the prime minister has killed these people it functions as a kind of relief ... and it legitimizes their own sense of violent fury.”

In many ways Allawi has played up the image of being a tough enforcer. In his public appearances, he has concentrated on security issues and has not had much to say about elections or building democracy.

He is known for arriving at the scene of suicide bombings to threaten the attackers and reiterate his government’s commitment to killing or capturing them. He often uses violent language, speaking recently of “annihilating” the insurgents. His government has taken steps to reinstate the death penalty.

His main official acts so far have been to move to empower the interim government to enact martial law -- although the government has yet to use the broad provisions it approved -- and to announce the formation of an internal security department to catch insurgents.

Allawi, who was targeted for assassination by former ruler Saddam Hussein after leaving Iraq and became involved with the CIA, is seen as a survivor. So it is hardly surprising that rumors of coldblooded killing gain traction despite their implausibility. Little mentioned, for instance, is that in addition to strict law enforcement measures, Allawi is also championing an amnesty for insurgents to bring them into the political fold.

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