A Big Man To Watch In Baghdad
By David Ignatius
Sunday, February 1, 2004; Page B01
As Ayad Allawi recounts the story of how he was nearly hacked to death by Saddam Hussein's agents 26 years ago, he slips out of his earnest role as a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and into a narrative of flickering images and half-heard noises. Listen to his account and you begin to understand why the struggle to create a new Iraq is so brutal and frustrating.
The attack came about 3 o'clock on the morning of Feb. 4, 1978. Allawi was asleep in bed with his wife at his home in Surrey, outside London. He was awakened by a noise, and then saw a shadowy figure and the glint of something shiny. He felt the ax's blow and the sensation of hot fluid, a spume of blood, bursting from his head. The ax fell again, nearly severing his right leg at the knee, and then again into his chest. The attacker fled, leaving him for dead.
He spent nearly a year in the hospital, recovering from his wounds. Threats continued to reach his family: "Even if you go to Mars, we will follow you," one said. With help from the British government, Allawi hid in a medical facility in Wales under an assumed name, pretending to be a victim of the Lebanese civil war. His wife was deeply traumatized for years after the assault, and she died recently.
His story is just one moment in Iraq's history of violence. What makes it meaningful is that this veteran coup plotter is now back in Baghdad, trying to pull together the shattered pieces of his nation -- Sunnis and Shiites, ex-Baathists and former military officers. "If we don't embark on a program of reconciliation and build up our security, we may face civil war," he warns. But frankly, he isn't having much luck. His enemy, Saddam Hussein, may be in prison, but the torment and dismemberment of Iraq continues.
Allawi, 58, is a big man, well over 6 feet tall, with a round face that seems guileless. As he sits in his office across the street from the Baghdad Zoo, preparing for a meeting of the security committee that he chairs, it's easy to forget that the moment he walks out the front door, he is a target for assassination.
I first met Allawi in London in 1991, and we've talked often since then. His story shows that members of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council aren't the cardboard cutouts sometimes portrayed in the press. They are people who have survived Saddam's hit men and braved decades of exile. Yet for all their courage and perseverance, they haven't yet found political traction in the new Iraq. Perhaps their biggest mistake was trusting too much that American power, at a stroke, could transform their traumatized nation.
But let's start with how Allawi ended up on the wrong side of that ax.
On the surface, the assault made little sense. He was a doctor practicing medicine in a British hospital and a member of one of Iraq's prominent Shiite families. His father had been a doctor and member of parliament, and his grandfather had helped negotiate Iraq's independence from the British in the 1920s.
Allawi's crime was that he was a Baathist who had dared to renounce Saddam. He had joined the party while he was in medical school in Baghdad in the late 1960s and become part of Saddam's underground network. The young Saddam had come to him with his medical complaints -- a perpetual bad stomach and persistent back pain. Allawi took him to specialists but concluded that Saddam's ailments were largely either psychosomatic or due to poor sanitation.
Allawi and Saddam illustrated the jagged pieces of the Iraqi mosaic. Saddam was a Sunni from Tikrit, an area known since Ottoman times for its fierce fighters. He carried a gun and traveled with bodyguards even as a young man; Allawi remembers him as an introverted tough guy who would get his way by intimidating others. Saddam was part of the Sunni military caste that had governed Iraq since the Ottoman Empire.
Allawi was part of the Shiite merchant class. With their links to the bazaars of Persia, the prominent Shiite families were often far wealthier and more cultivated than the Sunnis. Like his relative Ahmed Chalabi, another prominent Shiite opposition leader, Allawi was a secular man who wanted to build a modern country.
Allawi's apostasy began after he left Baghdad in 1971 and made his way to London to continue his medical studies. He resigned from the Baath Party in 1975, but Saddam initially tried to coax him back with a combination of threats and bribes. When these blandishments failed, friends told Allawi in January 1978 that his name had been placed on a "liquidation list."
Saddam's henchmen were right to be worried. "At that time," Allawi says, "I was in contact with high-ranking Baath officials and military officers who shared my view that Saddam had hijacked the party."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Ayad Allawi, third from right, with other Iraqi exiles and Secretary of State Madeline Albright at the State Department in 1999.
(File Photo Mark Wilson -- Reuters)