A Big Man To Watch In Baghdad
Before he left the hospital in Wales in 1979, Allawi had already begun organizing a network that he hoped would someday destroy Saddam, who had seized power from other Baathists in a coup that year. He continued his efforts through the 1980s, traveling as a businessman in the Middle East and meeting with Iraqis who might join his opposition network.
After Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Allawi and his budding network were in demand. "All the corners of the Earth wanted to support us," he recalls. His group had been secret before, but in December 1990, he announced the formation of the Iraqi National Accord (INA), with himself as leader.
The British were Allawi's initial patrons, but support soon spread. During the early 1990s, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States all secretly backed Allawi's movement -- hoping it could produce a military coup and a change of regime. Chalabi and his exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, became far better known. But Allawi was the spymasters' favorite Iraqi politician.
The CIA embraced Allawi's plot for a military coup in 1994, giving it the cryptonym DBACHILLES. The agency decided to broaden Allawi's network into a "Military Committee" that included Iraqi officers from other networks. The idea was that CIA-backed Iraqi generals would lead their units against Baghdad and destroy Saddam.
Was the plan ever realistic? The CIA asked Allawi's committee to demonstrate the bona fides of its military recruits inside Iraq by either sending the coordinates of their units, providing the radio frequencies on which their tanks communicated, or simply attaching radar-reflecting patches to their tanks as a sign of good faith. But the Iraqis were afraid to take even these small steps, and agency officials worried they were building a house of cards.
What's more, there were reports in 1995 that Saddam's intelligence service had infiltrated the coup organization and had a list of the key plotters, with Allawi at the top.
The plot was to be launched in 1996. Yet it wasn't clear that the Clinton administration was serious. The CIA station chief in Amman at the time pleaded with Washington for air support to back up the coup plan. Sources say he sent repeated cables requesting U.S. jets; his pleas were rejected and he finally resigned. The 1996 coup plot was a disastrous failure. It probably wouldn't have succeeded even with the air cover. Saddam had penetrated the network and arrested and executed many of its operatives.
Some blame Allawi for the failure; he insists that the leak came from cells outside his network. When he realized that Saddam's agents had penetrated the operation, he says, he evacuated two key operatives who under torture might have disclosed other members of the INA network. Saddam took harsh reprisals against members of Allawi's family still in Iraq. Family lands and factories were confiscated; even the clan's graveyard in Najaf -- where his relatives had been buried for hundreds of years -- was ransacked. Allawi reckons his family lost assets worth more than $250 million.
Despite the 1996 debacle, Allawi continued his efforts to organize a military coup. The British, Americans and Jordanians remained supportive, in principle. He kept a headquarters west of Amman, and waited.
The Bush administration's decision in mid-2002 to invade Iraq was welcome news for Allawi. His network could provide some intelligence about the Iraqi inner circle. Perhaps more important, as the invasion approached, he sent messages to Iraqi commanders urging them not to resist. Allawi argues that these efforts paid off -- and were one reason the Iraqi military collapsed so quickly. He says he negotiated personally with Iraqi commanders in Ramadi and other areas west of Baghdad. "They surrendered without firing a bullet."
Allawi arrived in Baghdad soon after the U.S. Army. He joined the interim Governing Council that was appointed by the U.S. occupation chief, L. Paul Bremer, and was named to its nine-member "presidential committee." For two decades, Allawi had argued that a stable post-Saddam Iraq could only be built on the foundations of the modern state the Baathists had created, including the army, police, and secular courts. And Allawi says he warned U.S. officials in May that they would make a terrible mistake if they disbanded the Iraqi army instead of using it to maintain order and begin a process of national reconciliation.
But Bremer rejected that advice, probably his biggest mistake. The army, like other institutions, was swept away over Allawi's protests in a surge of de-Baathification.
Allawi's experience on the Governing Council has been a frustrating last chapter to this long story of resistance. The body has been hamstrung by bickering and turf warfare. Most of all, it has suffered from the absence of a single leader, around whom Iraqis could rally. Allawi was widely viewed as the CIA's and State Department's man; his fellow opposition leader Chalabi was seen as the Pentagon's favorite. The Bush administration could never choose between the two -- nor could it find a charismatic Iraqi alternative. The result was a muddle, in which power flowed to traditional religious leaders such as Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
A telling illustration of the 25-member council's problems is its unwieldy rotating presidency. The initial idea was to have a president and two vice presidents, according to council member Mahmoud Othman, but nobody could agree on who would fill the positions. Then there was a proposal for a rotating presidency with three people -- a Shiite, a Sunni and a Kurd. But the Shiites objected that this wouldn't give them proportional representation. The Kurds then insisted on posts for the two traditional Kurdish clan leaders, Jalal Talabani and Mustafa Barzani; the Sunnis inevitably wanted parity. And in that case, there had to be five Shiites -- to reflect their numerical majority of the Iraqi population. "So we came up with nine presidents," says Othman. "That showed everybody we were not united."
The council's regular Wednesday meetings with Bremer also went badly. The Iraqis felt they were being treated as a rubber stamp for whatever the Americans decided to do. Bremer listened, but in the end he did what he wanted. Through all the bickering, Allawi focused on running the council's security committee, which was responsible for building up a new Iraqi army, a civil defense force, police and an intelligence service. These security issues are probably the most crucial task of the occupation, and it's too soon to judge whether Allawi will succeed.
It has been Allawi's bad luck to be disparaged by almost everyone: by opposition leaders as an ex-Baathist; by ordinary Iraqis as a CIA man or an exile; by the Americans as a critic of Bremer's tactics; by religious leaders as too secular. And yet, there's a power to his arguments about how to keep the country from falling apart.
Perhaps it is the destiny of interim governments to be shaky and short-lived. That was the case with the first post-czarist regime in Russia and the first post-shah government in Iran. Each was followed by something far worse -- regimes that used ideology and terror to consolidate power. It would be cruel if that fate lay ahead for Iraq, too.
Allawi leaves you with a sense that the struggle for a modern Iraq is the work of a century, not a few years. His family helped begin the project in the 1920s, and he would obviously like to see it through to completion. And for all the daily mayhem in Baghdad, he still seems hopeful that the story will have a happy ending, regardless of whether he lives to see it.
David Ignatius is a columnist for The Post.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company