BAGHDAD, Feb. 17 -- Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has warned that unless Iraq takes steps toward national reconciliation -- "not by words but by deeds" -- the country faces disaster, and he said he feared that Iraq could fall under the sway of neighboring Iran and an austere form of Islamic government that would derail efforts to foster democracy.
In a 40-minute interview Wednesday in his office, Allawi also said he would consider moving to another Arab country after his eight-month tenure ends, if he felt that the next government would not ensure his security.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi disagrees strongly with those who would purge all ex-Baathists from government.
(Hadi Mizban -- AP)
"If the objective of national unity is missed, if the objective of national reconciliation is overlooked, then this will definitely spell out disaster," the 60-year-old former exile said.
"If the right decisions are not taken, yes, the country could really head into severe problems," Allawi warned at another point in the interview. "I wouldn't put it now at the level of a civil war, but it could be heading really toward severe turbulence."
The remarks by Allawi came nearly three weeks after his party placed a distant third in elections for Iraq's 275-member parliament. Despite aggressive television advertising, the power of incumbency and a campaign that portrayed him as both a law-and-order candidate and the secular alternative to Iraq's religious parties, Allawi's slate secured just 14 percent of the vote, or 40 seats, far behind the 140 seats won by a largely Shiite Muslim coalition backed by the country's most influential religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
In the interview at his heavily guarded office, patrolled by Iraqi and U.S. guards, Allawi spoke with little bitterness about those results, which in all likelihood will deprive him of a leading role in the next government. He seemed relaxed, almost offhandedly speaking of a plot this week to kill him with several car bombs. The prime minister, dressed in a brown tie and tan jacket, reflected on what he called his greatest accomplishment -- establishing Iraq's new security forces -- while looking ahead at the prospect of a dramatic shift in policies he supported, namely reaching out to the disenchanted Sunni Muslim minority and rehabilitating some former Baath Party officials.
Leaders of the winning Shiite alliance, while speaking about the need for national unity, have stated their determination to revive a campaign to force former Baath Party officials out of government ministries and the security forces. In English, the program is known in de-Baathification; it is referred to in Arabic as ijtithath, a far stronger term that suggests uprooting.
In conversations with U.S. officials before the Jan. 30 elections, alliance leaders had also vowed to adopt a more aggressive stance toward a nearly two-year-old insurgency, which has roiled parts of central Iraq dominated by the Sunni Arab minority. Among their proposals was the introduction of elements of formerly exiled Shiite militias into the security forces.
"The key issue here for Iraq is national unity and reconciliation. If this does not happen, then there is no security, there is no safety, for everyone. And then the law of the jungle will prevail, rather than the rule of law. And that's why it is important," Allawi said. "It's not the words that matter, it's the actions. It's not the promises. You cannot go and preach and indulge in discussing national unity or reconciliation and then on a blanket political decision . . . take revenge on all Baathists, or all those who were part of the Iraqi army."
Rehabilitating Baathists who he said were innocent of crimes was a pillar of the administration of Allawi, who came of age as a Baath Party cadre. After working as an exiled dissident supported by U.S. and British intelligence, then lying low for much of the occupation's first year, he became the surprise choice of the outgoing U.S.-led occupation authority last June to become prime minister.
In that position, he became the public face of the government after the occupation administration led by L. Paul Bremer formally came to an end, at a time when the country was especially reeling from violence. A heavyset man with a lumbering gait, Allawi cultivated an image of strength, a trait many Iraqis say they admire in a leader. In the early months of his tenure, in a practice he eventually ended, he rushed to sites of car bombings in Baghdad, and he explicitly endorsed the U.S. military assaults on Fallujah and Najaf.
Throughout his tenure, he seemed to wager that success in bringing order to Iraq -- not only diminishing the insurgency but also combating common crime -- would endow him with a base of support that could counter the surging influence of Iraq's Shiite clergy in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein, particularly in the Shiite-dominated south.
But he was shadowed by a widely held perception that he was the Americans' man in Iraq, and his recruitment of former Baathists into the security services angered some Shiite factions, who derided the policy as "re-Baathification."
Although Allawi emphasized security as his calling, many villages in Sunni regions remain under the sway of gunmen and insurgents. Hardships that have beset Iraq since Hussein's ouster have yet to ease. With guerrillas targeting infrastructure, oil production remains static, and electricity generation has decreased since Allawi assumed office. Lines for gasoline -- a bitter irony to many in a country with the world's second-largest oil reserves -- still snake for miles.