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Iraq Must Unify Or Face 'Disaster,' Premier Warns

Looking back, Allawi claimed success in reaching out to disenchanted Sunnis and former Baathists "under a very difficult situation. The terrorists were attacking, the insurgency was ripe and strong. We did not have any military, we did not have any police, no security institutions. So really it was under very, very difficult circumstances. Now things are much better."

But he said he would have liked more progress on national reconciliation, such as by holding what he described as pan-Iraqi conferences "where people would come and sit down face to face, and everybody looks everybody in the eyes and starts talking about the country and unity."


Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi disagrees strongly with those who would purge all ex-Baathists from government. (Hadi Mizban -- AP)

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Allawi also said he regretted not having conclusively ended the broad policy of de-Baathification. "I still believe very strongly that de-Baathification should be a judicial rather than a political issue," he said. "If you corner people, even if some of them are innocent, if you corner them, they will fight back. There is no other way."

Asked if he resented the influence of the Iranian-born Sistani in the elections, Allawi, a secular Shiite, paused. Careful not to personally criticize Sistani, he still lamented the impact of the ayatollah and, as important, his vast network of representatives. In the elections, Allawi's list reportedly polled best among older voters and in more secular urban areas such as Baghdad and Basra.

"They have a lot of money," he said. "They had also the support from Sistani, and Sistani's representatives in the provinces and the villages were very vocal. And not only supporting the list of the alliance but in undermining my personal list, our list."

He went on: "Frankly, I know in the south we have a lot of good Iraqi people who wanted to vote for us, but they [Sistani's representatives] told them that their wives would divorce them, they would be sent to hell."

Allawi said the risk posed by the alliance's success was the formal introduction of religion into politics, which "could spell disaster, frankly, for us." He said he worried, too, about the influence of Iran, whose clerical government gave shelter to a powerful Iraqi Shiite party during Hussein's rule and has continued to finance it.

Syria also remains a problem, he said.

"In spite of all our good efforts and goodwill to get these countries really to help, we haven't achieved even the acceptable threshold. There are a lot of talks," he said, "but in practical terms, there is nothing tangible as of yet, very little."

Allawi, a neurologist by training, returned to Iraq after Hussein's fall. His wife and three children lived for a while in Jordan and now reside in London. He said he remained "under constant threat" and was considering leaving Iraq for elsewhere in the Middle East once the new government took office, particularly if it did not provide the security he deemed necessary.

"You know, it depends on the risk," he said. "I don't know what is going to happen."

"What kind of security in this period is very important before we determine whether we stay here or I could go to some Arab country. It all depends on the capabilities," he said.

U.S. officials have cautioned against ruling out a prominent future role for Allawi, who is now perhaps the most recognizable political figure in the country. "I get the sense the gentleman is still very anxious to play a part," one U.S. official said.


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