BAGHDAD -- Ayad Allawi says he dreamed for years of two things -- toppling Saddam Hussein and establishing a democracy in Iraq. As an opposition leader and then interim prime minister, he helped achieve both goals. But as he prepares to leave office, Allawi worries that his country remains on the edge of a precipice.
The danger Allawi sees is that the new Iraq's unity will be shattered by a wave of revenge and retribution -- as a new government dominated by Shiite Muslims settles old scores with Sunnis, Baath Party members and secular Iraqis. Though a Shiite, Allawi describes himself as a "liberal person" who thinks that "religion should be between the human being and his creator." He fears this ideal of tolerance may not survive in the new Iraq.
(Faleh Kheiber -- Reuters)
"To get religion and politics mixed together could spell disaster for us, frankly," Allawi told me and my Post colleague Anthony Shadid this week in what amounted to a farewell interview. He's afraid that the next government, dominated by a coalition of Shiite religious parties blessed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, will push its agenda so aggressively that the country will divide along its religious, ethnic and political fault lines. "If this happens, then this dream is dead," he said.
A measure of Allawi's concern is that he's not sure it will be safe for him to remain in Iraq. He has faced repeated assassination attempts since becoming interim prime minister last June 28, and as we were talking Wednesday afternoon, an aide told him the Defense Ministry had learned that day of a new plot to kill him with multiple car bombs. If the next government can't provide adequate security, Allawi says, he may move to another Arab country.
Allawi's comments could be taken as sour grapes, given that his party garnered only 14 percent of the votes in the Jan. 30 elections and finished a distant third, behind the Sistani coalition's 48 percent and the Kurdish parties' 26 percent. It could be argued, too, that as a former Baathist himself, Allawi was engaging in special pleading.
But Allawi didn't sound angry or bitter. In fact, he seemed almost relieved that his stewardship of the Iraqi transition government was coming to a successful end with the elections. I've known Allawi since 1991, back in the days when he was an anti-Hussein conspirator, and I don't think I've ever seen him as relaxed as he has been this week -- his round face often breaking into an easy smile.
What makes Allawi unusual among Arab politicians is that he is self-critical. He conceded, for example, that he could have done a better job in his campaign to co-opt Sunnis and ex-Baathists. Looking back, he says, he should have tried more "pan-Iraqi conferences," where "everybody looks everybody in the eye and starts talking about the country and unity." And he wishes he had been able to make de-Baathification "a judicial rather than political issue," so that those with blood on their hands could be punished by the courts and the millions of other ex-Baathists could seek reconciliation.
Allawi's gift, in a land of conniving politicians, is that he is straightforward. He has been saying precisely the same thing about how to build a new Iraq ever since we first talked in 1991, when the idea of overthrowing Hussein seemed a fantasy. He has always argued that a stable Iraq could only be built on the foundations of the secular state that has been emerging since the 1920s -- including its army and civil service. He was making that same argument this week, just as passionately.
I asked Allawi what he has learned over the past several years about Iraq's would-be benefactor, the United States. Was it true, I asked, that it was more dangerous to be a friend of America than an enemy? Allawi laughed and said that of course the United States had made mistakes, such as dissolving the Iraqi army. "I think the CPA itself was a mistake," he said of the Coalition Provisional Authority. "But that is water under the bridge, really."
Allawi's friends say that he plans to be a kind of secular opposition to the new religious-backed government. If things turn out as badly as he fears, he believes that his country eventually might turn to him to put things back together. You have to hope that Allawi is wrong, and that the new Iraq will find its own version of national unity. But it's reassuring to think that this decent man, who served his country bravely in a difficult time, will be around if he's needed.