Allawi Plans for a Secular Iraq

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

BAGHDAD, May 30 -- Leading Iraq's first democratic opposition in a half-century, former prime minister Ayad Allawi plans to spend the next seven months building alliances for what he says will be a secular comeback when Iraqis are due to pick their next government.

Allawi largely disappeared from sight shortly before yielding power last month to a coalition led by Shiite Muslim religious parties. He has spent much of his time since in the hotels and presidential palaces of Middle Eastern capitals, conferring with regional leaders in a capacity somewhere between self-appointed envoy for Iraqi interests and prospective political campaigner.

One such meeting this month, with Syrian President Bashar Assad, produced Assad's support for an Allawi proposal to put U.N. observers on the border between the two countries, Allawi said in an interview this week. The border is a primary crossing point for insurgents.

The new government of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, officially snubbing Syria over what Iraq calls its lack of cooperation in the struggle against insurgents, offered Allawi no thanks for his effort.

"This is a new thing for Iraq. . . . One of our roles really is to be a constructive opposition," said Allawi, whose interim government bridged the postwar U.S.-run administrations and the transitional government formed after Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, which were dominated by the Shiite majority. Allawi, a pragmatic, secular Shiite, lost his prime ministerial post and refused a role in the new cabinet after protracted haggling. He and some of the roughly 40 others in his secular party who won parliamentary seats opted to be critics instead.

"We try to be the first, the pioneers," Allawi said this week in Baghdad, as U.S. military helicopters droned past the headquarters of his party, the Iraqi National Accord. "We tried to be the pioneers of democracy, and now we try to emphasize democracy by being a constructive opposition."

Secular Iraqis, whose brand of politics has predominated in Iraq for most of the country's modern history, will stay on the sidelines only until December, Allawi said. That's when Iraqis are due to elect a full-term government, under a constitution now being drafted.

"I think the future is going to be for them," Allawi said of secularists. "Now is a period where everybody consolidates their power, reflects on their ideology and programs.

"But I think the future of this country lies very much in a secular moderate government, which believes in a strong Iraq but a peaceful Iraq, an Iraq which is at peace with its neighbors."

Allawi's admirers see him as the kind of strong leader Iraqis are often said to favor. In contrast to Allawi, Jafari is described as enigmatic, even by his Kurdish partners in the governing coalition.

Allawi's administration, which lasted less than a year, was largely defined by U.S. actions beyond his control, such as the slow pace with which Iraq's security forces were rebuilt after they were disbanded by L. Paul Bremer, the American occupation administrator.

The hard-core members of the Shiite religious bloc sees Allawi, an ex-Baathist who broke with Saddam Hussein in the 1970s, as the embodiment of their enemy. Even as Jafari's government was taking shape last month, black-clad female Shiite lawmakers were screaming denunciations of Allawi in parliament, calling his administration corrupt and Allawi a patron of Hussein-era criminals.

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