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.
Allawi would not say whether he intended to try for a comeback in December. Doing so would first require a commitment to political compromise, a U.S. official said Monday. Exasperated Shiite and Kurd politicians said Allawi showed little capacity for that last month, when negotiations to bring his bloc into a national unity government dragged on for weeks and ultimately failed.
Allawi "has a lot of strengths, if he chooses to use them," the U.S. official told reporters Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But he has to choose to use them in a big tent."
Bringing secular politicians back to power would mean reversing the most marked trend in Iraq -- the polarization of politics and society around ethnic and religious centers. Assuming Iraq can avoid increased sectarian conflict, Allawi's secular bloc would have to draw the predominantly Sunni but secular Kurds out of their alliance with the Shiite religious parties and champion even religious Sunni Arabs.
The numbers may be against the secularists. Sunni Arabs are estimated by non-Sunnis to make up 20 percent of Iraq's population. So are Kurds. Shiites account for most of the remaining 60 percent. Their new clout as voters and traditional religious devotion make Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani indirectly the single greatest political force in Iraq, as the unifying figure for a fractious Shiite coalition.
President Bush, whose actions to overthrow Hussein unintentionally brought the Shiite religious bloc to power, called Allawi recently to congratulate him on his past leadership, the White House said in a statement.
Allawi, in the interview, said he lost power because he was too busy with governing to concentrate on building alliances.
He rejected a role in the new government because ultimately its members could agree on only one of his conditions -- sticking to deadlines to have a new constitution drafted by August and to hold new elections in December, he said.
Other demands, such as moderation in purging Hussein-era figures from the government and security forces, were rejected, Allawi said.
He still spends much of his time trying to use his connections "to bring about an end to the insurgency," he said. That means persuading Sunnis who oppose the new government, supported by nearly 140,000 U.S. troops, that the best way to fight is via the ballot box.
Many Shiite leaders in the government view Allawi's efforts with suspicion, accusing him of dealing with insurgents and their supporters. While Jafari and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were taking an increasingly tough line on Syria this month, Allawi was visiting Damascus.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say Assad continues to allow foreign fighters and exiles from Hussein's government to shelter in Syria, and to permit fighters, weapons and money to cross into Iraq.
Jafari said this week he would visit Syria only when it did more to counter the insurgency and met other conditions. He said maintaining relations was the key.
In Syria, Allawi said, Assad gave him a breakdown by nationality of what Assad said were 1,168 Saudis, Sudanese, Tunisians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Pakistanis and others who Syria said it had arrested and deported as suspected insurgents.
Assad also backed Allawi's idea of having U.N. observers on the 310 miles of shared border between Syria and Iraq, Allawi said. Allawi wrote Jafari a letter on his return outlining the trip, according to Allawi and Laith Kubba, Jafari's spokesman.
Jafari's government "would welcome measures to beef up security but believes that's secondary to political will [on the part] of the Syrian government, and their willingness to share intelligence and be proactive," Kubba said.
Jafari's government was waiting for Syria to provide information on the 1,168 detainees, officials here said.