By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 26, 2010; A10
BAGHDAD -- The man who was widely derided as an American puppet when he stepped down as prime minister five years ago has become a leading contender for Iraq's top job based on his strong showing in this month's elections among a group that lost more than any other with the U.S.-led invasion.
Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite known for his willingness to use brute force when necessary, has returned to the center of Iraqi politics after receiving millions of votes from Sunni Arabs, a minority that has felt marginalized since Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. Political blocs led by Allawi and Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are neck-and-neck in a race that is still too close to call with 95 percent of ballots counted. Remaining results are expected to be released Friday.
Allawi and his political coalition won Sunni support in part because he is considered less sectarian than other Shiite leaders and was not in office during the vicious sectarian bloodletting that marked the first two years of Maliki's tenure. With the U.S. military preparing to substantially draw down its presence this summer, many Sunnis voted with the hope that Allawi would restore some of their lost status.
"It's the nostalgia of hindsight. Who would have ever thought that Allawi's tenure as prime minister would look good in retrospect?" said Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 until 2009. "I think it does to many Sunni Arabs in the wake of everything that came after that. He has always had the persona of the nonsectarian political figure."
Allawi exploited that appeal in a country weary of sect-motivated killings, and he emphasized it during the campaign.
"People are disenchanted with sectarianism. They haven't seen anything but violence and bloodshed," he said in a recent interview. "If it continues like this, the violence might increase and the civil strife and civil conflict might increase again."
Allawi is also favored by some for his tendency to wield an iron fist across sectarian lines, especially at a time when Maliki has struggled to maintain order. Although Maliki is also seen as a strongman, he is accused of cracking down more harshly on Sunnis and of being disloyal to his allies.
Allawi, once known as "Saddam lite" among Western officials, is reported to have personally shot several insurgents, a rumor he did nothing to discourage at the time.
Allawi is the descendant of a wealthy Shiite family that has been involved in Iraqi politics since the British colonial period of the early 20th century. He joined the Baath Party, an Arab nationalist group, in the 1950s but fell out with Hussein in the 1970s. Allawi plotted an ultimately unsuccessful coup against the dictator in the mid-1990s that led to the confiscation of his family's wealth. He also survived an assassination attempt by an ax-wielding intruder who was reported to be a hit man for Hussein.
But Allawi is still regarded warily by working-class Shiites, who were brutally oppressed during Hussein's two-decade-long rule and regard Allawi as a closet Baathist.
"It's regrettable, but the Shiite rank and file think he represents the candidate for the Baath Party and he is the gate through which the Baathists will creep back into power," said Ezzat Shahbandar, a Shiite legislator who once allied with Allawi but ran in the recent elections with Maliki's State of Law bloc.
Allawi's bloc of about 45 parties, the most prominent of which are Sunni, was the key target of a pre-election effort to disqualify candidates because of their supposed Baathist ties. The effort galvanized Sunni Arabs, who felt unfairly targeted, and the percentage of voters turning out to cast ballots in Sunni areas surpassed that in Shiite areas for the first time. In the past, the Sunni vote had been suppressed by violence and boycotts.
Allawi, once scorned for standing by as the U.S. military carried out major offensives that killed scores in both the Shiite south and the Sunni west, is now respected for going after both groups equally.
After Allawi fell from power as leader of Iraq's caretaker government in early 2005, he spent much of his time outside the country. His allies assert that was because of threats on his life. He rarely attended parliament, where he held a seat, and he has been criticized for dictating to his party from abroad. People close to Allawi say he believes the only job worthy of him is prime minister.
But to get there, he will have to overcome myriad obstacles. No bloc will have a majority in the next parliament, and alliances will be key to forming a government. Allawi's bloc is considered fractured and could easily crumble. Kurds, who run an autonomous region in the north, will hesitate to ally with a man whose peers include Sunni Arab nationalists regarded as anti-Kurdish.
For neighboring Iran and for Shiite religious leaders in the south, both extremely influential in Iraqi politics, Maliki is more acceptable than a secular figure such as Allawi, officials say. Maliki is an Islamist Shiite who has recast himself as a nationalist.
"We realize there are regional pressures to abandon Allawi at this point," said Maysoon al-Damluji, a lawmaker in Allawi's coalition.
With Allawi leading in the popular vote but behind in total legislative seats, Maliki is crying foul and has issued a thinly veiled threat to use his powers as "commander in chief" to force a recount. Allawi's bloc, sensing an advantage, has demanded that the remaining vote tallies be released as soon as possible.
Once all the ballots have been counted, negotiations for a coalition government will begin in earnest -- a process that could end with Maliki retaining the prime ministership, Allawi returning to his old job or someone new running the country as the U.S. military pulls out.
Allawi "and Maliki are different facets of the same coin," said Crocker, the former ambassador. "They're both nationalists. Maliki has used that to his advantage. That's a lot of Allawi's appeal as well. He taps into that sense of Arab Iraqi nationalism. But there again, historically, that has meant authoritarianism."
Correspondent Ernesto Londoño contributed to this report.