Without Allawi, U.S. officials fear Iraq government could be seen as illegitimate

On March 7, 2010, millions of Iraqis voted to elect lawmakers who will rule the country for years as U.S. forces withdraw. The election was marred by dozens of attacks that killed nearly 40 people and underscored the security problems the incoming government will face.
By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 10:24 PM

BAGHDAD - Ayad Allawi had hoped his political coalition's strong showing in Iraq's parliamentary election would propel him to the job of prime minister. But after more than eight months of acrimonious negotiations, the secular Shiite lost his fight - and is now the greatest uncertainty as Shiite incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moves forward with forming a new government.

In a nation divided along sectarian and ethnic lines, Allawi became a symbol of secularists and the Sunni Arab minority. The possibility that he may not participate leaves many U.S. officials - who advocated a power-sharing arrangement among Maliki, Allawi, and others - worried that the government that stands at the end of 2011, when U.S. troops are scheduled to leave, could be seen as illegitimate, worsening an already fragile security situation.

Allawi's Iraqiya bloc won 91 seats in the March 7 vote, two more than Maliki's State of Law bloc, but not enough to claim majority support in the 325-member parliament.

"Maliki knows very well that without me personally in this process it will be very hard for regional and democracy-loving countries to buy in," Allawi said as he ate lunch at his kitchen table one recent afternoon. "If he doesn't accept real power-sharing, we have to say goodbye to democracy forever and we have to think about other means, peaceful means, to alter decisions."

Allawi's family is in London, and his home in western Baghdad is largely empty, save for the Filipino maids who take care of the cooking and cleaning. Blast walls surround the area and military Humvees are parked outside; he has received death threats and warnings from U.S. officials that someone might try to kill him, his aides said.

A poll conducted over the summer by the International Republican Institute, a U.S. government-funded nonprofit, showed that 56 percent of the nation would not see the Iraqi government as fully legitimate if Allawi did not participate. Only 31 percent thought it would be "legitimate" or "somewhat legitimate," according to the poll. A poll by the National Democratic Institute, another U.S. nonprofit, showed that Allawi had more appeal across political lines than Maliki and other leading politicians.

"We're very, very interested in all of the key major players here having important roles," U.S. ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey told reporters at a briefing last month. "Ayad is one of the more important ones based upon our work with him and based upon his electoral success."

Strongman reputation

Allawi, prime minister during Iraq's interim government in 2004 and 2005, became a symbol of change in the lead-up to this year's vote. Sunni Arabs who felt marginalized by the process hoped he would end religious Shiite majority rule. Secular Iraqis hoped he would break years of sectarian politics that have plagued them since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

But Allawi also unwittingly became a symbol of the return of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Sunni Baath party, despite breaking ranks with Hussein more than 30 years ago and working against the brutal dictator for decades.

Although Allawi was favored by U.S. officials, they grasped early on that his Shiite rivals would not accept him as prime minister. Neighboring Iran advocated heavily for Shiite unity and threw its weight behind Maliki, whom the United States also tacitly backed. Allawi's party was largely Sunni-backed and included controversial Sunni leaders in a country where the Shiite majority and Kurdish minority remain frightened of the outlawed Baath party's return.

"Almost all of the Shiites view Iraqiya as a Sunni bloc," said Sami al-Askari, a Shiite legislator close to Maliki. "The feeling in the Shiite community is they are not ready yet to have a Sunni bloc forming this government."

Allawi, much like Maliki, is seen as a man with authoritarian tendencies. But he was also seen as an American puppet when he was prime minister. During that time, he supported harsh U.S. military offensives in Shiite Arab Najaf and Sunni Fallujah. He also was rumored to have killed six suspected insurgents with his own hands - a rumor that has been denied by aides, but never by Allawi himself.

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