Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi leans on a lectern in the Rose Garden, a swagger in his pose. He's side by side with President George W. Bush, a man who knows something about swaggering. Allawi doesn't look out of place -- not here, perhaps not anywhere.
His eyebrows arc upward. His glasses ride low on his nose. He looks stern and focused and intense, even as he looks charmed and amused, kind of avuncular, like an Iraqi Tony Soprano, but in a fine charcoal gray suit.
None of this is to suggest a thug. That's not quite right. By training, Allawi's a neurologist. But there is the temper to consider, as when he got angry with some aides not too long ago and slammed his hand on a table -- hard -- and broke his right wrist. And there's the unfounded but popular Baghdad street rumor of his recent gunplay against some bad guys. Not to mention his work in the 1990s with the CIA, including a bungled coup plot.
He is a man on a mission that has consumed his life, a man of single-minded focus born, perhaps, that night in London in 1978 when intruders presumed to be Saddam Hussein's henchmen tried to hack him apart with axes. His leg was almost severed. His chest suffered a cleaving blow. The hospital had him for nearly a year, and the quest to recover Iraq from Hussein has had him for nearly three decades more.
So at yesterday's Rose Garden ceremony, at this time of beheadings, body counts and car bombs, he is telling of his efforts to tamp down the uprisings, to make sure elections can go forward in January, to sway tribal leaders in places like Fallujah to get with the program, with democracy and development.
"Do you want to bring Saddam back from the hole in the ground living like a rat?" That is what he says to the fence-sitters in Iraq.
"Do you want to bring him back to rule Iraq? Or do you want to bring bin Laden or similar persons to bin Laden to rule Iraq? If you want to do this, we will fight you room to room, house to house."
And judging by his strategy in the crisis last month in the battle of Najaf, Allawi, 59, is prepared to do just that, although he also offers insurgents the option of throwing their lot in with the new political process.
He is, said a U.S. congressional official who follows Iraq, a tough guy trying to bring to Iraqis the thing they really want.
"They want a badass guy who is going to solve the security problem," this official said.
And they've got Allawi.
He is, yes, Bush's man in Baghdad. After all, the United States appointed him to the Iraqi Governing Council, from which he emerged as interim prime minister.
But Allawi also is a man perched at that nexus where agendas converge. He is a man of expedience.
"It's a mutually beneficial relationship," said Judith Kipper. Director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, she is an acquaintance of Allawi's.
"If he could ask the Americans to leave altogether he would. But he can't," Kipper said. "He's clearly an Iraqi patriot. That he was associated with the CIA -- that's who was available to help at that time. That's not because he was a puppet of the CIA, but because it was expedient and he needed help in order to do things."
And at this juncture in his political life, he is not necessarily Washington's man, said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Allawi is "extremely politically savvy," she said. "I think he understands very well that the future of Iraq is largely dependent on the goodwill of the United States and that his own political future in Iraq rests on American success."
He came to Washington to say there remains much hope in Iraq. He came to assert his leadership at a time when Iraq still needs so much. And he came to Washington to offer thanks.
During his speech before a joint session of Congress, Allawi humbly and charmingly placed his hand over his heart as the members of Congress applauded him in welcome. Then, he applauded them in return.
"It's my honor to come to Congress and to thank this nation and its people for making our cause your cause, our struggle your struggle," he said.
And he pledged that the suffering of American and multinational soldiers would not be in vain.
"We are better off, you are better off and the world is better off without Saddam Hussein."
Several times, the chamber erupted in loud ovations, even a "Bravo!" was hollered out at one point.
There, on the House floor, stood Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, beaming at this Iraqi leader who is not Hussein. And in the Rose Garden, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice seemed to hang on Allawi's every word.
Allawi is familiar to many in Congress from his days as leader of the Iraqi National Accord, which he founded after the Gulf War, to push for Hussein's overthrow. His group developed strong ties with the CIA, and Allawi himself is reported to have been involved in covert operations against Hussein's regime.
But he started out as a Baathist, just like Hussein. Back in the 1970s, he is said to have carried a gun and acted as a Baath Party enforcer. A Baghdad-born secular Shiite, he later moved to London for his medical studies.
It was there that the horrific ax attack happened. Some observers say there is a slight limp still discernible in his gait. Although Hussein is gone, Allawi is not altogether safe. He has faced four assassination attempts since he assumed the role of prime minister of the interim government in June.
No doubt, election politics shaped his visit here -- as President Bush made clear with his not-so-veiled references in the Rose Garden to people who send "mixed messages" on Iraq.
It was as if President Bush needed Allawi at his side to vouch for U.S. policy, to allow Bush to say: Here is some success we can claim.
It would be unkind to portray Allawi as a prop or an exhibit, as in a court case. But several times, President Bush pointed to Allawi as if he were the proof of the policy's success.
Did Bush really think elections were possible in four months' time?
"I do," said Bush, "because the prime minister told me they are."
"He understands what's going on there," Bush said at another moment. "After all, he lives there."
When challenged about the optimistic picture the White House offers on Iraq, Bush said, pointing again, "But I'd talk to this man. One reason I'm optimistic about our ability to get the job done is because I talk to the Iraqi prime minister."
Allawi used their shared platform to get his own messages out as well. He took the initiative to offer responses to questions he had not been directly asked. He'd ask politely, "May I, Mister President?"
Allawi was accompanied on this trip by the Iraqi ministers of defense, foreign affairs, industry and minerals, planning, and health, as well as the Iraqi ambassador-designate to the United States, Rend Rahim Francke.
After his speeches in Congress and at the White House, Allawi was to meet with congressional leaders, where the closed-door talk was expected to be tougher than what happened in public. The congressional official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the message from some members of Congress would be:
"Look, man. You've got a big problem and your success is our success, so we've got to help you succeed. So don't give us this happy talk. Be straight with us. Don't give us this nonsense about things going well and the insurgency being under control. You tell us everything is fine, then we don't need to help you, right?"