Iraq’s New Leader: ‘Saddam Lite’

July 24th, 2004 - by admin

Paul McGeough / Sydney Morning Herald – 2004-07-24 12:11:40

(July 17, 2004) — His enemies say he was an assassin for Saddam Hussein. Now Iyad Allawi is accused of personally executing prisoners. Paul McGeough examines the dark background of Iraq’s new Prime Minister.

Hold the doctor up to the light and there are flaws in the glass. We are not quite sure how Iyad Allawi became Iraq’s interim Prime Minister and no one knows just how and why he fell out with Saddam Hussein. It is unclear whether his preoccupation with security outweighs a professed love for democracy or what that might mean for Iraq’s 25 million people.

His past is murky. His present is ambiguous. Allawi’s every response to the Iraq mess is that of a hard man: he threatens martial law; he warns he might shut down sections of the media; he suggests he might delay elections. His Justice Minister is bringing back the death penalty; his Defence Minister warns he’ll chop off insurgents’ hands and heads.

He was put in — unelected — with a tight constitutional brief to ready Iraq for polls in January. But in his first days in control, Allawi seems to have crafted a loophole to run more freely with inordinate emergency powers that would allow him to take direct command of Iraqi security forces, with the right to impose curfews, seize assets, tap and cut telephones, and crack down on groups in declared “emergency zones”.

Allawi Building an Infrastructure for Dictatorship
And already he is wriggling out from under the limited US security blueprint for Iraq, saying that what the country needs is some of the old Saddam institutions of state and what he calls the “clean” from among the old cadres. But he is yet to make clear how much of the old Iraq he wants to salvage, as he presses ahead with plans for a security regime that reminds some Iraqis of where they have been, rather than of the promised land.

He tells people he’s a “tough guy”. And friends and enemies alike resort to the same page of the thesaurus when they talk about him: “willing to be ruthless,” says one; “potential for brutality,” says another; “muscular law enforcement comes naturally to him,” concludes a third Iraqi voice.

There is a strong view among some war-wearied Iraqis that this is just what the country needs.

Allawi Sanctioned Summary Executions
But piled on a personal history that has too often lurched to the dark side, today’s graphic witness accounts of summary executions by Allawi at a Baghdad police station challenge many assumptions about the man, and about where and how he might try to lead his beleaguered nation.

Surprisingly, few Iraqis professed to be shocked by the allegations. But why would Allawi do it? The answer is not so difficult in Iraq. If he could kill for Saddam when the former president was on the verge of power, wouldn’t it come more easily if it would help Allawi cement his own grip on the levers?

In this part of the world, police forces are bred as instruments of fear. But right now, Iraqi police are afraid to take to the streets, not least because of tribal retribution if they kill in the line of duty. Eighteen men from the Al-Amariyah security complex have been killed in a year — and at least three had written warnings that they would be targeted by tribesmen seeking vengeance for the loss of one of their own in a clash with police.

‘Spit Blood in their Eyes’
The rationale offered by some is that if the Prime Minister spilt blood before their eyes, then the police would know they could kill with impunity. He would become a man to be feared and all too quickly the force would impose that fear on the community.

Then there are the Baghdad whispers, invisible but frightening weapons of mass intimidation, which Saddam himself used to powerful effect.

Spreading like wildfire, tales of his conduct and that of his murderous agencies set the rules by which people might survive. They were whispered from one person to the next, drawing lines within which most people might get on with their meagre lives — with a level of immediate personal security they can only dream of these days.

Once the Allawi whispers started a few weeks ago, there were signs that the image of the new strongman was already being cultivated. Allawi may have worked out that, to succeed, he too must go down the Saddam road, which, in any event, seems to be his natural inclination.

Saddam acted tough and he kept the lights on; Allawi has been talking tough, and now he is trying to act tough so that the same troubled Iraqi minds might fall in behind him.

A casual driver retained briefly by the Herald said he had picked up a version of the alleged police station killings in the swirl of fixers, translators and drivers in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel. He was more impressed than he was shocked.

Elsewhere, a doctor claimed the killings were being discussed “all over town”. He speculated: “Maybe Allawi wants to be seen like Saddam, because when Iraqis hear a rumour like this they presume it is based on fact.”

It was after the first such exchange that the Herald began to investigate – a few days before the 67-year-old Saddam made his first court appearance on a catalogue of appalling crimes against humanity.

Allawi’s Brutal Saddam-like Killings
It took courage for the witnesses to speak. To be too specific about these individuals, or the personal channels used to find them, might help identify them. But there was no help from military or political organisations, or from individuals likely to be bent on spinning a damaging report.

They were reluctant to speak until they had guarantees of anonymity; one of them even insisted that the Herald not reveal the chance element that intervened as he was located deep in suburban Baghdad. These men are afraid for their lives.

Their detailed accounts are compelling. In the shark-pool politics of post-invasion Iraq, there is always the possibility that parties or people have set out to destroy Allawi — but the failure by Iraqi and US officialdom to mount convincing denials makes the witness accounts impossible to ignore.

It took Allawi’s office almost a week to issue a denial. At the same time, his staff and US officials retreated into the argument that these accounts were just more of the Baghdad rumours — not substantive allegations that warranted any examination.

Neither witness could be precise on the date of the killings. But in this part of the world, events are often recollected in such hazy fashion unless they coincide with a significant religious feast or some historic anniversary.

If confirmed, the allegations have the potential to undermine the latest crucial chapter of the Americans’ political project in Iraq.

When the highest-ranking US offficials in Iraq were appraised of the witness accounts 10 days ago, there was no outright denial.

Allawi got to the top from the shadows of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, the first and flailing Washington effort to put an Iraqi face on its occupation.

Allawi’s Shadowed Past
After being away for 33 years, he kept a low profile for the first year after the fall of Saddam, seeking out the chairmanship of the council’s powerful security committee, but reportedly shying away from general meetings of the council.

Despite single-digit popularity among Iraqis, he kept aloof from the Iraqi press. Instead, he is said to have spent much time in Jordan and Britain — and in the US, where he spent a reported $300,000($UK415,000) on New York and Washington lobbyists to enhance his image higher up the geopolitical food chain.

When the United Nations sent Lakhdar Brahimi to Baghdad in the northern spring to craft a new interim government, he called for neutral “technocrats and professionals” to guide Iraq to its planned January elections.

The New ‘Dictator of Baghdad’
But Allawi is a master of backroom political manoeuvring. He had to climb over the ferocious ambition of his arch rival, Ahmad Chalabi, and the reservations of Brahimi, who vented his frustrations at Allawi’s emergence as the winner with his sharp denunciation of the departing US administrator, Paul Bremer, as the “dictator of Baghdad”.

The new Prime Minister was in league with Saddam in the late ’60s and there is an assumption that he broke with the tyrant when he went to London in 1971. But various reports suggest that he remained on the Baghdad payroll at least until 1975. And the idea that the break was about principle is tempered by suggestions of a row over a sizeable wad of cash.

A senior Jordanian official who met the new Prime Minister “dozens of times” before the US invasion was always worried about an Allawi ascendancy. He explained to the Herald this week: “He made it clear that he was going back to Iraq with vengeance; it was never going to be about a beauty of democracy, so much as a settling of scores.

“Think about it: it is the resistance that will be his downfall, so he thinks if he kills them, he will prevail.”

Early this year, a vivid article by one of the Prime Minister’s former medical school classmates, Dr Haifa al-Azawi, published in an Arabic newspaper in London, was hardly noticed, despite what it revealed of the Prime Minister’s character and qualifications.

Describing Allawi as a “big, husky man”, she wrote: “[He] carried a gun on his belt and frequently brandished it, terrorising the medical students.” And of his medical degree, she wrote: “[It] was conferred upon him by the Baath party.”

The first unvarnished look at Allawi’s past since he was named leader of post-Saddam Iraq was by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, in which he quoted an unnamed US intelligence officer on the ties between Allawi and Saddam in the 1960s: “Allawi helped Saddam get to power.”

A Thug, a Spy and a Hit Man for Saddam
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer who served in the Middle East, elaborated further: “He was a very effective operator and a true believer. Two facts stand out about Allawi. One, he likes to think of himself as a man of ideas; and, two, his strongest virtue is that he’s a thug.”

Hersh also quoted this assessment of Allawi by another former CIA officer, Vincent Cannistraro. “If you’re asking me if Allawi has blood on his hands from his days in London, the answer is yes, he does. He was a paid Mukhabarat [intelligence] agent for the Iraqis, and he was involved in dirty stuff.”

An unnamed Middle Eastern diplomat spelt it out a bit more for Hersh, claiming that Allawi was involved with a Mukhabarat “hit team” that ran to ground and killed Baath party dissenters throughout Europe.

In 1978, the brutal world in which Allawi moved came home to him, literally, when he was attacked in his London bed in the middle of the night by a man brandishing an axe. This was the third attempt on his life and he spent a year in hospital, recovering from horrific injuries presumed to have been inflicted at the behest of Saddam.

Allawi Switches Allegiance
It was after this attack that Allawi began his long and close associations first with the British intelligence agency MI6 and then with the CIA, which still helps fund his Iraqi National Accord (INA) organisation.

In the early 1990s, as Washington and London began to take Iraqi opposition groups more seriously after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, Allawi set up the INA. One of his early organisational associates was Salih Omar Ali al-Tikriti, who reportedly had supervised public hangings in Baghdad for Saddam.

Curiously, Allawi chose not to respond when The New Yorker gave him the opportunity early in June. Allawi, of course, has not led a sheltered existence, and he is familiar with the role of a free press. He is a Western-educated man who has lived in Britain for more than 30 years, in the hurly-burly of a vibrant media and legal profession. He retains lawyers and lobbyists on both sides of the Atlantic and he and his advisers would have been well aware a damaging story was in the making.

Since The New Yorker published its profile, there has been a raft of more troubling claims and assessments of the past and present conduct of the man anointed by Washington to nurture a civilised, Western-style democracy in Iraq.

Allawi’s Role as a Car-bomber for the CIA
A group of former CIA agents told The New York Times that, in the mid-1990s, the agency had backed an Allawi campaign of car bombs and other explosive devices intended to destabilise Iraq; and a US-backed coup attempt in 1996 ended in failure after it was infiltrated by Saddam — apparently after some of the plotters had blabbed to The Washington Post.

Recalling Allawi’s bomb-throwing in Saddam’s Iraq, Kenneth Pollack, a former Iran-Iraq military analyst for the CIA in the early 1990s, remarked of the job ahead of Allawi: “You send a thief to catch a thief.”

Kenneth Katzman, an Iraq watcher and terrorism specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, detected in Allawi what he called a familiar Middle East road map to becoming a strongman.

Juan Cole, a Middle East historian at the University of Michigan, wrote of a stinging assessment of the Prime Minister’s leanings: “He is infatuated with reviving the Baath secret police, bringing back Saddam’s domestic spies. Unlike the regular [Iraqi] army, which had dirty and clean elements, all of the secret police are dirty. If they are restored, civil liberties are a dead letter.”

To Washington, ‘He’s Our Kind of Bully’
It is hardly surprising that they are pacing in Washington. “He’s our kind of bully,” was one of the first backroom endorsements of the 58-year-old neurologist.

But after only a week of sovereignty, there were also signs of a wind shift on the Potomac: “The last thing we want is for the world to think we’re foisting a new strongman on Iraq,” a senior US official told reporters on background in Washington last week.

But having punted on Allawi, Washington is stuck. The Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, sidestepped issues of principle or a need to verify when quizzed about the Prime Minister’s propensity for abuse in his Baathist past. He argued to a Herald reporter, Marian Wilkinson, that Iraqis wouldn’t care.

Without pause, he endorsed the new leader: “This is a fellow I know pretty well. We’ll see — I don’t think [the allegations will] sell particularly with Iraqis.”

Falling back on Allawi’s more recent opposition to Saddam’s regime and the attempt on his life in 1978, Armitage remarked: “That’s the story that Iraqis pay attention to — and if polls that we have all seen are any indication, he and his colleagues represent a government that actually can get things done.”

Allawi must secure Iraq. That means breaking the insurgency and the outline of his strategy is there — drive a wedge between the nationalist Iraqis, who US military analysts in Baghdad now concede are the vast majority among as many as 20,000 insurgents, and the small force of foreigners and terrorists who have come to Iraq to take a shot at the Americans.

It’s a big gamble.

Allawi is a secular Shiite, but he is courting the largely Sunni Baathists who were disenfranchised by the US-imposed de-Baathification program last year, and at the same time offering dignity to former members of Saddam’s huge military disbanded by the US.

He hopes to persuade the Sunnis and the Baathists to lay down their arms because there is something for them in the new Iraq. To this end he is offering an amnesty for those who “don’t have blood on their hands”. If it works, he might be able to isolate some of the foreigners who, without support from the Iraqi community, would find it tough to soldier on.

He pushes his pitch with terse criticism of the US occupation.

A New Powell Doctrine: ‘Iraqis Will Have to Kill Iraqis’
Any Washington wobbles over the alleged Al-Amariyah executions would be a useful brake on Iraqi claims that Allawi is a US stooge. In Iraq, such killings could be defended on the grounds that the victims were bomb-throwers of no account, and Allawi could well argue that he was living by the Colin Powell dictum that “Iraqis will have to kill Iraqis”.

But what troubles some observers is that Allawi remains opaque on the terms of a deal with the Baathists. It also remains to be seen if he can deal with a key Iraqi power bloc that the Americans have not properly understood: the tribes.

His INA was home in exile for many Sunni military and former Baathist officials. But in his public criticism of the party and the regime, he is disturbingly muted compared with the voice others have found to condemn Iraq’s past 30 years. He has argued that the problem was the individuals more than the institutions.

Allawi’s Push for Re-Baathification
Allawi reportedly urged the US not to alienate Sunnis with a post-invasion purge, insisting that as few as 90 people needed to be removed. He seems to have been proved right. There is a consensus among observers that de-Baathification and disbanding the military were huge mistakes by the US occupation.

But how much of the old regime he seeks to reinstate and how the Shiite majority will respond is a balancing act that has yet to be performed. Some observers worry that showing through all that Allawi says and does is a belief that perhaps Iraq is not ready for a Western-style democracy.

What comes through in his attitude to the past is a sense of the same ambiguity that allowed so much of the Iraqi elite – the moneyed, the intelligentsia and the officer class – to take their reward under Saddam while seeing little to complain about in the system that Saddam built.

Ghanim Jawad, a human rights campaigner at the Al-Khoei Foundation, a Shiite charitable organisation in London, was not impressed when he looked down the road to Allawi’s Baghdad: “I think [Allawi] will succeed in creating not a fully democratic state, but something on the model of Jordan or Egypt.”

But if he could get that far on the back of the military, police and internal intelligence complex he wants to build, to what use might he put them once he had a semblance of security?

It sounds like Saddam-Lite in the making; and in it all there’s an odour of the Arab authoritarianism that the Bush men say they came to eradicate.

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