Thursday 11 November 2004    


The Week


Andrew Gilligan on the murky past of Iyad Allawi, who this week cleared the way for the attack on Fallujah

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Issue: 13 November 2004
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The strongman of Baghdad

The first recorded political act of Iyad Allawi — now the interim prime minister of Iraq, then the student organiser for Saddam Hussein’s Baath party — struck some as a little extreme, even by the standards of Sixties campus politics. ‘We were at medical school in [pre-Saddam] Baghdad together,’ said his contemporary and, more recently, colleague on the Iraqi governing council, Raja al-Khuzai. ‘When we turned up for our exams, we found Iyad at the door of the examination hall, wearing combat gear and holding a machine-gun. He said, “I’m not going to allow anyone to take the exam. We’re on strike.” We were scared.’

Following the unfortunate failure of this démarche — the exams eventually went ahead, after the authorities sent in tanks — Mr Allawi evidently decided that the time for liberal pussyfooting was over. With a friend, Adel Abdul Mahdi, he arranged to kidnap the dean of the university to publicise the Baath cause. ‘We took Iraq’s first hostages,’ recalls Mr Abdul Mahdi, now Iraq’s finance minister, nostalgically. The two men did time for the offence, until a Baathist coup got them back out again.

Now, as the US threatens to destroy Fallujah in order to save it, Mr Allawi is once again at the centre of an act of violence aimed at strengthening his position. He is both the supposed author of the American offensive and definitely its intended beneficiary. Actually, of course, the authorship lies elsewhere and Mr Allawi may not even be the beneficiary. Leaving aside the tricky question of whether democracy and freedom can be built on a pile of civilian corpses, a close examination of the past of this old Baathist intriguer makes clear that to represent him as a standard-bearer of liberty is a very hard sell indeed.

After his sterling efforts in Sixties Baghdad, and the final revolution that brought Saddam to power as vice-president, Mr Allawi was promoted to head the Iraqi Student Union in Europe, a key intelligence-related post that required him to cultivate the elite Arab students who headed for the universities of London. Some time in the 1970s, disillusioned with the regime, he started what was to be the major political relationship of his life — with British intelligence, MI6. (It nearly led to his murder in 1978, when Iraqi agents burst into his suburban London home and tried to axe him to death.)

Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, in 1990, gave Mr Allawi the catalyst he needed. With another man, Salih Omar, whose democratic credentials included supervising public hangings for the regime, Allawi founded al-Wifaq, or the Iraqi National Accord, a small but influential collection of almost exclusively ex-Baathists who had held office but fallen out with Saddam. From the beginning, the INA was never meant to be any sort of mass movement. Its aim was never to bring democracy to Iraq, but to engineer a palace coup which would see, in Allawi’s estimate, the top 30 to 40 leaders replaced by ... well, people like himself.

The INA’s first act was to set up an opposition radio station in Saudi Arabia during the war. But it soon realised that its aims were better served by targeting a narrower, more credulous market, the international intelligence community. Allawi was good at this. Unlike his main rival in Iraqi exile politics, the banker Ahmed Chalabi, he was low-key and persuasive, hinting at highly placed contacts inside the regime who were ready to turn the West’s way. Not for the last time, Iyad Allawi was telling the British, and later the US, governments exactly what they wanted to hear, and the CIA millions started to pour in.

The INA’s most controversial operation during this period was a campaign of what can only be termed terrorism against civilians. In 1994 and 1995 a series of bombings at cinemas, mosques and other public places in Baghdad claimed up to 100 civilian lives. The leading British Iraq expert, Patrick Cockburn, obtained a videotape of one of the bombers, Abu Amneh al-Khadami, speaking from his place of refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, claiming that the attacks had been ordered and orchestrated by Adnan Nuri, the INA’s Kurdistan director of operations — an account that has not been seriously disputed.

In 1996, with massive CIA backing, Mr Allawi finally got to mount his coup. It was a complete fiasco, not entirely helped by his decision to announce the supposedly top-secret operation to the Washington Post. Even before this, Saddam’s secret police had secretly seized the sophisticated encrypted satphone sent in to Iraq to communicate with the coup plotters and were using it to feed disinformation to the CIA. Once the coup had been crushed and all the plotters arrested, the special line came to life one last time. It was the Iraqis, kindly ringing up the CIA to let them know it was all over.

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