The strongman of Baghdad
Issue: 13 November
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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
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