New Iraqi leader cuts a strong figure

In just three weeks in power, Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has threatened to annihilate the country's insurgents - and publicly mulled an amnesty for fighters who come in from the cold. He's praised unpopular US air-strikes on Fallujah and reopened the newspaper of a renegade Shiite cleric that was shut down by the Americans.

And while he's promising to shepherd Iraq to democracy, his principal public moves have been to reconstitute Iraq's domestic spy network and pass a law that would give him martial-law powers if he deems it necessary.

Dr. Allawi, who spent 28 years in exile, is Iraq's improbable new tough-guy leader. Much of his time outside the country was spent in intrigues with the likes of Britain's MI6 and the CIA against the Hussein regime. With close ties to many of the Baath Party officials who served the old regime but also deeply reliant on the US, he has sought to blend pragmatism and threat into a cocktail that will co-opt some insurgents and leave the hard-core ones isolated and withering.

His approach was perfected by one of his earliest political allies: Saddam Hussein. But, unlike his long-ago coconspirator, Allawi promises he is seeking only to get Iraq on sound enough footing to hold elections by the end of next January.

Yet his early political career wasn't exactly a model of democratic commitment.

Allawi participated in coups and served time in jail for his activities. Later, he survived being axed by would-be assassins sent by Hussein, underlining his tough guy credentials. He was also the source for some of the controversial prewar intelligence that proved to be false.

Allawi's past ties to Hussein, and his later close working relationship with foreign intelligence, either provide him with the contacts and guile needed to pacify a deeply fractious and unstable nation or make him wholly unsuited to the job, depending whom you talk to.

"We're meant to believe that this CIA agent is independent and acts in the interests of the Iraqi people?'' says Mahdi Ahmed al-Sumaidi, a Sunni preacher who favors the establishment of Islamic law here and backs the insurgency against the US presence and the interim government.

His aides and close friends say such criticism is badly misplaced. "This man is a great patriot,'' says Colonel Imad al-Shibib, now head of the Iraqi National Accord's political bureau. The INA is Allawi's party. Before that, Colonel Shibib served as the director general of Iraq's civil defense department for 15 years under Hussein. "Allawi is a man of principal, clear-minded and patient. And he knows how Iraq works. He's not going to expand his circle of enemies unnecessarily."

Indeed, Allawi is tentatively reaching out to some potential opponents. On Sunday, his office announced that the Al-Hawza newspaper of the militant Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr will be allowed to reopen. The US closed the paper in April, sparking large protests. Allawi has also met with representatives from some of the fighters in Fallujah.

The extent of the challenge before Allawi has been starkly illustrated in the weeks since he took power on June 28. A wave of car bombings and assassinations has shown that the US decision to install an interim government hasn't undermined the will of the insurgency. Allawi recently vowed to "annihilate" his opponents. On Sunday, a group headed by Al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi offered $282,000 for the assassination of Allawi, according to a note on an Islamist website - part of an ongoing war of words between the two men.

Tough talk and dodges

To his friends, Allawi is just the man to back up his tough talk. But his first few weeks in power have also seen the former Baathist dodging controversy. His foreign-intelligence ties have made him an easy target from domestic opponents.

He has also been accused of murder. Over the weekend, Australia's The Age newspaper cited two anonymous sources as saying they witnessed Allawi murder six alleged insurgents with a pistol at an Interior Ministry compound in mid- to late June. The report drew vigorous denials from Allawi and his aides.

But the story was widely believed because of Allawi's past. And that's not necessarily a draw-back. The most popular things he's done so far have been to reinstate the death penalty and to order mass arrests of alleged criminal gang members, with police delivering public beatings to many of the suspects.

The first Baath coup

Allawi's political career began in the early 1960s, when, as a medical student in Baghdad, he joined the Baath Party. Colonel Shibib, who joined the party at about the same time, remembers working closely with Allawi laying the groundwork among students for the first Baath coup in 1963.

In the months following the Baath success, an estimated 3,000 Communist Party members and opponents of the coup were executed. "We didn't really know what "Baath" meant in those days - we just knew the government was too close to the communists, and we were all strong anticommunists,'' says Shibib.

When a counter-coup drove the Baath from power in November of that year, Shibib remembers briefly sharing a cell with Hussein and Allawi. In 1968, the Baath Party finally staged the successful coup that kept it in power until the US invasion last spring. Hussein personally led the purge this time, using public executions and television show trials to cow the nation. Throughout this period, Allawi remained a loyal and active party member.

In the early 1970s, Allawi accepted a scholarship to study in London, but continued to work with the Baath as the head of Iraqi Student Union in Europe. There, political foes in Iraq allege, he spied on fellow students for the regime. But Hussein began to grow suspicious of Allawi.

"The regime was starting to go after its most loyal people,'' says Gen. Abdul Jalil Mohsen, an Army officer who worked undercover for the INA inside Iraq for most of the 1990s. "They were chasing Baath people and seeking either to destroy them or bring them under Saddam's heel. Allawi rejected this and started to speak out. So this got back to Saddam."

Shibib remembers the break as a dangerous time for associates of Allawi. "My brother was also studying in London,'' says Shibib. "One day in 1975, Saddam came to me and said 'you know, your brother is quite close to Allawi. We've had to remove him from the party - he's a dangerous man and it's dangerous for your brother to be close to him,' '' recalls Shibib. "I knew this meant trouble - this was the era of assassinations."

Shibib says he sent word to Allawi to be careful, and it was at this time Allawi began to develop his ties with foreign intelligence services. In 1978, regime assassins broke into Allawi's London home and attacked him with an axe. He spent nearly a year in the hospital, and came out committed to fighting Hussein's regime.

Opposition network

Over the years, he worked through back channels to develop a network of generals who were still in the country but opposed Hussein's regime. A typical recruit was General Mohsen, who was kicked out of the Baath Party and briefly out of the Army during the Iran-Iraq War after telling Hussein that many officers were sugar-coating reports from the front. His son was later killed by the regime.

"In 1994, I got a letter from Allawi and it said. 'I've set up a new company in Jordan and I'd like you to be one of my representatives in Iraq.' I accepted," he says.

The INA would, in 1996, participate in a disastrous coup attempt against Hussein. Its networks penetrated, dozens of its operatives were killed. And in the mid-1990s, according Patrick and Andrew Cockburn's book "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein," the INA backed a series of terrorist attacks on a cinema, the offices of the Baath Party newspaper, and a mosque that killed dozens of civilians.

Mohsen became a key intelligence source for the INA, which in turn handed over much of what he knew to foreign agencies. Mohsen says he heard from a contact in 2002 that a secret military project had created a special weapon that could be deployed on the battlefield within 45 minutes.

"We didn't know what it was, but we thought it might be chemical," he says.

That information turned up in Britain's since discredited pre-war dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

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