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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Iraq's Premier Receives High Marks From U.S.

Allawi 'is the perfect leader ... at the moment,' one former official says, echoing the sentiments of others.

August 29, 2004|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In his first two months as head of the American-backed interim Iraqi government, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has produced something rare for U.S. policymakers dealing with the turmoil in Iraq: a pleasant surprise.

In his first 60 days, they say, Allawi has stamped his authority over the fledgling interim government he leads, focused almost exclusively on the crucial issue of security and, in the process, emerged as a credible Iraqi political figure visibly trying to establish a semblance of law and order.

"He's smart, he's tough, he's resolved," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who frequently has challenged the administration's postwar strategy. "In light of the capacity he possesses, he's done a remarkable job."

In the anarchic confusion of Iraq, success is often measured in the most modest accomplishments. Although Allawi, 59, has convinced many Iraqis that he's striving to make a difference, the armed insurgency has shown no sign of weakening and the rate of U.S. military casualties since he took the job June 28 has been among the highest in the post-invasion period, according to Pentagon figures.

Allawi has been accused by some critics of being a "Johnny One-Note" -- concentrating on security to the exclusion of other pressing needs -- and has little experience in the hardball world of Iraqi political power-brokering. Many believe that his effort to negotiate an end to the uprising by Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr in Najaf left him overshadowed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who brokered the deal to end the crisis Friday, and outflanked by Sadr, whose fighters were allowed to leave freely, many keeping their weapons.

Despite all this, U.S. policymakers say, Allawi's initial actions have combined to give ordinary Iraqis what they have lacked for months: hope that life might begin to get better.

And he has given the Bush administration at least momentary hope for its prospects in Iraq.

"He's demonstrating political leadership in an extremely difficult situation and meeting the security challenges of Iraq with resolve and determination," said a senior White House official who declined to be identified by name.

Allawi's early trips outside the highly protected government compound in Baghdad -- sometimes to inspect bombing scenes -- left an impression among beleaguered Iraqis that he understood their concerns about the urgent need to improve security. The fact he did so despite repeated death threats from insurgents seeking to destabilize the country added to his stature.

His one foreign trip since coming to office, an extended visit that took him to most countries in the region, was also dominated by efforts to enlist the help of Iraq's neighbors in the battle to contain the insurgency. Collectively, his actions have left the impression among Iraqis that he is engaged in trying to ease their plight, U.S. experts said.

"Allawi has done a lot of good with an extremely weak hand," noted Toby Dodge, a Middle East specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and a frequent critic of the U.S.-led forces. "He's appealing to what's left of the middle class, telling them, 'I know you want law and order and I'm trying to give you that.' "

Americans directly associated with the effort to bring some form of representative government to Iraq are more convinced than ever that by backing Allawi, they made the right choice.

"He's succeeded beyond expectations," said a former senior member of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American-led organization that administered the occupation before transferring sovereignty to Allawi's interim government in late June.

The same former official noted that Allawi's earlier focus on the security issue during his months at the Iraqi Governing Council, the U.S.-appointed body formed shortly after Saddam Hussein's fall in the spring of last year, had given him a unique understanding of the insurgency.

"The consensus among policymakers and members of Congress is that he is the perfect leader for Iraq at the moment, given the security challenges," the official said.

Even widely publicized reports -- none of them confirmed -- that he personally executed as many as six suspected insurgents at a Baghdad police station shortly before he became prime minister seem to have added to his appeal among those Iraqis desperate to end the chaos.

"There's no reason to believe that it's true, but the story doesn't serve him badly in the current climate," said David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute, an independent, Washington-based think tank. "He's recognized that in a situation approaching anarchy, the critical demands of Iraqis, their neighbors and the U.S. become far more focused on internal security."

Mack added, "From the U.S. viewpoint, given the dire situation we're in, he's doing as well as we can ask for."

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