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Iraq Might Welcome a Strongman

Many appear optimistic that tough-talking homegrown leadership will overcome violence.

June 21, 2004|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — On the eve of sovereignty, Iraq is a nation in disarray, riven by bombings, assassinations and sabotage. Yet many people here appear cautiously optimistic that a tough-talking new government run by Iraqis can confront the withering cycle of violence better than their U.S.-led occupiers.

Talk of imposing martial law or restoring the death penalty has been welcomed by many among a war-weary populace.

"We need a tough ruler," said Burwa Tayyeb, who owns a boutique in Baghdad's Mansour district. "I have very high hopes and am looking forward to the 1st of July."

On Sunday, in his inaugural news conference, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi pledged to "crush" Iraq's enemies and said the nation's resources would be directed against terrorism. He said he was considering imposing "emergency law" in some areas, but he didn't elaborate.

Other Iraqis are skeptical that Allawi's tough talk can translate into effective action and fear that things may only get worse.

Many are wary that the new government may be nothing more than a front for Washington -- the charge frequently leveled at the now-defunct and widely discredited Iraqi Governing Council, appointed by outgoing U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III.

"Power will rest in the hands of the United States," said Uday Mohammed, co-owner of a women's cosmetics shop here. "It will be nothing more than a puppet government. Words are not enough."

Outsiders agonize about whether Iraq is even governable now that the Pandora's box of ethnic and religious conflict has been opened -- accompanied by a roiling insurgency confronting the world's strongest military force.

But, with some exceptions, many Iraqis profess less concern about whether the nation is governable than about the need for independent Iraqis, not outsiders or U.S. puppets, to do the job.

"These are our people. We know how to handle this," explained Hamid Rubai, an advisor to the interim leadership.

"He needs to be strict and firm," Fawzia Abdul-Jabbar, a widowed homemaker, said of Allawi. "This is the only way he could bring security to this country. We are tired of living in fear."

Relatively few Iraqis are familiar with Allawi, a physician and former Baath Party member who split with Saddam Hussein, spent decades in exile and was later associated with CIA attempts to overthrow the dictator. But the interim prime minister's stern statements and pedigree have already won him allies -- despite misgivings about his close CIA ties. His government is due to guide Iraq through a crucial period, including elections scheduled for January.

"If he was a Baathist, this means he was familiar with the ins and outs of Iraqi society," said Tayyeb, the boutique owner, who as an Iraqi Kurd is part of an ethnic group that suffered greatly under Hussein. "This is to his credit."

Others see Allawi as simply benefiting from being the new big man on the block after thorough disenchantment with the U.S. occupation.

"I would be happy if Mr. Allawi managed to bring tranquillity to this country," said Wamid Nadhmi, a prominent political scientist. "But when I think about it objectively, I reach the conclusion that things are getting worse."

It is now conventional wisdom among Iraqis that the top-heavy U.S. proconsul style exemplified by Bremer has been a failure, if not a disaster. Iraqis and Americans alike see the pressing need for an Iraqi way of running the country, whatever that might entail

"We've got to get away from this Douglas MacArthur the occupier, generalissimo thing," said Col. Dana Pittard, the 1st Infantry Division officer who commands the Baqubah region northeast of the capital. "We don't want to have to fight our way out of this place. This has to be an Iraqi show."

Even Bremer, in an interview with USA Today, expressed the hope that ending the occupation would "take some of the poison out of the system."

Last week he called the fledgling Iraqi administration "the best government Iraq has had in 50 years" -- though Allawi's team had hardly done anything beyond issuing get-tough pronouncements.

At the end of a troubled 14-month occupation, most Iraqis and Americans appear to agree on one thing: the less direct U.S. involvement the better.

Sovereignty is somewhat illusory, with about 150,000 U.S.-led foreign troops in the country and the new U.S. Embassy that will eventually employ 1,000 foreign service officers, a behind-the-scenes powerbroker with vital control over the purse strings of reconstruction. U.S. advisors will be sprinkled throughout key ministries.

To outsiders, it may seem counterintuitive -- a nation reeling from more than three decades of despotic rule appears to yearn for authority. But the carnage of the last year seems to have drained many Iraqis of their enthusiasm for noble experiments in government and left them craving a peaceful nation in which their lives may proceed without the pervasive fear of random killings.

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