BAGHDAD — Earlier this week, in an attempt to reach out to constituents, Iyad Allawi threw a garden party at his Baghdad headquarters for tribal sheiks from southern Iraq.
The day before, while campaigning in the holy city of Najaf, he had been pelted with shoes and rocks, and this time he was taking no chances. Protected by a ring of guards, Allawi was staying in his compound. Voters -- and those who could deliver crucial Shiite votes -- would have to come to him.
"I have very extreme forces who are assembled against me," Allawi, 60, said later. "They would like to get rid of me physically, let alone politically."
The former interim prime minister is provocative indeed. His comeback bid in Thursday's national parliamentary election is seen as the biggest threat to Iraq's religious-based Shiite Muslim establishment.
Allawi was appointed interim leader by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which oversaw Iraq after the 2003 invasion that toppled President Saddam Hussein. He portrays himself as a secular alternative, and heads a bloc that includes Sunni Arabs.
In January's legislative election, Allawi's coalition garnered just 14% of the vote. This time, he and supporters hope more Iraqis will be swayed by his political message than by the sectarian appeals of clerics.
To win them over, Allawi has launched a carefully crafted advertising campaign, with slick TV spots and posters and ubiquitous sound bites.
Meanwhile, he must fend off attempts at character assassination, not to mention violence.
The outcome of Thursday's election is of vital importance to the Bush administration, which has long pressed for inclusion of the minority Sunni population in the political process as a means to sap strength from the Sunni-driven insurgency and keep the country together.
"He probably is the most visible representative" of secular, middle-class Iraqis, said Wayne White, a former Iraq analyst for the State Department now with the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. "That element in Iraqi society ... is perhaps the most important societal glue that potentially could help prevent Iraq's effective breakup. As a result, his fate could be an interesting bellwether as to how well all this is going to turn out in the end."
The slate that wins the most seats in the new parliament will have first shot at choosing a prime minister, although the designee will need the support of two-thirds of parliament. The Shiite bloc is expected to get the most votes, but if Allawi's slate wins enough seats, he could step in with a coalition that covers the political spectrum.
"To them, he's the No. 1 opponent," said political analyst Hassan Bazaz, referring to the Shiite slate.
"They know what the other groups will get," he said. "They know Allawi will be able to form alliances. They know he's on very good terms with the Kurds, and they know he will go ahead and form an alliance with the Sunnis."
Still, Allawi, who needs to do much better at the polls than he did in January, may have trouble shedding the perceptions about his past.
Among many Shiites, he is tarnished by his membership in Hussein's Baath Party during the 1970s, before he went into exile. Among Sunnis, said White, "he's still Shiite. To top it all off, he's an exile who received CIA funding."
Speculation has been widespread that Allawi is among the candidates favored by the British government and, to a lesser extent, Washington, largely because of his secular views. He denies foreigners are involved in his well-financed campaign.
On a recent afternoon, during a break between visitors, Allawi appeared relaxed despite the Najaf attack a day earlier. Just one subject raised his temper: being targeted for his Baathist past.
"I fought more than anybody else to unseat this regime of Saddam and I suffered tremendously, my family suffered a lot," he said. "What, they'll come back to me again and say, 'Thirty, 40 years ago you were a member of the Baath Party'? ... This is becoming a joke."
With few reliable polls, it is difficult to predict who will hold sway Thursday. Allawi believes many voters will make up their minds in the last few days.
His posters seem to be everywhere, and they bill him simply as "Allawi." The implication: Fame is to be known by one name only. A horse, taut and poised for a jump, has been incorporated as a logo. Glossy leaflets depict Allawi as a statesman, visiting military leaders and scientists and posing in front of mosques and churches.
At his campaign operations center, a dozen people sat around a large table, monitoring the Internet. "When someone attacks, we reply instantly," said Saad Yousif, a media strategist. "It's like firefighting."
Allawi's team is focusing on demographics as well as imagery, having printed a separate poster for Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, dominated by Sunnis. The poster shows a well-known Sunni candidate on Allawi's slate.