BAGHDAD — A pair of expectant eyes peer over Iraq.
On bus stops and lampposts, television screens and billboards, the ubiquitous close-up image of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's gaze has become the central icon of his election campaign. Some voters say it symbolizes his vision for Iraq. Others infer a Big Brother message: Allawi sees all.
Whatever the perception, in the final week of campaigning there is little dispute that momentum is quietly building for Allawi, a onetime CIA-backed Iraqi opposition leader who many predicted would never shake his image as a U.S. puppet.
Recent polls show support is growing for a slate of candidates led by the former neurologist. Nearly a third of Iraqis now believe that Allawi, who was appointed by the United States as prime minister in June, has been "very effective." That's twice the number who thought so last fall, according to a survey conducted in January by the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based group with links to the GOP.
Random interviews with Iraqis across the country suggest that the prime minister is picking up support in some unlikely places, hinting that he may have the ability to bridge Iraq's ethnic and religious divides.
Allawi has taken advantage of his incumbency and name recognition, his image as a strongman and his Shiite ethnicity, presenting his slate as a secular alternative to the religious Shiite parties.
"He's going to do surprisingly well," predicted Abdul Zahra Zaki, editor of the left-leaning Al Mada newspaper, who said he planned to vote for the prime minister. "People want to give him a chance to continue what he started."
In Kirkuk, where ethnic identities are among the strongest in Iraq, the regional police chief, Maj. Gen. Torhan Abdul Rihman Yousef, is a Turkmen. His boss is a Kurd. On the wall behind the police chief's desk is a giant photo of Yousef with interim Iraqi President Ghazi Ajil Yawer, a Sunni Arab who is also heading a slate in Sunday's election.
But Yousef said he would vote for Allawi.
"He is a strong leader, and Iraq needs a strong leader," Yousef said.
Even among Shiites -- who are facing pressure from their mosques to rally behind a slate put together by powerful cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- Allawi, a secular Shiite, is emerging as an alternative for those who fear that rigorous Islamic views will creep into government.
"I'm not against Islam, because I myself am Muslim, but I have some fears about the Islamic movement," said Aida Mousawi, 45, who works at the Women's Development Center in Najaf and is planning to vote for Allawi. "It could affect our day-to-day lives."
The United Iraqi Alliance, the Sistani-blessed slate, is watching Allawi's progress warily. "Allawi will be our No. 1 competitor," said Sheik Humam Hamoodi, a leading candidate on the Shiite-dominated slate.
On election day, Iraqis will wade through 111 slates offering candidates for a transitional national assembly. Voters will select a select a single slate of ranked candidates, who will be allotted assembly seats based on how many votes the slate gets. The assembly will select a new government and write the country's constitution.
Hamoodi still believes his slate will garner the lion's share of the vote, perhaps between 40% and 50% of the seats. He thinks Allawi's list, which includes several government ministers, will earn about half that.
Imad Shabib, campaign coordinator for Allawi's slate, said that anything less than 20% for his list would be a failure. He's betting the slate will capture closer to 30%.
As head of the 233-candidate Iraqi List, Allawi is virtually guaranteed a seat in the parliament, which will elect a three-person presidency council. The council in turn will appoint the new prime minister. If Allawi's slate does well, he'll have more bargaining power to keep his job.
Hamoodi criticized Allawi's campaign for focusing too heavily on the prime minister's personality and name recognition, though he acknowledged that the strategy might appeal to voters.
"He's a one-man show," Hamoodi said. "Iraqis are used to this idea of the superhuman leader. That's what they've seen for the past 30 years. Allawi's campaign is all about portraying himself as the superhuman leader."
If Allawi's slate does well on election day, it will mark a surprising turnaround for the former Baath Party official who broke with then-President Saddam Hussein and settled in London, from where he led a U.S.-funded opposition.
Last year, Allawi emerged as the last man standing when the U.S. and United Nations cobbled together an interim government, naming him prime minister. Then, as now, he represented a compromise that most sides could live with. He's a Shiite with secular leanings and a U.S. ally who also criticized the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.