It's hard to picture Iyad Allawi as a strongman. Iraq's interim Prime Minister has a couple of chins below a face that wears an expression of permanent sleep deprivation. With his rumpled suits, ill-tucked shirts and reading glasses perched low on the nose, he comes across more a distracted accountant than a political powerhouse.
But as the new Prime Minister of a country at war with itself, Allawi knows he has to appear resolute. He has already shown a willingness to mix things up with his U.S. patrons and the insurgents. He said last week that outgoing U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer made "a big mistake" by disbanding Saddam Hussein's army a year ago; Allawi said he plans to reconstitute divisions of the old army after June 30. And he brushed off a death threat issued by Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, threatening to impose martial law in parts of the country, if that's what it would take to subjugate Baathist militants and foreign terrorists. "They are trying to destroy our country, and we are not going to allow this," he said.
Allawi's fighting words may do little to deter the insurgents, but they set off alarm bells among U.S. officials. Bremer's aides said Allawi lacks the power to impose martial law, and Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that the U.S. would not support such a move. "The last thing we want," says a senior U.S. official, "is for the world to think we're foisting a new strongman on Iraq."
To some Iraqis wearied by security fears, though, military rule sounds almost comforting. "The Americans have had a long time to improve the security situation, but it has only got worse," says Shakr Ali, a Baghdad newsagent. "Allawi understands that this problem has to be solved in an Iraqi way, the hard way ... the Baathist way."
Indeed, Allawi knows the Baathist way. The British-trained neurologist was one of the party's rising stars in the 1960s, along with a friend and occasional patient, Saddam Hussein. After resigning from the party in the mid-1970s and going into exile in London, Allawi became a Baathist target. In 1978, an assassin sent by Saddam attacked Allawi in his bed with an ax. He was seriously wounded in the head, right leg and chest and spent almost a year in a hospital. When he recovered, he began to organize fellow Baathist exiles into the Iraqi National Accord. The group began to receive CIA funding in 1990. Six years later, using disillusioned Baathists in the military and government, it mounted an unsuccessful coup in Baghdad.
Allawi's CIA connections last year helped get him a seat on Bremer's Governing Council. In opinion polls, Allawi got some of the lowest scores among Iraq's emerging leaders, in part because most Iraqis barely know who he is. His low-key style and skill at consensus building will be tested in his new job, as he tries to manage a 31member council of ministers representing every religious, sectarian and ethnic group.