Andrew Gilligan

The strongman of Baghdad

Andrew Gilligan on the murky past of Iyad Allawi, who this week cleared the way for the attack on Fallujah

The first recorded political act of Iyad Allawi — now the interim prime minister of Iraq, then the student organiser for Saddam Hussein’s Baath party — struck some as a little extreme, even by the standards of Sixties campus politics. ‘We were at medical school in [pre-Saddam] Baghdad together,’ said his contemporary and, more recently, colleague on the Iraqi governing council, Raja al-Khuzai. ‘When we turned up for our exams, we found Iyad at the door of the examination hall, wearing combat gear and holding a machine-gun. He said, “I’m not going to allow anyone to take the exam. We’re on strike.” We were scared.’

Following the unfortunate failure of this démarche — the exams eventually went ahead, after the authorities sent in tanks — Mr Allawi evidently decided that the time for liberal pussyfooting was over. With a friend, Adel Abdul Mahdi, he arranged to kidnap the dean of the university to publicise the Baath cause. ‘We took Iraq’s first hostages,’ recalls Mr Abdul Mahdi, now Iraq’s finance minister, nostalgically. The two men did time for the offence, until a Baathist coup got them back out again.

Now, as the US threatens to destroy Fallujah in order to save it, Mr Allawi is once again at the centre of an act of violence aimed at strengthening his position. He is both the supposed author of the American offensive and definitely its intended beneficiary. Actually, of course, the authorship lies elsewhere and Mr Allawi may not even be the beneficiary. Leaving aside the tricky question of whether democracy and freedom can be built on a pile of civilian corpses, a close examination of the past of this old Baathist intriguer makes clear that to represent him as a standard-bearer of liberty is a very hard sell indeed.

After his sterling efforts in Sixties Baghdad, and the final revolution that brought Saddam to power as vice-president, Mr Allawi was promoted to head the Iraqi Student Union in Europe, a key intelligence-related post that required him to cultivate the elite Arab students who headed for the universities of London.

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