A man for all intrigues

Iyad Allawi, the new choice to lead Iraq, isn't Ahmed Chalabi -- but that's about the only thing to commend this wily member of the old-boy, CIA-sponsored exile club.

By Andrew Cockburn

Published May 29, 2004 7:31PM (EDT)

There could be no more perfect evidence of the desperation among U.S. officials dealing with Iraq than the choice of veteran Baathist and CIA hireling Iyad Allawi as prime minister of the "sovereign" government due to take office after June 30. As one embittered Iraqi told me from Baghdad on Friday: "The appointment must have been orchestrated by Ahmed Chalabi in order to discredit the entire process." He was not entirely joking, given the fact that Chalabi joined the rest of the Governing Council in voting for Allawi despite their long and vicious rivalry.

Though he is Shiite, Allawi was once upon a time an active Baathist, a member of Saddam Hussein's political party, and is thought to enjoy much support among the officer corps of the old Iraqi army, and by extension among many former Baathists and influential Sunni. Indeed, there are reports that the reason Ahmed Chalabi, the neoconservative favorite, urged his friends in the White House to dissolve the army last year -- a decision now acknowledged to be the most disastrous of the occupation -- was Chalabi's fear of the support enjoyed by his rival (and cousin -- everyone in Baghdad is related) within the military.

Allawi cut his political teeth as a strong-arm Baathist student organizer before being dispatched by the party to London to run the Iraqi Student Union in Europe. Apart from the Iraqis he dutifully monitored, other Arab students with whom he came in contact were of considerable interest in Saddam's Baghdad, since they tended to be drawn from elite circles in the Middle East. They were also of more direct value to Allawi personally, garnering him a fruitful array of connections in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, which he then used with great effect in various business enterprises in the region. By the late 1970s he had become wealthy.

However, Allawi never lost his taste for the intrigue of intelligence operations and the company of intelligence officers. Soft-spoken, eloquent and persuasive, always ready to hint at a powerful connection or make a promise, he proved adept at telling them what they wanted to hear in language they could understand. In 1978, this mutual affection almost proved fatal. By that time, Allawi had reportedly entered into a relationship with the British security services, who were naturally keen to have a willing and well-informed source in the large and faction-ridden Arab student community in London. Word of this relationship reached the suspicious ears of Saddam's secret police, the Mukhabarat, who dispatched a team armed with knives and axes to Allawi's comfortable home in Kingston-upon-Thames to deal with the problem in summary fashion. Bursting into his bedroom, the assassins hacked at him as he lay beside his sleeping wife and were prevented from finishing the job only by the fortuitous appearance of his father-in-law, who happened to be staying in the house. The would-be killers ran off and the badly injured Allawi lived to make more money and pursue his connections with British intelligence.

At the time of the 1991 war, Allawi scented the interest of Saudi intelligence and joined forces with his fellow ex-Baathist, Salih Omar, in producing the Voice of Free Iraq. The pair soon fell out, however, reportedly because of a dispute over a $40,000 check from their Saudi paymasters. Omar gradually faded from sight, while Allawi retained control of the group they had founded, the Iraqi National Accord (Al Wifaq), into which he steadily recruited former Baathist Sunnis, and was soon back in London, awaiting fresh clients. He found them among his old connections at British intelligence, MI6, and, a few years later, the CIA, which was simultaneously funding Ahmed Chalabi's exile organization, the Iraqi National Congress (INC).

"The two were supported by different factions at the agency," recalls one veteran of the Iraq program. "Iyad Allawi was the more likable of the two; he didn't act the grand pasha like Chalabi used to. But there was no there there -- he didn't have anyone inside Iraq. It was like recruiting a White Russian [pro-Czarist] to overthrow Stalin in 1938."

Nevertheless, in 1996 the CIA invested its hopes in a coup against Saddam plotted by Allawi and his INA group. It proved a total bust, perhaps because INA officials in Amman, Jordan, boasted of its imminence to a Washington Post reporter. Whatever the reason, Saddam rounded up all the conspirators he could get his hands on, while sending derisive messages to the CIA reporting his victory.

Licking its wounds, the CIA harbored dark suspicions that Chalabi had betrayed the coup to Saddam, while Allawi went unpunished for his failure. Though his public reputation suffered from the undiluted stream of abuse broadcast by Chalabi's efficient propaganda machine, he retained his supporters both at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and at MI6.

Just as Chalabi did, Allawi, in his quiet way, supplied the requisite quota of misinformation on Saddam's WMD to justify the Bush-Blair war program. The infamous lie about Saddam's ability to deploy biological weapons in 45 minutes that Blair put out in his dossier came from Allawi's organization.

When Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer handed out patronage rewards to the motley group of expatriates assembled in the Governing Council last year, Allawi secured the important plum of chairmanship of the Defense and Security Committee. His nominee became minister of the interior (though there were some awkward questions asked when 19 billion dinars of ministry money mysteriously turned up in a private plane at Beirut airport, unencumbered by a satisfactory explanation as to what it was doing there.) Thus Allawi is well placed in the "power ministries" with oversight of the nascent military and police. (Ali Allawi, the current minister of defense, is a cousin of Iyad's, as well as being Ahmed's nephew, but is generally considered to be his own man.)

Behind the scenes, Allawi and Chalabi have been waging a ferocious struggle for the spoils of power, particularly in the oil sector. Although Chalabi was able to get control of key posts at the powerful ministry of oil, Allawi scored a significant victory when his nominee managed to secure the agency for the oil trading giant Glencore, which had formerly been on close terms with Chalabi. In response, the Chalabi forces swore to ensure that Glencore could not buy Iraqi oil, an embargo that may change now that Iyad Allawi is becoming prime minister.

In recent days, Allawi and Chalabi joined forces, along with other former expatriate politicians, to prevent the nomination of Hussein Shahristani to the post of prime minister. Shahristani, a devout Shiite, would have been an inspired appointment. A man of extraordinary courage and integrity, he once told Saddam Hussein to his face that Iraq should not build a nuclear weapon. Predictably, he was tortured and put on trial for espionage, in the course of which he blithely insulted Saddam's parentage. He spent 10 years in solitary confinement in Abu Ghraib. "I probably survived execution because I was there on the direct orders of Saddam," Shahristani once told me. "And he simply forgot to sign my death warrant." He escaped disguised as a prison guard during the 1991 war after suborning a trusty who unlocked his cell and helped him flee.

Finding refuge in Iran, Shahristani refused to move on to comfortable exile in the West, preferring instead to stay in Iran and organize aid for otherwise friendless Iraqi refugees as well as the resistance inside Iraq itself. His unshakable independence eventually drove the Iranians to force him to move to London.

Returning to Iraq immediately after the war, Shahristani eschewed the trappings of power and cash rewards sought by other returning exiles and even refused to enter the U.S. Green Zone headquarters on the grounds it was occupied territory. He soon earned the trust and respect of Ayatollah Sistani. But that was not enough to protect him from self-interested intriguers like Allawi, Chalabi, and the representatives of the Islamist parties SCIRI and DAWA. "The Islamist Shia said they wouldn't take someone who wasn't one of them, which Shahristani is not, and the secular Shia said they wouldn't have someone who is religious, meaning Shahristani," explains a despondent Iraqi official and Shahristani supporter.

The United Nations, charged with coming up with the new government, was taken by surprise by Allawi's selection. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he "respects" the decision and is willing to work with Allawi, according to U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard. But the world body was less than effusive about the choice. "Let's see what the Iraqi street has to say about this name before we decide to write it off," Eckhard said. Brahimi, who is not permitted to leave the U.S.-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad, has previously confided to friends that he feels immense pressure from the U.S. to endorse its choice.

Having settled on a prime minister, National Security Council aide Robert Blackwill, who has the Iraq portfolio, and Brahimi will soon announce the Iraqi president. As of Friday evening, the hot favorite was a senior member of the powerful Shammar tribe named Ghazi al Yawar, who is distantly related to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and who has spent many years in Saudi Arabia. However, the former favorite, courtly octogenarian Adnan Pachachi, who sat beside Laura Bush in her box at the State of the Union address, is reported to have edged back into the running and may still stand a chance. No one is asking the Iraqi people who they want, at least not yet.

Andrew Cockburn

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington Editor of Harper's magazine and the author of many articles and books on national security, including the New York Times Editor's Choice Rumsfeld and The Threat, which destroyed the myth of Soviet military superiority underpinning the Cold War. He is a regular opinion contributor to the Los Angeles Times and has written for, among others, the New York Times, National Geographic and the London Review of Books.

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Iraq Middle East United Nations