Ayad Allawi has only just seen off a delegation of Shiite clerics from Basra, and already emissaries from the autonomous region of Kurdistan are waiting for him in the parlor. A long list of supporters and activists come to visit the 69-year-old here, in the campaign office of his Iraqi National Accord Party, despite the dangers involved in a trip to Baghdad. Bomb attacks still rock the country, and the capital, every day.
Allawi's elaborately secured residence, a former educational center of the Baath Party, is located in the upscale neighborhood of Mansour, outside the sealed Green Zone in which the government, international organizations and US Embassy have fortified themselves. Allawi drags his right leg: "A greeting from Saddam Hussein," he says. He claims that in 1978, Saddam's henchmen had wanted to dispose of him because he had demanded freedom and democracy. He points to his family's democratic tradition: His ancestors, he says, revolted against the British occupiers and were involved in the founding of Iraq, becoming ministers and lawmakers.
Allawi, the son of a Shiite businessman, joined the nationalist Baath party when he was a medical student, but in the 1970s, became an opponent of Saddam, who had already begun using brutal methods to steer the country. Today, 11 years after Saddam's fall, violence, corruption and abuses of power still dominate daily life in Baghdad. Allawi blames Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for this chaos. Allawi says his "primary goal" for the parliamentary election on April 30 is to remove his religiously influenced government.
SPIEGEL recently sat down for an interview with Allawi in the run-up to parliamentary elections in Iraq on Wednesday.
SPIEGEL: Dr. Allawi, you are the head of the coalition of opposition parties known as the National List, and you are challenging Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the parliamentary election on April 30. Do you expect it to be a fair election?
Allawi: No, not really. The number of atrocities used to intimidate the opposition has gone up again. And the politically devastating charge that I was a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party is being dragged out again. This tactic is especially intended to sideline opposition candidates who are capable of capture a lot of votes.
SPIEGEL: And you are running nonetheless?
Allawi: I see it as my duty to take a stand for the Iraqi people, for democracy, freedom and reconciliation.
SPIEGEL: Can a policy of reconciliation produce a majority in this heated environment?
Allawi: I am convinced that it can, or else I wouldn't advocate it. Many Iraqis now recognize that things can't go on like this, that violence and religious extremism are destroying Iraq and that the country will break apart.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, many Iraqis still want to see Maliki return as prime minister.
Allawi: I'm not so sure about that. Maliki has lost an influential ally in cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who now publicly refers to the prime minister as a "tyrant." And religious scholar Ammar al-Hakim, who leads the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, also has a large following. It could turn into a neck-and-neck race. I see my movement as a third force, alongside the Kurds, who are strong in their part of the country, in the north, Iraqi Kurdistan. In truly free elections, we could even win.
SPIEGEL: Are your warnings about massive election fraud a way of hiding the fact that you don't have nearly as much public support as you claim?
Allawi: Let's wait and see what happens in the election. If it's transparent and fair, and we still lose, I'll accept it.
SPIEGEL: The coalition of parties you lead won the 2010 parliamentary election. But Maliki moved into the prime minister's palace because he was more politically tactful.
Allawi: No, the fact that he came into office was the result of a bitter power struggle that had begun before those elections. Many of my allies and supporters were arrested, 16 were killed and about 500 were banned from politics for allegedly being Baath officials. All of this forced us onto the sidelines. But we will still win.
SPIEGEL: With 91 seats in parliament, you captured two more seats than Maliki's faction, and yet Maliki got the mandate to form a government.
Allawi: In 2010, President Jalal Talabani was under pressure from foreign powers. He even admitted it later on. That's why he never gave us the mandate to form a government within 45 days, despite the fact that this is stipulated in our constitution.
SPIEGEL: But Iraq's Supreme Court confirmed the president's decision, ruling that appointing Maliki four years ago was legal.
Allawi: Are you saying that some judges weren't being pressured?
SPIEGEL: Who is supposed to have exerted so much influence on the Iraqi president and the judges on the federal court?
SPIEGEL: Are you trying to tell us that your election victory spurred two long-time enemies, Tehran and Washington, to collaborate?
Allawi: As far as the pressure from Iran goes, I can assure you that there was a very clear red line: Allawi and the Iraqi List were not to be allowed to come into power. Many regional leaders -- including Russia, Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar -- tried to reason with Iran in order to get it to shift its strategy, but they failed.
SPIEGEL: Why would your fellow Shiites in Tehran have been interested in preventing you from becoming prime minister?
Allawi: I have nothing against the Iranian leadership. In fact, I accommodated it often enough during my time as premier. But I am no proponent of a theocracy. I am a secularist. I wanted an independent Iraqi government, not a lackey of Tehran.
SPIEGEL: It is precisely this independence of Iraq that Prime Minister Maliki insisted on during a conversation with us. He vehemently rejects the accusation that he is a lackey of Iran.
Allawi: Maliki is extremely close to the leadership in Tehran. I, on the other hand, am no proponent of radical Shi'ism. I also don't support any sectarian forces. And I'm against politicizing religion. That's why the Iranian leadership intervened in the outcome of our election at the time.
SPIEGEL: It may be feasible that Iran wants to gain control over neighboring Iraq and sees Maliki as the more willing partner. But why should the United States give the mullahs in Tehran free rein on this issue?
Allawi: Washington fears Tehran and its interventions. I believe that the US calculation was that if I came into power against Iran's will, Tehran would plunge Iraq into even greater chaos. Keeping me from coming into power was apparently the lesser evil. I call that intervening in Iraq's internal affairs.
SPIEGEL: Those are serious accusations you are leveling against the US government.
Allawi: President Obama called me at the time, when we were trying to reach some sort of a power-sharing agreement. Maliki was to become prime minister and I, as a member of the government, was to head a Council for Higher Policies. Obama promised me that he would support this solution. He even sent his ambassador that very afternoon to witness the negotiations between the president of the autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, and Maliki, and also to convey Washington's position.
SPIEGEL: But after an eight-month power vacuum, Maliki was confirmed in office
Allawi: and the power-sharing agreement came to nothing. But did you know that even (Syrian President) Bashar Assad tried to mediate?
SPIEGEL: No. On which side was the Syrian president at the time?
Allawi: He called me and invited me to come to Damascus, along with a dozen members of parliament. He told me that he had tried to champion my coalition with the Iranians, but was unsuccessful. He also said that he had since heard, "from friends in Turkey and other countries," that America no longer supported my coalition, but rather, like Iran, stood behind Maliki.