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Iraqi Election Fear 'No One Is Safe Anymore'

Iraq's former interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, is hoping to oust the current government in this week's elections. He speaks to SPIEGEL about his belief that the Americans robbed him of power and about the country's escalating violence.

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?

Allawi: Iran  and theUnited States  and some local adversaries.

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.

Who Controls This Election?

SPIEGEL: Do you have any indications that Tehran could also manipulate the outcome of the current election?

Allawi: The conditions, at the very least, have changed. Iran has enough on its plate, having to overcome the crisis in Syria and curb the unrest in Lebanon. That's why it no longer has as much influence as it did four years ago. Iran also sees our vulnerable country as a buffer between itself and crisis-plagued Syria and Lebanon.

SPIEGEL: In the run-up to the Iraqi elections, is it even possible for you to go on something like a campaign tour?

Allawi: It would be too dangerous. There is no such thing as a campaign here, because hardly anyone can safely appear in public.

SPIEGEL: You have been the target of several assassination attempts. One nearly succeeded.

Allawi: Yes, I was lucky on that Feb. 4, 1978. I was finally able to return to a normal life after many months in the hospital. My wife never got over the attack. She became severely depressed and later died as a result.

SPIEGEL: Could you describe what happened?

Allawi: I was doing post-graduate work in medicine in Britain. We were living in a house in Surrey in southern England. It happened in the middle of the night, at around 3 a.m. At first I thought that the shadow was a dream, but then I saw a huge axe moving towards me. Then I realized that something had startled me, that my eyes were wide open and that someone was kicking me. Something shiny came at me, and I fought with that shadow. I tried to kick back. I tried to get up. But I couldn't do it. I felt hot water flowing across my face and chest. This lasted about 30 seconds, before my late wife switched on the light.

I recognized that it was a man who was attacking me with an axe. I realized that I was covered in my own blood, and that it was coming from my head. I saw that my right leg was shattered around the level of my knee. My wife attacked the attacker and bit his hand. Then he attacked her. I was able to get the weapon away from him, and I hit him in the leg with it. He fled with his accomplices, whose presence I hadn't noticed before.

SPIEGEL: And then?

Allawi: I called the hospital and asked them to call the police. I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. It took a year before I could be released.

SPIEGEL: Were the perpetrators caught?

Allawi: No. The doctors didn't allow anyone to see me in the first three days, not even the police. By then the perpetrators had left the country. But they were members of Saddam's intelligence service. I later learned that they had even managed to get into the hospital morgue to see if my body was there. The British counterterrorism unit that was then in charge of my investigation was also convinced that Saddam had sent the killers.

SPIEGEL: After the dictator was overthrown, were you able to learn anything about the attacker or his accomplices?

Allawi: The British investigated the perpetrators, and it turned that Saddam's intelligence service had sent one of them to Turkey afterwards. His assignment was to kill members of the opposition living in exile, who were traveling to northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan) through Turkey. And I was supposed to be the first target. But Turkish security forces arrested him, and he came clean and was extradited to our transitional government.

SPIEGEL: Is he still in prison?

Allawi: I don't know if he is in prison or has since been released. I didn't press charges against him, even though I know his name and have a photo of him. Personally, I have forgiven him, partly to send a message: We have to stop killing each other. We only stand a chance if we can break this spiral of violence and retribution.

SPIEGEL: Iraq doesn't seem to be able to escape from this vicious circle.

Allawi: As prime minister, at least I tried to break through the circle. I distinguished between terrorists, and the so-called resistance…

SPIEGEL: … made up of Sunni tribal fighters who feel robbed of their share of power.

Allawi: I sought dialogue. The activists in this resistance movement, most of them Sunnis, are part of our people. They feel marginalized and discriminated against by Maliki's government. We have to integrate them, not fight them. And I also sought dialogue with former Baathists when there was no evidence that they were personally responsible for any crimes.

SPIEGEL: Are you ignoring the collaboration between the Sunni tribes and the al-Qaida terror network?

Allawi: I was in the troubled Anbar Province, in the centers, like Fallujah, of the so-called uprising. Baathists and Sunni clerics joined me in fighting the terrorists. I can tell the difference between senseless terror and justifiable rebellion.

SPIEGEL: But you also failed to achieve reconciliation.

Allawi: Unfortunately, my successors in office have taken a different approach. The whole country is in turmoil. The security situation is getting worse every day, not just because of the terrorists' bombs, but also as a result of mass arrests. No one is safe anymore. Just yesterday, one of our maids didn't show up to work. Why? Because her cousin had been kidnapped. The family had to come up with $15,000 (€10,900), which it then paid to the kidnappers. Then they called our maid and told her where to find her cousin. She drove to the place and found him. He was dead, lying next to six other bodies.

SPIEGEL: Your house in Baghdad is heavily guarded, and you don't take a step without bodyguards. Do you carry a weapon?

Allawi: I'm a doctor and a politician. Weapons are foreign to me. But as a farewell present when I left the office of prime minister, an Arab king gave me a nice little machine gun. For years it was kept in a nice box, somewhere in this house. Four months ago, I pulled out the dusty box and unpacked the weapon. My bodyguards showed me how to clean, load and use the weapon. Believe me, I never thought it would come to this.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Allawi, we thank you for this interview.

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