Iraq's compromise candidate

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MAYADAH Khudair squinted in the afternoon sun. "Allawi was a member of the Baath party in the past, so how do we know he won’t bring back old members?" said the 30-year-old accountant from the Shiite southern city of Basra. "That said, the Baathists were good at security and they might be able to bring it back ..."

Her reaction was a typical one yesterday, as Iraqis heard Iyad Allawi had been nominated as the country’s interim prime minister. Suspicion of his past links to the Baathist movement was tempered by the prospect of an end to a cycle of violence and mayhem.

Allawi is undoubtedly a compromise candidate. A British-educated neurosurgeon with close links to both the CIA and MI6, he maintained a network of opposition to Saddam throughout the dictator’s decades in power. He straddles just enough boundaries to fit the bill. "None of the names on offer was perfect," one politician said. "He’s secular. He’s clever. And he has a good relationship with both the Sunnis and the Shia."

In the current climate that has proven enough, although the announcement of his nomination by the 23-member Iraq Governing Council appeared to catch both UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, asked by Washington to help set up an interim government to take over from US rule next month, and the US administration, on the hop.

Even though the US initially appeared to back away from Allawi yesterday as he began the process of forming a government team, with one official calling him "just a nominee", he later received a White House endorsement as a "fine and capable leader". Brahimi also all but endorsed Allawi. "He is perfectly comfortable with how the process is proceeding so far", a statement by his office said.

Allawi’s appointment is now certain. As a long-time exile in the pay of the CIA, he was always a strong candidate in Washington and US officials were clearly involved in steering the choice. Brahimi had also placed him on a list of candidates.

It was expected that Iraq’s new president and two vice-presidents would be named today, with the rest of the 26-minister cabinet line-up to follow tomorrow or Tuesday.

Ordinary Iraqis know little of Allawi. He was born in Iraq in 1945 but has spent more than 30 years abroad - first as a medical student in Britain supporting Saddam Hussein’s Baath party and later as a wealthy exile who in 1990 founded the anti-Saddam Iraqi National Accord (INA) with funds from the CIA and British intelligence.

The INA provided some of the now widely discredited intelligence on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction that formed US President George W Bush’s prime justification for invading.

Saddam’s secret police were sent to assassinate him at his home in the London suburb of Kingston in 1978 after he struck up a relationship with the British secret service, according to a book by Iraq specialists Andrew and Patrick Cockburn.

Axe-wielding agents burst into his bedroom as he and his wife slept, but fled when his father-in-law appeared.

Aides to Allawi said yesterday he was meeting various fellow members of the Governing Council, which will give way on June 30 to the interim government. One said he also expected to meet Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq.

A spokesman for Brahimi said the envoy would now work with Allawi to form a government. Its main task will be to organise Iraq’s first free elections in the new year amid widespread violence from sectarian militias and al-Qaeda-linked Islamists.

With the top job in the hands of Allawi, a secular Muslim from the long-oppressed 60% Shiite community, Brahimi is expected to name a president from among the once-dominant Sunnis and a vice president each from the Kurds and the Shiites.

Elections are due in January under a plan that Washington has submitted to the UN Security Council for endorsement.

Allawi, who has fostered ties with the old Iraqi military and whose cousin Ali Allawi is defence minister, has warned of the huge difficulties of installing democracy in Iraq when there is little tradition of free voting anywhere in the Middle East.

He has been a strong supporter of rebuilding an Iraqi army and building up other internal forces to restore order. He and his team will also face a big credibility test among ordinary Iraqis who knew no leader but Saddam for three decades.

Doubts were expressed yesterday about Allawi’s fitness for the job. Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesman, said: "If it is the case that Mr Allawi has a close relationship with Britain and America’s intelligence services he is bound to be an object of considerable suspicion."

Negotiations are going on in the UN Security Council over how much sovereign power the interim government will have.

Some Iraqi leaders and countries such as France are pushing to amend a US- and British-sponsored resolution to strengthen the government’s powers, notably over the US-led troops.

Deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage said the US could accept reviewing the troops’ mandate in less than the one year set in the draft. But it would resist pressure to swap an open-ended mandate for a fixed date for withdrawal.

In the holy city of Najaf, the biggest trouble spot for US forces at present, where five Iraqis were killed in clashes on Friday, there was little sign of unrest on Saturday.

WELL CONNECTED

IAYD Allawi has links to Ahmed Chalabi, the man widely tipped to run the interim government in Iraq until his home was raided by US forces investigating his links to Iran and the quality of prewar intelligence he had fed to the coalition.

Chalabi and Allawi, who like many Shiites of prominent families are related by marriage, have been alternately rivals and allies. Chalabi (below) had a bitter breakup with the CIA in the 1990s but became close with the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, Allawi and his Iraqi National Accord (INA) organisation have solid relationships with the CIA and State Department.

Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for Chalabi, said the two men had disagreed on how to overthrow Saddam. Allawi wanted a coup, while Chalabi sought outside intervention.

Chalabi was not present for Allawi’s vote on Friday. Qanbar said he was in Najaf, mediating the violence there, and someone sat in for him.

David Phillips, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, said the fact that Allawi is an exile is significant because there is always a tension between Iraqis who suffered under Saddam’s regime and those who left.

"Allawi commands respect and has been a source of stability as a member of the governing council," Phillips said. "He’s a pretty straight shooter."

But one Washington analyst, Laurie Mylroie, who has long-time close ties to Chalabi disputes that. "What this means is the CIA is going to be running Iraq for the next six months," Mylroie said.