Allawi fights to mobilise a terrified electorate

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The Independent Online

His avuncular face stares from posters across Baghdad. One posted on a window by the front entrance of the Yarmouk hospital also has smaller pictures of a religious dignitary and a woman wearing a headscarf.

His avuncular face stares from posters across Baghdad. One posted on a window by the front entrance of the Yarmouk hospital also has smaller pictures of a religious dignitary and a woman wearing a headscarf.

Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi interim Prime Minister, is appealing to voters as a strong man who brings order to his war-ravaged country. The presence of the cleric and woman on the poster are designed to show that he is a secular candidate but still has religious supporters.

Three young men were lolling by the door of the hospital. They said they wanted to vote - "it is our religious duty" - but went on to explain that "we live in Dohra, a very dangerous district and maybe we will not dare to go to the polls".

Mr Allawi's Iraqi List, including his own party, the Iraqi National Accord, is expected to be one of the three main victors in the election on 30 January. The other two slates likely to do well are the United Iraqi Alliance combining the main Shia parties, and the Kurdistan Alliance list.

It is surprising that Mr Allawi is doing so well. In the six months since he was appointed interim Prime Minister by the US, Iraq has sunk ever deeper into war and economic misery. Even in the al-Rashid hotel in the heavily fortified Green Zone the management was last week rationing again to one hour's water a day.

Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world but in recent months there have been queues several miles long outside the petrol stations. Drivers often sleep in their cars overnight. Even the mobile phones, one of the few popular innovations since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, now often fail to work for hours at a time.

Nor is the military situation much better. Mr Allawi supported the US assault on Fallujah last November which left the city a pile of ruins. But the insurgents showed that they could switch their attack to other parts of Iraq and for several days captured much of the northern capital of Mosul.

Through all these disasters Mr Allawi exudes a jovial confidence that Iraq is on the mend, its new army is in the making and soon "evil forces will be driven from Iraq". Last September he stood beside President George Bush and announced that 14 or 15 out of 18 Iraqi provinces were "completely safe". Iraqis know that in fact only three provinces are safe (the Kurdish ones in the north) but the obvious untruthfulness of what Mr Allawi was saying has not damaged him.

Mr Allawi's main card remains the support he receives from the US. He depends on its 150,000-strong army. The very fact that an election is taking place at the end of this week is primarily an American decision. But he is not wholly without leverage because the US, without any real idea of how it is going to extract itself from the Iraqi morass, would prefer Mr Allawi to the alternatives.

The election may end with a photocopy of the present government, with Mr Allawi being re-appointed as Prime Minister. This would probably satisfy two of the most important players in Iraqi politics - the US and the Kurds - and would be acceptable to many of the Shia leaders.

The Prime Minister's political success in the eyes of Iraqi voters is not based on his achievements. But he plays up to their desire for a strong man who will bring security back into their lives. He comes from a prominent Shia merchant family but at college in Baghdad in the late 1960s he was a militant member of the Baath party.

He remained a Baathist as a student leader in Britain in the 1970s but later quarrelled with Saddam, whose agents almost succeeded in murdering him. He was supported first by MI6 and later by the CIA. His party, the Iraqi National Accord, looked to former Baathist officials and soldiers for its membership though Mr Allawi's one attempt at a military coup in Iraq in 1966 failed disastrously.

If he does well in the elections it will be because he is a former Baathist but not close to Saddam. This is true of a lot of Iraqis, particularly in government. He is a secular Shia and many Shias do not want to vote for the United Iraqi List, dominated by religious parties. His secular and Baathist background may also make him acceptable to some Sunni Arabs. Amid the ferocious divisions of Iraqi politics Mr Allawi could turn out to be the man with the least enemies.

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