Allawi safety claims 'out of touch with reality' say Iraqis

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The Independent Online

Iraqis reacted with astonishment and derision yesterday to a claim made by the interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, before the US Congress that 14 or 15 out of Iraq's 18 provinces "are completely safe."

"The truth is exactly the reverse," said a lorry driver, Abu Akil, as he queued for diesel yesterday. "There are 15 provinces which are dangerous and only the three Kurdish provinces in the north are OK. This speech was designed to be heard Americans and not by Iraqis."

The lorry drivers, desperate to feed their families, take great risks but they admit that many roads are now too dangerous. "The speech was ridiculous," said Maithan Maki. "When Allawi became Prime Minister I was in favour of him but things have got worse and worse." Mr Allawi's visit to the US may be doing him lasting damage in Iraq, reinforcing the impression that he is a pawn and out of touch with real events. Iraqis were aware when the US appointed him interim Prime Minister that he had long been financed by the CIA and MI6, but were prepared to forgive this if he could restore security.

Few people in Iraq know more about security in the country's 18 provinces than its lorry drivers, who run the gauntlet of bandits, US patrols, insurgents and police. "All the roads are dangerous," said Mr Maki. He said that bandits not only stole lorries but often kidnapped drivers and held them for ransom.Akhil Khadum, who has spent 14 years driving lorries in Iraq, said: "This speech is not in touch with reality."

But Mr Allawi's claim is difficult to disprove for the ironical reason that most of Iraq is too dangerous to visit by journalists. This is particularly useful for President George Bush as American network news correspondents can scarcely leave the mini-fortresses in which they live in Baghdad. Large areas of the country are wholly under the control of the resistance, such as Fallujah and the mid-Euphrates regions. All the drivers said they no longer carried cargo for the Americans as they were often stopped by insurgents on the road from Jordan who would look at their manifests to make sure the goods being transported were not going to a US company.

After his visit to the US, Mr Allawi will be even more dependent on Washington. He is likely to ally himselfto the Kurds in January'selections. Otherwise he does not have a political base.