Autocratic leadership will not help Iraq to become a flourishing democracy

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If Iraq is to emerge from its present state of anarchy and violence to a stable and democratic future, it will need leaders with considerable authority and political sensitivity. They will have to defuse the crisis raging in Najaf and show themselves capable of bringing the country's divided factions together ahead of democratic elections. The interim government of Iyad Allawi has thus far failed to demonstrate that it is up to either of these tasks.

Mr Allawi himself, although heavily reliant on his American backers, is unhelpfully behaving like the new hard man of Iraq, intent on removing his rivals, while at the same time displaying a touch of autocratic flair that Saddam Hussein might have approved of.

Yesterday, as US forces prepared for a full-scale assault to put down the insurgency mounted by followers of the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr in the holy city of Najaf, came the first signs of a rebellion from within Mr Allawi's own ranks. His deputy president, Ibrahim Jaafari, wants US soldiers to halt their offensive and leave the city. Mr Allawi should listen to his deputy.

The rebellion in Najaf, which is now spreading to other Shia centres, preceded Mr Allawi, but instead of calming a volatile situation that risks destabilising the entire country, he is backing US forces in an offensive which looks increasingly like all-out war on Sadr. The tough language Mr Allawi uses is both ineffectual and counterproductive. Talk of "annihilating" the "criminals" and "terrorists" carries little weight because Mr Allawi relies completely on US firepower and the presence of 138,000 American troops. And deploying a foreign army to crush his challengers merely erodes the credibility of his government among ordinary Iraqis and creates him more enemies.

At the same time Mr Allawi has reinstated the death penalty and suspended the broadcasts of al-Jazeera. The former is intended to show that he is a tough law and order man; the latter looks less like an effort to dampen violence than a move to shield himself from international embarrassment. The decision to issue warrants for the arrest of his relative Ahmed Chalabi and the INC leader's nephew Salem Chalabi is doubtless aimed at preventing either from gaining any influence at a forthcoming conference to choose a council to oversee the government.

Mr Allawi's ill-judged strategy seems calculated to ensure he is well positioned to remain in power beyond the January elections by sidelining his rivals. But as Iraq becomes more and more fragmented, he ought instead to be trying to bring all the main Iraqi groups - Sunnis, Shias, Kurds - together. This would involve preparing figures like Sadr for a future political role instead of a futile attempt to eliminate them.

On his appointment, Mr Allawi was quick to try to stamp his authority on Iraq against charges that he would be a poodle of the Americans, and pledged as his first priority to restore security. But entire cities are completely out of the control of the interim government, and he has failed to tackle the insecurity that is making the daily lives of Iraqis intolerable.

Mr Allawi does not seem to have learned the lesson of the Saddam years, that tough talk and brutal actions do not achieve results with the Iraqi people. But the doctor, born to a prosperous merchant and secular Shia family, was also a member of Saddam's Baath party before falling foul of the dictator and being forced into exile. While abroad he worked closely with the intelligence agencies of both the United States and Britain.

This past means he now has no power base in Iraq and enjoys the trust of few - Shia religious leaders think he is too secular, and those Iraqis who do not regard him as a CIA agent consider him an ex-Baathist. Increasingly he is acting out this role. If this short-sighted effort to shore up his own position backfired only on his personal ambition, it would not be a matter of international concern. But the plight of ordinary Iraqis is worsening, and his leadership is giving them scant hope of a way out.

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