Could Iraq’s ‘greatest political survivor’ make a comeback?

Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi could rise to power once again

Paul Crompton

Published: Updated:

Last month, veteran Iraqi politician Ayad Allawi announced that he will participate in upcoming general elections that could oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Islamic Dawa party from over seven years in power.

Holding the position would not be new for Allawi, who in 2004 became Iraq’s first head of government since dictator Saddam Hussein’s overthrow the year before.

However, Allawi’s roots are closer to his authoritarian predecessor than might be assumed. Born in 1944 to a wealthy Shiite family - with his father holding a parliamentary post - Allawi got involved in the Ba’ath Party’s youth movement, which came to power in 1968, when he was 24.

However, he fell out with Saddam - the then-vice president - in the early 1970s, and went into exile in the UK, where he finished his medical training.

While still an advocate of the wider Ba’athist movement, with its values of secularism and Arab nationalist ideology, Allawi’s separation from Saddam continued to brew.

In 1978, while in bed at his home in London, Allawi awoke to an axe-wielding assassin creeping into his bedroom. The attacker struck him in the head, chest and right leg before fleeing the scene.

Near-death experience

Allawi, whose wife was also present, was critically wounded, spending almost a year in hospital.

The attack, he claimed, had been orchestrated by Saddam, who in the following year took control of Iraq after forcing ailing President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr to step down.

“Saddam wanted them to use axes [instead of a gun] because it was more barbaric,” Akeel al-Saffar, a senior aide of Allawi, said in 2004.


After recovering - which included time spent in Wales under the protection of the British government - Allawi sought to organize a movement against Saddam by garnering support from other exiles and dissidents.

In 1990, just months after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, Allawi announced the creation of the Iraqi National Accord.

Compared to the two other opposition movements at the time, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Islamic Dawa Party - which both received support from Iran’s Islamic regime - the INA operated on largely secular, liberal ideals.

With support from rebel officers in Saddam’s army, Allawi’s group - along with the support of the CIA - attempted a coup in 1996.

It failed, having been infiltrated by agents loyal to Saddam. Thirty military officers linked to the INA were executed, and another 100 arrested.

Allawi’s rise to power was to wait until 2003, when the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam’s regime.

Rise to power

Allawi returned to Iraq and joined - along with numerous other non-Ba’athist politicians - the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which was appointed by the Coalition Provisional Authority, which acted in place of an elected government.

His tenure on the IGC was marked by reform of Iraq’s army, police and intelligence, although he notably opposed the policy imposed by the CPA that banned former Ba’ath regime officials from serving in the public sector.

In June 2004, Allawi was provisionally appointed prime minister by Washington, and led a transitional government for just under a year.

When asked about the role that the United States - rather than Iraqis themselves - had in his appointment, Allawi described CPA head Paul Bremer as “the dictator of Iraq. He has the money. He has the signature. Nothing happens without his agreement in this country.”

Once in exile, and now in a position of at least partial power - in a country shaken with unrest and uncertainty, and dominated by U.S. forces - Allawi faced multiple challenges leading Iraq’s government.

Possibly murderous

In 2004, he supported the controversial U.S. offensives to regain control of the predominantly Sunni Arab city of Fallujah in 2004 - which resulted in the deaths of 800 civilians - and against militants led by prominent Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf.

His government also wrote a new emergency regulation allowing the executive branch to declare martial law, impose curfews and detain suspects.

Newly-found press freedom was also restricted, most notably when he banned pan-Arab news channel Al-Jazeera, accusing it of “inciting hatred” in Iraq.

This was to be repeated by Maliki in 2013, who banned the channel on the grounds that it was fuelling sectarian unrest.

One intriguing (and unverified) facet of Allawi’s period in power were rumors that he personally executed suspected insurgents.

Shortly into his one-year-term, U.S.-based Slate magazine questioned whether he would be “a new Saddam,” and whether he could “overcome his reputation as a Western stooge.”

One columnist described Allawi as a “former Central Intelligence Agency asset turned Prime Minister,” and “Saddam without a mustache.”

Responding to critics who called him a U.S. puppet, Allawi said he was against Saddam “when America was with him, when Britain was with him, when the world was with him.”

Lost support

However, with no potent military force able to back his administration, Allawi’s government was almost powerless to stop Iraq sliding into sectarian conflict.

His secular Iraqi National List alliance fared poorly in the parliamentary election of 2005, coming far behind the largely religious-backed United Iraqi Alliance.

Allawi then lost the premiership to the Islamic Dawa Party’s Ibrahim al-Jaafari who, amid mounting criticism of ineffective leadership, was forced from power and succeeded by Maliki.

Having lost power in 2005, Allawi left Iraq.


However, he appeared to be victorious again in parliamentary elections in 2010, when his Iraqiyya coalition was declared the biggest winner, with 91 seats compared with Maliki’s 89.

However, with the formation of coalitions by the two dominant religious groups, as well as electoral wrangling, Maliki retained his post as premier.

Now, officials hope the upcoming parliamentary elections, due to begin on April 30, will end the political deadlock fuelling a surge in violence.

With sometime Maliki-ally Sadr having announced in February his retirement from politics, and having since labeled Maliki a “tyrant,” Allawi could be the current premier’s greatest political threat.

Could he once again come out on top, re-emerging in a manner characteristic with his sobriquet of “Iraq’s greatest political survivor”?