Allawi Leads Iraq's Prime Minister Candidates

A leading contender for Iraq's prime minister post is someone who has already had the job: Ayad Allawi is courting voters opposed to religion and sectarianism in politics in Thursday's election.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One leading contender to be Iraq's next prime minister is a man who's already had the job. Ayad Allawi is leading a slate that includes every ethnicity and he's hoping to attract voters who want a secular government as NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports this morning from Baghdad.

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Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Like other high-profile candidates, Ayad Allawi is running a very sophisticated election campaign. His expensive commercials run frequently on local and satellite television. Many suspect the US government has helped pay for them, something his workers deny. Allawi was appointed prime minister by the Americans after the transfer of sovereignty and his secular approach is favored by Washington. His stern face stares down at Iraqis from lampposts and billboards plastered all over Baghdad. `The man for this stage, the man for the future,' says one. Another reads, `He promises and he delivers.'

Forty-seven-year old Abu Ahmed(ph) voted for the Shiite Alliance in last January's elections, but he's been disappointed with the Shiite-dominated government and he says he's changing his vote this time.

Mr. ABU AHMED: (Through Translator) I will vote for Dr. Allawi's slate, number 731. We have lost security and stability and there is unemployment. During Allawi's time, the security was better off.

TARABAY: Allawi seems to revel in his image as a tough guy and he's clearly hoping to capitalize on the popular dissatisfaction with the current government.

Mr. AYAD ALLAWI: (Through Translator) This government has caused real problems in Iraq. Security's totally absent from our streets. Public services have deteriorated horribly. The economy has stalled. We have armies of unemployed. We have human rights violations and armed militias who carry out their own law, not the laws of the country.

TARABAY: Allawi, a Shiite, is also hoping to capture the vote of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted the last election.

Mr. ALLAWI: (Through Translator) Iraq needs a strong government, a government that believes in heritage, in Islam, and that believes in all Iraqis and the unity of its people whether they are Muslim or Christian, Kurd or Arab, or Shiite or Sunni.

TARABAY: Shiite candidates running against Allawi feel sufficiently threatened by his slick media campaign and his criticism of them that they're linking him to another tough leader of not so long ago, Saddam Hussein. But attacking Allawi as another Saddam may not altogether hurt him. Sadid Jaffa(ph) is so upset at the alarming security situation, he's hoping Allawi will also be tough, but in a good way.

Mr. SADID JAFFA: (Through Translator) Dr. Ayad Allawi is a brilliant figure and many people are hoping that he shall save us. Many Shalla(ph) liked him, many, because the Iraqis are describing him as the second Saddam.

TARABAY: Allawi's been a strong opponent of the push to filter out former members of Saddam's Baath Party from positions in government. He has argued against singling out and punishing people who often have to join the party so they could get a job. Allawi was a Baathist himself until he turned on Saddam decades ago. His opposition to the de-Baathification drive and his early ties to Saddam are things his opponents hope to smear him with.

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TARABAY: At a recent briefing about election violations, Allawi's team showed posters put up by opponents in a negative campaign. One shows half of Allawi's face and the other half is Saddam. `Who does this remind you of?' it asks. But it doesn't help that Allawi's own radio station is in the former Baath Party Center, and when he entered a room full of political science students ready to answer their questions, a man stood up and began to recite poetry praising him. It was an eerie reminder of days now past.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

TARABAY: `Let the hand that tries to betray you be paralyzed,' he says. It's the same sort of poetry that used to be read out at party meetings in praise of Saddam.

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TARABAY: Allawi's party isn't likely to straight out win on Thursday. He could join with other parties and form a block which gives them a two-thirds majority in Iraq's parliament needed to govern the country. But it depends on how well the leading Shiite ticket does, too. It also depends on how ready Iraqis are to leave their ethnicities at home and vote politics instead. Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

INSKEEP: You can find a Q&A about the election by going to npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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