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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK
Iraqi strongman stands firm

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The latest hostage crisis in Iraq has re-emphasised interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's position as Iraq's strongman.

Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi
Mr Allawi has apparently taken a tough line in the crisis
In one of those interviews which smack of reality, one of Mr Allawi's aides, the Minister of State Kassem Daoud, described to the BBC how the prime minister had intervened to end any talk of a prisoner release.

Mr Daoud confirmed that there had indeed been a review of the case of detained scientist Dr Rahib Rashid Taha, something which the Justice Minister Malik Dohan al-Hassan had indicated previously.

Mr Daoud said the Iraqi government and the multinational force - meaning the Americans - decided about two weeks ago to release her, as well as other prisoners he did not name.

'No US pressure'

However, said Mr Daoud, a meeting was called on Wednesday - i.e. after the demand by the kidnappers for the release of women prisoners - of the Higher Security Committee, also known as the National Security Council. This is a kind of inner cabinet chaired by the prime minister.

Hostages with captor in video
The militants threatened to kill the hostages one by one
"With the instruction of Prime Minister Allawi, we decided not to release Dr Rihab," he told the BBC.

He explained the decision.

"This was just to confirm the opinion of our government that [there will be] no negotiation with the terrorists."

He rejected a suggestion that the US had intervened to stop the release.

"I don't see any pressure. Unfortunately... there was an impression that the Iraqi government made a deal with the terrorists which we never ever do.

"This was to consolidate our position. We are in a war with the terrorists. This is a clear policy."

Some details of Mr Daoud's account do not quite tally with others - for example, the US Embassy in Baghdad denied that the US had agreed to free the scientist.

Whether in fact the US would have stopped any release is not certain. It was never really put to the test.

The overall thrust of Mr Daoud's comments is clear enough. It was Prime Minister Allawi who quashed any suggestion of a release or a deal. He had re-asserted his authority over the government.

To release or not to release was a matter of dispute within the interim government, not a question of Iraq versus the US.

Strong leader emerging

There is no particular surprise about this.

In an article in the latest edition of The New York Review of Books, a former senior US diplomat Peter W Galbraith, and now senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, described Iyad Allawi as "America's man in Iraq".

"The interim prime minister, a Shiite [Shia], is tough, pro-American, but not visibly subservient. He is determined to take on the responsibility of fighting the insurgents, whether Sunni or Shiite, and prepared to be as ruthless as necessary to win," he wrote.

The reality is that the much-feared tension between the hawkish US ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte and aggressive US military on the one side and the more moderate Iraqi government on the other has not come to pass.

This is because Iyad Allawi is just as tough as the Americans.

The attacks on the city of Falluja for example have continued.

He can bring something else of course which the Americans cannot. He can bring his political and personal influence to bear. He negotiated with the Shias rebelling in the south while holding the big stick of the US military in readiness.

He has spoken to prominent figures in the areas where US troops cannot go, while showing readiness to accept US air strikes where felt necessary.

Tough enough for office

What he cannot afford to do is to show weakness towards the man believed to be behind the kidnappings, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Indeed, Zarqawi is reckoned to be the man who actually cuts the heads off his victims.

There have been those who predicted that out of the chaos in Iraq, a strongman would emerge. History demonstrates that as well. Edmund Burke predicted the rise of a Napoleon Bonaparte when the French Revolution descended into anarchy.

In Iraq, it is not supposed to happen. The leader is supposed to be democratically elected. Elections are due in January for a transitional government, which will draw up a new constitution for the holding of full elections by the end of 2005.

Mr Allawi has not said that he will stand. But his actions indicate that he does not mind the pressures of office.

Whether his policies will work is quite another matter,

Peter Galbraith, who helped reveal Saddam Hussein's repression of the Kurds in the 1980s, has been pessimistic about Iraq before. He is even more pessimistic now and wrote in his article:

"In the May 13 issue of The New York Review of Books, I argued that the breakup of Iraq seemed more likely than a successful transition to a centralized democracy. I suggested that Iraq can be held together only as a loose federation.

"Subsequent events make such a breakup more likely than ever."

Mr Allawi would disagree and is trying to prove such prophesying wrong.

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