BAGHDAD -- Before his election to Iraq’s new parliament in March, Hassan al-Alawi’s last successful political campaign was more than 30 years ago, when he engineered the rise of a ruthless young general to the top of Iraq’s ruling Baath Party.
His charge, Saddam Hussein, soon elbowed aside Iraq’s ailing president to begin a brutal 24-year reign. One of Saddam’s first acts was to place al-Alawi, his publicity chief, under house arrest.
After six months, al-Alawi refused an invitation to rejoin Saddam’s inner circle and was thrown into an overcrowded jail cell with more than 100 other prisoners. He was never charged with a crime and after his release he fled to London with his wife and four children.
“Saddam recognized deep inside that we were not on the same page,” said al-Alawi.
For decades, al-Alawi worked with the Iraq’s exiled opposition in Europe. Now, the scholar-politician is back in power, this time as a champion of secular democracy in one of Iraq’s leading political coalitions, one of a long list of Iraqi exiles who swooped in after the U.S. invasion, reinvented themselves and flourished in Iraq’s chaotic infant democracy.
‘I never left politics’
At 76, al-Alawi has a thick shock of hair he says turned white nearly overnight after he was poisoned in prison. He has heart problems and shuffles when he walks, but he has no interest in talking of retirement and he’s even plunging back into fatherhood — his wife is expecting his seventh child.
An author, scholar and historian, he has published numerous books and is known in Iraq as much for his writing as his political career. He speaks with a poet’s flourish, often using complex allegories to make his point and jumping between the Ottoman empire and modern Iraq as if the intervening centuries are a trifling detail.
Well-acquainted with the volatility of Iraqi politics, al-Alawi is hedging his bets when it comes to his legacy.
“There are ex-kings, ex-presidents and ex-ambassadors, but no ex-writers, so I will remain a writer,” he said.
But politics is now front and center for al-Alawi, who is embroiled in long-deadlocked efforts to form Iraq’s next government after close elections last March left no clear winner. As the No. 2 man in Iraqiya, the political party that won the most parliamentary seats, he has been working behind the scenes on tense negotiations with a rival party, the State of Law Coalition, led by acting prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“I never left politics, not a single moment since 1959,” he said, amid a flurry of cell phone calls in his elegant central Baghdad home.
Al-Alawi is a controversial figure in Iraq. Some regard him as an unscrupulous opportunist; others see him as a pragmatic politician who offers hope of moving Iraqi politics beyond sectarianism.
“He is a chameleon,” said Ibrahim al-Sumayda, an independent political analyst in Baghdad.
First and foremost, he is a dogged survivor, adapting to the ever-shifting political winds of Iraq.
That ability to adapt, more than political acumen, has defined Iraq’s burgeoning political class and enraged ordinary Iraqis, who see their leaders as inept, corrupt and out of touch.
Iraq’s politicians have proven themselves skilled at tweaking the increasingly unpopular U.S. government. But they have had much less success providing reliable electricity supplies or making progress on long-standing land disputes in the country’s north.
Seven years after the U.S. invasion, many Iraqis still struggle to find work. The occasional spectacular insurgent attack still disrupts the grinding, hours-long daily Baghdad commute.
Yet Iraqis see their leaders on television making grand pronouncements in well-tailored suits before retreating in armored motorcades to air-conditioned mansions.
“There used to be one Saddam,” said Saif, a university student in Baghdad. “Now, there are one hundred Saddams.”
Even as he accuses al-Maliki’s religious State of Law party of driving a wedge between Sunnis and Shiites, al-Alawi says he would accept a ministry position under an al-Maliki government. And the master backroom dealmaker has ingratiated himself enough with both leading parties that it appears to be a realistic hope. Several times during two interviews with Stars and Stripes, al-Alawi had to pause to take calls from rival party leaders.
He was even able to engineer a face-to-face meeting between Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi and al-Maliki, the first time the bitter rivals had spoken in years.
Hajim al-Hassani, a member of parliament elected on the State of Law ticket, gave a glowing review of his political rival.
“We would be more than happy to elect people like Hassan Alawi to an important position,” he said. “Who would be better than him from the Iraqiya list? He’s an educated man who suffered a lot and who was a friend to the opposition when we were abroad.”
The rise, fall, rehabilitation and reinvention of al-Alawi is emblematic of Iraq’s current political class. Like al-Alawi, most of the top players in Iraqi politics spent decades in exile, rode the coattails of the U.S. invasion back to relevance and shifted to a more critical view of the U.S. as the occupation became less popular among ordinary Iraqis.
The most striking example is Ahmed Chalabi, the mercurial Iraqi exile who peddled dubious intelligence to the Bush administration, fell out of favor with Washington, and transformed from an outspoken secularist in the early years of the war to an ostensibly religious Shiite political leader in the latest elections.
His shift gained him a seat in parliament as part of a large Shiite bloc that includes followers of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia once fought bloody battles with U.S. troops and who is likely to factor heavily in the formation of the next government.
Even al-Maliki, who worked for years to overthrow Saddam and owes his unlikely rise to power to the U.S. invasion, declared victory over American “occupiers” when U.S. troops withdrew from Iraqi cities in 2009, and has made recent overtures to Iran.
While politicians have changed their stripes, one thing has remained constant: the crippling inability of Iraq’s government to improve basic services, such as electricity, water and sewer, not to mention the widespread unemployment that has plagued the country since the U.S. invasion. For this, Iraqis both inside and outside the government point a finger at Washington.
A failed project
Despite his party’s success at the polls, al-Alawi holds out little optimism for the future of Iraqi governance. During parliament’s opening session in June — a symbolic affair that lasted 18 minutes due to the ongoing political deadlock — he refused to act as speaker to protest what he sees as the ineffectiveness of the government.
“The only thing that keeps us busy is being on TV and doing interviews,” he said. “If any politicians got busy, we wouldn’t take so long forming a government.”
In his latest political incarnation, al-Alawi is presenting himself as a secular democrat, bent on healing the deep wounds between Shiites and Sunnis left by Iraq’s bloody civil war between 2006 and 2008. Looking weary and agitated, though, he said he’s beginning to regret his efforts, which he pronounced a “failure.” In fact, he’s questioning his decision to re-enter politics at all.
“This is the dilemma of writers and people with liberal ideas,” he said. “They always become victims of their ideas.”