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Fallujans Put Faith in Former Tormentor

They branded Allawi a traitor for presiding over the siege of their city, but now see him as their best bet. By Uthman al-Mukhtar and Fadhil al-Badrani in Fallujah
By Uthman al-Mukhtar

In his insurgent days, Abdullah Messir would hear Fallujah’s clerics decry the former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi as an infidel and a traitor.

But in last month’s parliamentary elections, Messir and thousands of people from his city hailed Allawi as their leader, contributing to the electoral success of a politician who presided over a ferocious assault on Falluja, a former stronghold of the Sunni Arab insurgency.

Residents of the city interviewed by IWPR said they voted for Allawi because they feared the hegemony of Shia Arab parties backed by Iran and were frustrated with the pace of reconstruction.

The man blamed for destroying Fallujah six years ago was, they said, the best candidate for rebuilding it today.

“Our biggest problems are unemployment and still pending payouts for property that was destroyed in the fighting in 2004,” said Messir, who took up work as a blacksmith after giving up the gun.

“People want a powerful prime minister who can squeeze compensation out of the central budget,” he said, adding that Allawi could deliver on this score.

While Allawi is from a Shia Arab background, his Iraqiya bloc campaigned on a secular platform and included many leaders popular with the country’s Sunni Arab minority.

“A secular Shia is better than a Sunni Islamist or a tribal leader,” Messir said, echoing the views of many in the city. “Sunni leaders have been too weak to compete with the Shia and the Kurds.”

Final results from the March 7 election, released last week, showed Iraqiya won the most seats nationwide, narrowly edging past its rival, a bloc led by current prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The outcome is being fiercely contested by Maliki, and arguments over the result and the formation of governing coalition are expected to take months.

Regardless of who forms the next government, Iraqiya has established itself as the strongest representative of the Sunni Arabs, sweeping the board in provinces to the north and west of Baghdad.

In Anbar province, of which Fallujah is a part, Iraqiya won 11 of the 14 seats. Of the six seats allocated for Fallujah itself, it won four.

The United States military’s assault on Fallujah in late 2004 cost hundreds of lives and left thousands homeless. The operation, backed by Allawi who was prime minister at the time, was aimed at wresting control of the city from militants allied to al-Qaeda.

In a parliamentary election in 2005, much of Anbar province voted for Sunni Islamist leaders, who have slipped in and out of Baghdad coalitions that have been consistently dominated by Shia Islamist parties with ties to Tehran.

As the sectarian conflict peaked in the middle of the last decade, Iran replaced the US as the biggest foreign threat to Sunni Arabs in Iraq.

The insurgency in Anbar province was eventually quelled by a US-backed tribal militia group, known as the Awakening Council. Leaders from the militia fared well in provincial elections last year.

In the latest election, however, residents of Fallujah said they voted for Iraqiya because previous leaders had failed to tackle problems that stemmed from the conflict.

They also said they wanted leaders who would counter Shia influence and curb corruption – reflecting the shifting priorities of the Sunni Arabs since the US military laid siege to Fallujah in November 2004.

Karim al-Dulaimi, who spent two years at a prison for insurgents, said the city’s electricity and sewage systems were in desperate need of overhaul. He also complained that nothing had come of popular demands for a hospital to treat children who had suffered health problems since the fighting.

“We have big problems with corruption,” he said. “Chieftains have taken control of the city on the pretext of imposing order. They consider themselves above the law... We voted for Iraqiya because it promised to fire corrupt officials and eradicate our suffering.”

Both Dulaimi and Messir agreed that voting for Allawi would have been unthinkable in previous elections.

“Back then, he would not have won half the votes he got now because everyone blamed him for the humanitarian crisis in our city,” Dulaimi said.

With the US set to withdraw most of its troops this year, many Sunni Arabs are worried that politicians backed by Tehran will grow stronger in Baghdad.

Allawi has been an outspoken critic of what he describes as Iranian interference. In the run-up to the election, he accused Tehran of masterminding a purge of several candidates from his list who were accused of ties to Saddam Hussein’s banned Baath party.

Voters in Fallujah praised Allawi as a leader who could confront Iran, and couched their support for him as a rejection of sectarianism.

Nayif Jabir, a teacher, said he expected Allawi to get rid of injustice, sectarianism and poverty.

“By voting for Allawi, the people of Anbar said ‘no’ to sectarianism, as opposed to the Shia, who chose their leaders on the basis of their sect,” he said.

Mahmoud Karim, a taxi driver, said the entire contents of his house had been burnt in the fighting in 2004, but that he still supported Allawi.

“He has no sect of his own – his sect is Iraqi,” he said.

Meyaad Salam, a housewife, said she feared Shia parties would do Iran’s bidding and welcomed Allawi for standing up to sectarianism. “He is a secular leader,” she said.

As evidence of Allawi’s even-handedness towards Shia and Sunni, Messir cited the former prime minister’s decision to launch an assault on Shia Islamist militiamen in the holy city of Najaf, months before he ordered the attack on Fallujah in 2004.

Dulaimi, the former prisoner, said Allawi had in the past been regarded as a US puppet but was now seen as the best counter to growing Iranian influence. “We prefer a stooge for the Americans to a stooge for Tehran,” he said.

Not everyone in Fallujah was ready to forgive Allawi’s role in the assault on their city. Jasim al-Jwaimli lost his son and his home to the fighting in 2004.

“People here are stupid. They quickly forget what Allawi did to them.... He gave a green light to the Americans to kill our sons on the pretext of fighting terrorism,” he said.

Jwaimli added that he believed the former prime minister would betray his supporters once in power, “The Sunni will realise the scale of their mistake when Allawi allies with Shia leaders in order to reach the top.”

A political analyst from the city, Khalid Aswad, said Allawi’s bloc had outflanked its rivals by enlisting the support of popular figures who were relatively new to politics.

“Allawi’s strategy was in place months before the official start of campaigning,” Aswad said. “He was able to attract people to his list who were respected in the street – doctors, engineers, teachers and so on.”

Iraqiya’s rivals in Fallujah congratulated the bloc on its victory – but insisted that they would continue to play a decisive role in the region’s politics.

IWPR-trained journalists Uthman al-Mukhtar and Fadhil al-Badrani produced this report from Fallujah.

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