A Talk With Iraq's Defense Chief

Ali Allawi speaks out on the uprising, America's role, and investment prospects

A little over a year ago, Ali Allawi was a London-based entrepreneur, but he has risen quickly in the new Iraq. He was appointed Trade Minister last year and recently accepted the sensitive job of Defense Minister. He recently spoke by phone from Baghdad to London Bureau Chief Stanley Reed. The conversation ranged from the insurgencies to the economy to relations with the Americans. While obviously a realist, Allawi was more optimistic than many on the chances of working things out. An edited version of the conversation follows.

How great is the risk posed by the insurgencies in Fallujah and the radical movement led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr?

The [insurgency] in the Fallujah area is a coalition of members of the Republican Guard, special forces, Sunni jihadis and a large element of foreign fighters. In the case of al-Sadr, it has primarily to do with a recalcitrant cleric who is unable or unwilling to find space for himself in a new political order. I think there is little doubt of the outcome. We hope to handle it peacefully, but if push comes to shove I don't think we can back down.

Just how dangerous is the current political and military situation in Iraq?

We are very near the edge, but we aren't going to fall over; that is for sure. The question is: What vision do these insurrectionists have? What do they want us to do -- to degenerate into another version of Afghanistan? What does Sadr want -- to turn the country over to the rabble? There is plenty of room in the Iraqi political spectrum for radicals, but when it comes to violence there has to be a line drawn somewhere.

Do you see evidence of interference in Iraq from surrounding states?

The Iranians are stirring the pot, but the Syrians are adding explosives.

What is your take on Iraqi relations with the U.S.?

I don't follow the U.S. hook, line, and sinker, and no Iraqi can. There is a coincidence of interest. We welcome the U.S. role in establishing security. There have been a whole host of political slip-ups, but where does it lead [to rake over all this]? It leads nowhere.

How much authority do you think the Americans are really prepared to turn over to the Iraqis?

They are beginning. Most senior officials recognize that they have to give Iraqis more power. The power we have been given has been to some extent illusory. Now, in the last three weeks, there has been a realization that the handover of power and instruments of power should have been made earlier. [There are] plenty of wrongs to rectify. Obviously the police were poorly trained -- no question about that. Clearly, certain units of the civil defense were also trained poorly. These are lessons, bitter lessons but not complete irreversible failures.

Has the fighting adversely affected economic development?

In the short term it is a major setback. In time, once security is established, there will be a rush into the country. We are not calling for people to rush in today; that would be irresponsible. But when the country is secure I think business investment will flow in quite quickly.

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