Ayad Allawi, who is now leading a quest to block Shiite religious parties from establishing overwhelming dominance of Iraq in Thursday's national elections, learned to survive Iraqi politics from two men standing in the dark at the foot of his bed with axes.
The predawn attack in 1973 proved to be only the forerunner of decades of ambushes and bombings; in Iraq's three-week election campaign, attackers killed 13 of Allawi's associates. He says the bedside assault came at the behest of Saddam Hussein, who sent armed henchmen to his London apartment after a falling-out between Allawi and the Baath Party.
"I was fast asleep, 3 o'clock, and suddenly -- it was God's will -- I opened my eyes. And I saw these shadows at the end of my bed. There were two of them, staring," Allawi said.
"For half a second, I wondered if I was dreaming,'' Allawi said, relating the story with gusto more than three decades later. "I saw something flickering, and I knew I was not dreaming," he said, and guffawed.
Blows from an ax split open Allawi's skull, unleashing a torrent of what Allawi initially thought was hot water but turned out to be blood. Other blows laid bare the bones in his leg, and then in his wife's arm when she tried to save him, he said. The battle went on for "six, seven, eight minutes,'' Allawi said; he managed to wrest an ax from one of the men before they fled, leaving him for dead.
"I fought," Allawi said. "And I survived."
He then added the obligatory axiom of the Muslim world: "But it's God's will, really.''
On Thursday, Iraq's Shiite religious parties will vie with the disparate groups of Sunni Arabs, secularists and others that Allawi hopes to rally in a battle that many on both sides see as a matter of life or death. The likely coalition government formed out of the National Assembly elected Thursday will complete the new constitution and determine the extent to which Iraq becomes a religious state, like neighboring Iran. It will decide whether Iraq splits into three or more sub-states or remains united, and will have considerable influence over whether the country slides into full-scale civil war.
Political violence already has killed tens of thousands since the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and each ethnic, religious and political group fears persecution if the vote brings its opponents to power.
The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Shiite religious party founded in exile in Iran that now leads Iraq's transitional government, portrays Allawi as a closet Baath Party loyalist who would end the political prominence that religious Shiites have enjoyed since soon after the U.S. invasion.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Council's armed wing, the Badr Organization, appeared to warn that it would fight to overthrow Allawi if he emerged as the ultimate winner in Thursday's elections. "We are warning now: We will raise our weapons as we did before if the Baathists come to power again,'' said Haidi Amery, leader of the Badr Organization, which now describes itself as a political movement.
"First of all, I'm not a Baathist," Allawi said Wednesday after earlier declaring, "I hate Saddam for what he did to Iraq."
"Secondly, I think this is very anti-democratic, this statement," he said. "It really represents that in the name of democracy they want to rape and confiscate democracy.''
"When we all agreed that the ballot box will be the decisive factor for Iraqis to pick the next government, then we should respect it," Allawi said, wearing a pink tie and suit and speaking the fluid English of Iraqis whose time in exile was spent in the West. "It's like me saying, 'If the Islamists win, I'll declare war.' How can this help?"
Allawi, who for years worked closely with the CIA, was installed as prime minister last year by the U.S. occupation authorities. He was unseated in January elections for a transitional government that for the first time brought Iraq's Shiite majority to political dominance. He earned a reputation for toughness during his time in office, particularly for moves against armed Shiite militias.
Allawi blames those militias for a mob attack that he narrowly escaped during a visit to Najaf this month. He also said that some of the attacks on his followers were carried out by men in police cars belonging to the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry. He offers documents that he says are proof that the current government of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari ordered surveillance of him and his followers.
Allawi has benefited politically from the widespread public dissatisfaction with Jafari's government, which took office in April, inheriting an exploding insurgency and seemingly insurmountable shortages of electricity and oil.
Allawi spent much of the ensuing 10 months abroad, raising funds and building support for his secular coalition.
'Splinter and split'
A British-educated neurologist, Allawi is affable and polished. His backers fear that a consolidation of power by Shiite religious parties would deepen the role of Islam in politics and society and boost the influence of hard-line leaders from neighboring Iran. They also fear Shiite proposals to transform the government into a federal system with highly autonomous regions, and a growing influence of armed Shiite and Kurdish militias.
"People do have this concern that Iraq may splinter and split and be dismembered, and this is what we want to avoid at all costs," Allawi said. "Because if Iraq fragments, God forbid, it will fragment not into two or three, it will be even more fragments. And it will be a fragmentation that will be quite chaotic, and it will spill over into the region and also affect the stability of the world at large,'' Allawi said, alluding to the global dependence on Middle East oil.
Adel Abdul Mahdi, a member of the Shiite religious alliance and a top contender to become prime minister, faults Allawi for reaching out to every faction but the Shiite alliance.
"He's a friend; I respect him," Abdul Mahdi said. But "I think he would have served his slate better if he had sent some friendly signals to the alliance and didn't start to attack the alliance on the basis of sectarianism."
Abdul Mahdi, now a vice president in Jafari's administration, said Allawi's attacks have instead helped to unify the religious alliance. "We were much more confused before the campaign, but when he started to attack . . ."
Expected to prevail
Allawi's hope of blocking the Shiite parties may be out of reach. In the January elections that were largely boycotted by Sunni Arabs, the Shiite alliance won 140 seats, compared with the 40 won by Allawi's bloc, in the 275-seat National Assembly. This time, Allawi's prospects rest on drawing support from religious Shiites who have not been given specific decrees by top ayatollahs about how to vote. To become the new assembly's choice for prime minister, however, Allawi would also have to win post-election backing of Sunni Arab, secularist, Kurdish and other legislators to achieve a two-thirds majority.
But in almost any outcome, the religious Shiites are expected to hold enough seats to block any candidate for Iraq's top political spot. If Shiite religious parties fail to win a commanding majority, other candidates, such as Abdul Mahdi or Ahmed Chalabi, a secular Shiite, might have a better chance.
Whether all that can play out without the country descending into civil war is an open question.
"I hope logic will prevail," Allawi said. "I hope a national-unity sense will prevail, to get away from sectarianism and to think about Iraq and the future of Iraq and the future of the people. Because, you know, at the end of the day, if people fought for themselves as Shiias and Sunnis and Christians or Arabs and Kurds, and they don't fight for themselves as Iraqis wanting a civilized, decent Iraq for every Iraqi, then everybody's going to lose.
"I hope that once we get through the elections, then the urge for forming a national unity government that would sail Iraq into calmer waters, a brighter future, would prevail,'' he said. "Unfortunately, all the indications so far" -- he gestured at the documents that he said showed the government was spying on him -- "this is the joke."