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New Baghdad leadership sits on a tricky seesaw

Balancing U.S. and Iraqi demands is no easy task

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — The new Iraqi government has been so battered by violence and undercut by public disagreement with U.S. officials that some in Iraq have started to wonder whether Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his Cabinet will weather the storm.

Allawi's interim government assumes sovereignty June 30, and much is riding on his ability to navigate difficult issues with the Americans and retain credibility with Iraqis.

The government is to remain in place until elections for a permanent government are possible, presumably by January. If the new Iraqi officials, working with the Americans, can't guide Iraq to these elections, many predict the country could fall into a long period of civil war.

Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed and wounded in a series of suicide bombings during the past two weeks, and the country's highest-ranking diplomat was gunned down in broad daylight. So far this month, there's been an average of about one car bombing a day. On Thursday the interior minister warned that the government would declare martial law if necessary.

The attacks threaten to destabilize Iraq and make Allawi appear impotent. Meanwhile, any disputes with the Americans are tricky for him. U.S. officials backed him, and any snub from them, real or perceived, threatens his standing with Iraqis.

There's also the matter of 135,000-plus American troops. U.S. officials insist they will be commanded by an American general.

Iraqis want the forces under the control of the United Nations and the Iraqi government, Deputy President Ibrahim al Jaafari said. "If these forces have a dominant role and the Iraqis are not in control of them, that is not independence," he said.

When Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense, visited Baghdad recently to meet with Allawi, key points of contention were how much leeway American forces would have to conduct missions and whether private contractors would be granted immunity from prosecution for violating Iraqi laws. Some of those allegedly involved in the sexual humiliation and abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison reportedly were private intelligence contractors.

Allawi's government was willing to grant immunity for the U.S. forces, but not the civilian contractors, Allawi spokesman George Sada said.

Dan Senor, the top American spokesman in Baghdad, said the U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, had declared that contractors couldn't be prosecuted by Iraqi authorities as long as they were acting in their official capacity. He stressed that the Americans were having "conversations" and not "negotiations" with the Iraqis.

American officials also took a firm position on U.S. military missions.

"There's going to be a strong partnership," but the bottom line is "we ain't changing on July 1," said a top American military official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Muayad Nema, a 25-year-old Baghdad grocer, recently expressed a widely held view on the issue: "For as long as the Americans stay here, there will not be full sovereignty."

Hassan Mohammad al Any, a political science professor at Baghdad University, said Allawi was "now in the awkward position of being in power at the favor of the Americans while also trying to distance himself from the U.S. presence."

"All of them are trying to show that they are against the Americans, but it is not easy for them to get credibility because they came from outside. They came with the Americans," al Any said.

Allawi left Iraq in 1971 for exile in London. After he formed an anti-Saddam party, the Iraqi National Accord, it began to receive money from the CIA. American public affairs workers now disseminate his news releases. Western security guards stick close when he moves in public, piling in and out of the sport utility vehicles that Iraq's political elite favor.

Almost as soon as his posting was made public, Allawi called on the Americans to "protect Iraq" by keeping troops in the country, a move deeply unpopular with many Iraqis.

"We hear Iyad Allawi will be running our country, but what's happening under the table, who knows," said Sadoun al Dulame, the director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, an independent research center in Baghdad. "Allawi, he is a friend of the United States."

In April, Iraqis who were polled on which leaders they supported put Allawi at the bottom.

His office turned down more than a dozen requests for an interview for this article.

Allawi has tried to sound defiant in public while he negotiates with the Americans in private. He stumbled recently when he declared on national television that Saddam Hussein would be handed over to the Iraqis before the end of the month.

Within a day, President Bush said Saddam would be handed over when the Iraqis could ensure security. An American spokesman in Baghdad said that wouldn't be this month.