Michael Hastings: Iraq's Next First Daughter
Sara Allawi Sara Allawi was studying in London when she decided to board a plane for Iraq—and help her dad try to reclaim the prime minister's job. Michael Hastings conducts her first on-the-record interview.
Twenty-one year-old Sara Allawi has found herself in the thick of Iraqi politics, amidst swirling allegations of voter fraud, candidate bans, and simmering sectarian tensions. The oldest daughter of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi—the popular, secular, leader who is running to reclaim his old job—arrived in Baghdad two months ago to work on her father’s campaign. Born and raised in London, the attractive, charming, and surprisingly tough talking young woman has become an integral part of her dad’s operation. She’s earned a seat in his inner circle, accompanying him on his whirlwind tour of the region (Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Turkey,) and works daily to manage media appearances and messaging.
It's a role that she seems fated for: at age 8, she would visit her father's Iraqi exile opposition offices in London, playing her own of game of make believe on how to topple Saddam, and dreaming of perhaps one day becoming prime minister herself. ("In Iraq or England, I couldn't decide," she says, laughing.) So far, she's the only child to follow in her father's footsteps--her younger teenage brother prefers cartoons to the evening news (even when their dad is on it), and her 20-year-old sister seems more interested in fashion. Her friends in London--whom she communicates with on Facebook and by text messaging--are puzzled as to why she traded in that city's active night life for the rugged, and dangerous, confines of Baghdad. ("Most of my friends aren't that into politics," she explains.) She's put her masters degree on hold for a year, but plans on finishing her dissertation when she gets home--the topic, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, naturally.
When I was about 8 years old, I would go to my father’s office in London while he was in the opposition. I would plan how we would topple Saddam’s regime!
With the preliminary results tricking in, her father’s slate of candidates, Iraqiya--a coalition of secular and Sunni political parties—appears to be in a tight contest with rival Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law party. On Thursday, as the campaign waited for the first official word, she sat down with The Daily Beast for her first on-the-record interview. What did she talk about? Voter fraud, coalition building, why Prime Minister Maliki doesn't deserve a second term, her father's tough as nails reputation, and the one time in Baghdad that he really treated her like his daughter (hint: it involved lots of yelling and an unarmored car.)
The Daily Beast: First, politics. The results are coming in. Where does your father’s party stand?
Sara Allawi: Right now we’re waiting for the real results. We have inside sources claiming that we are ahead. But we believe there’s been meddling with the actual results themselves. That’s why there’s been a delay with the announcing of the results. Even the European Parliament has expressed concern that this delay is an attempt to meddle with results. The government will be releasing results in favor of State of Law.
Your party is claiming they’ve seen a lot of election violations: problems with voting for Iraqis overseas, problems with Iraqi security forces voting, voters being warned against supporting your father, votes for your candidates being voided because of last minute disqualifications.
I think a lot of international bodies have turned a blind eye to the violations and fraud. They don’t want to concede that this might derail the electoral process, because the elections are supposed to be democratic. So it’s made it hard for us to raise awareness of the violations because they don’t want to acknowledge them.
By international bodies, you mean the Americans? Or the U.N.?
The U.S. doesn’t want to acknowledge the violations. It’s important that they do. If these election violations have a widespread impact, then the results won’t be a true reflection of what the Iraqi people think. It goes completely against democracy.
Your father gets brought up as a possible candidate for the next prime minster. He’s particularly popular among secular and Sunni Iraqis. What vision would he bring to Iraq?
Our vision, his vision, would be to have the next government based on national unity and a coalition that included all groups, so no group feels ostracized. Really, I’m not sure if he will become prime minister. But I think Iraq has no other choice but to have a government based on national unity and to move away from sectarianism. So far, only our party has shown this approach. We’ll have to take that direction. If we don’t, Iraq will spiral into disaster. The tensions will be exacerbated. They could engulf Iraq and spread over to the other regions. It’s the approach that has to be taken to save Iraq.
So if he doesn’t get the prime minister’s job, what role do you see him playing?
If the government is a secular one, I believe he’ll support it. If it’s sectarian, he’ll oppose it.
The next few months, your party will have to form a coalition. What sort of alliances are you looking at?
There are various options. I can’t be too open about that right now. State of Law isn’t on good terms with other blocs. I don’t think it’s possible for Maliki to remain prime minister. People realize he hasn’t achieved much for so far. He hasn’t served Iraqi interests. If he stays another four years it would be disaster for Iraq. No one really approves of him. There are a few options, but the next government has to be based on coalition.
Okay, so I heard that your father didn’t want you to come here. What made him change his mind?
I said to him, ‘Dad, look I want to come.’ He said it’s too dangerous, now’s not the right time. I sad look, I’ll eventually end up taking the plane by myself, and I’ll come through Amman, through the Emirates, and I’ll notify you when I’m on the plane on the way to Baghdad. You’ll be forced to collect me from the airport. You’ll have no other option! I decided to delay my university for a year. I’m pursuing a degree in international relations, and I also thought my dad might need a hand. There’s a lot of mistrust in Iraqi politics. I know a lot people want to see him. I try to manage his time so he sees people who he needs to see. He’s always got a full schedule. I just wanted to relax him a bit. I realized there is a lot work to do here. It was a great experience. I learned what you shouldn’t do in elections, and what you should do.
How long do you plan to stay?
Well, I think I’ll be involved until Iraq becomes stable and peaceful. I think everyone should have the right to live in their own country peacefully. A lot of Iraqis don’t have that. I was born I London. I couldn’t come here because my father would have been killed by Saddam. My uncle was killed by Saddam. The Iraqis here have suffered for too long now. I do strongly believe we need a change. I will stay involved until that change happens.
Do you want to go into politics yourself?
My aim for Iraq is that we bring peace and stability to Iraq. If I feel I can do that by running for office, and if I am able to handle the burden, I’ll do it, if I can make a good job of it. If I feel like I can’t take it on, I’ll support whoever I think is capable of doing so.
What’s been your favorite moment so far?
Going out and seeing the posters of my father was a nice feeling. When we watched the TV, or when I’d see comments on our website. People are really fond of my father and they really want him to be in office next, and they reckon he might be the savior. It’s nice to see he’s made a change in people’s lives. When he was in office, I know services weren’t better off, but the rate of improvement was a lot faster. He increased salaries, people were more secure, they could go out, you didn’t have the sectarian massacres. There were 500,000 orphans—now you five million orphans. It’s sad to see how the country plunged into disaster. Some of it is irrevocable, some we hope we can change.
This was also the first time I had a chance to vote for my dad. When you vote here, makes a difference between stability or sectarian disaster. This is why these elections are such a turning point.
How long have you been interested in politics?
When I was about 8 years old, I would go to my father’s office in London while he was in the opposition. I would plan how we would topple Saddam’s regime! He used to have maps of his palaces, and Baghdad, and I would say we should get this many soldiers and go there. I even labeled it my own “secret file,” as if that wouldn’t tempt anyone to look into it.
Your father has very tough reputation. He survived an assassination attempt in London when he was attacked by a man wielding an ax. His critics like to call him a Baathist, and compare him to Saddam.
It used to make me angry. A lot of people would say bad stuff about him, and it used to annoy me. Now I’ve learned, it doesn’t really bother me. They’re trying to change the subject from real issues and to delude the Iraqi people. They say he’s Baathist, that he will oppress the Shia people. But what has this government done for the Shia people? They’ve let them get killed by terrorists, they’ve been killed in massacres whilst they are criticizing us for being Baathist. The government has failed to protect the Shiite people, which they have expressed such concern about. They failed to provide security for everyone.
Often, the attacks he ordered in 2004 against Najaf and Fallujah are held against him. You were 16 when that happened. What’s your view?
Everyone will say this about their dad, but my dad is not a ruthless person. He would have preferred to lead the operation himself rather than the Americans to minimize the damage. He gave two weeks warning so civilians could flee the area, and when these attacks did happen, he was there to show his support. He was standing strong against terrorists. After they were hit he didn’t just leave the area, he wanted to reconstruct all the damaged buildings and offered compensation. Last year, we came in first in Fallujah in the provincial elections. People have appreciated what he did because he purged the city of criminals and terrorists. He has some support in Najaf, too. If he really hurt people, I don’t think the people there would like him.
You don’t see your dad as ruthless, but I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of your father—
Killing terrorists? I’ll tell you what I think. I think Iraq has a lot of dire problems. You can only deal with these problems if you’re strong with them. Otherwise a lot of these criminals get away. Not at the expense of one life, but the expense of innocent lives, children, women. You shouldn’t go easy on them. If you go hard on them it acts as a deterrent. They’ll think twice about carrying out an attack. My dad is firm when someone does do something wrong—he does it with us!—at the end of the day it’s for the Iraqi people. They’ve been hurting for too long now.
There’s one story in particular—and they’ve never found evidence of it, I don’t think—that he walked into a room and killed six suspected terrorists himself. Do you believe that story?
I asked my dad about it, and he started laughing. I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think my dad would bring himself to do something like that. But I’ve read articles—I’m not saying he has done it—but I’ve read articles that have said perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing, if he did it. One of the comments made by an Iraqi said maybe it’s not such bad thing, we need a strongman after all. You can’t go easy on terrorists. If you do, hundreds of innocent people will die. My dad believes the same thing.
Okay, so do you feel at home more in London or Baghdad?
I came here first in 2004 during the first elections and stayed for about a week. We were going to people’s houses and moving around, but now I can’t travel around the city. I’m always here! It’s a ten-second drive to get to the offices, and I have to go in an armored car. Once I went in an unarmored car—my dad heard about it, and he started shouting at me! I didn’t know! I think it was the driver’s fault. He shouldn’t have been taking me in an unarmored car.
What do your friends in London say when they know you’re in Baghdad?
On Facebook, they’re asking when I’m going to be back. My best friend Facebook messaged me, and I didn’t reply because I was busy. And then I got text from her, saying ‘What is your problem? Do you want me to stop caring?’ So I texted her back.
I'm told you have your Ray Ban sunglasses, and that you are into designer clothes. That true?
I like fashion, but I prefer being here because this is for a cause. My younger sister, she’s really into fashion, into the latest designer things. She’s a lot more stylish than me. Jeans, makeup, whatever it is, I don’t know. I prefer politics. I do make an effort to look nice, but I think politics is more of a priority for me.
And what do you think about what’s happened in Iraq over the past few years?
It’s horrific what has happened to the people here. The government tries to pretend things are better—they put unemployment at 18 percent when it’s really 30 or 40 percent. I think it’s very disappointing and sad how they try to give this image they changed Iraq. The improvement in the security situation, Maliki tries to take credit for it. It wasn’t because of him. There was the American surge itself, the negotiations with the Awakening, who agreed to stop fighting in return for money, and a number of other things, nothing on part of the government. This surge was only a temporary military solution. It didn’t address any of the political problems. It was supposed to create a peaceful forum for these problems but they weren’t addressed. And we now see as the Americans withdraw the security situation is deteriorating again. We have the Awakening and the resistance threatening to return if the sectarian government comes into office. Really nothing has been achieved apart from a temporary peace.
Michael Hastings is a regular contributor to GQ and the author of I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story. He is currently on assignment in Iraq.