Iraq's ongoing political vacuum took a twist Monday after one of the two top contenders for the post of prime minister, Iyad Allawi, confirmed that he had been warned of plots to assassinate him. The former Iraqi prime minister insists that his small election plurality in March's parliamentary poll gives him the right to form the next government. Al Arabiya television reported Friday that Allawi was to be targeted after his plane landed at Baghdad Airport.
Mr. Allawi told the Times of London that he had been alerted by U.S. military commanders and Iraqi officials about plans to kill him. Al Arabiya TV broke the story on Friday of a plot to kill Mr. Allawi, claiming he was to be targeted at Baghdad Airport, possibly by a suicide bomber.
Arabiya TV also stated that government officials had issued an order to close Muthanna Air Base, where former prime minister Allawi's plane usually lands, to civilian traffic, forcing his plane to divert to Baghdad Airport. Government spokesman Ali Debbagh later confirmed reports of the closure, but insisted that the government was "doing all it could to protect Allawi."
Both incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and Mr. Allawi have been wrangling over which of the two has the right to form the new government. Allawi insists that he has two seats more than Mr. Maliki, while Maliki claims that he has formed a larger parliamentary grouping, after a recent alliance with Shi'ite leader Ammar Hakim.
Mr. Allawi told the Times of London that he wasn't sure who might want to kill him, but went on to suggest that Mr. Maliki and his supporters could be behind such a plot. Two members of Mr. Allawi's Iraqiya party were assassinated in recent weeks in the northern city of Mosul.
Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, says that many Iraqi Shi'ites do not like Mr. Allawi, because they fear his strong backing by Iraq's Sunni Arab community could propel Sunnis back into power:
"Rumors about assassinating Allawi are not new," says Khashan. "They have been circulating ever since the parliamentary elections took place and his Iraqiya bloc emerged as the largest. Now, there is a state of deadlock in Iraq, so many Iraqis, especially those who are supported by Iran find the rise of Allawi unacceptable because his assumption of the post of prime minister means the return of Sunnis to power in Iraq. Most of his bloc members are Sunnis. Were it not for Sunni Arabs, he wouldn't have been able to rise as the major leader of the largest bloc in parliament."
Popular discontent also is boiling over in Iraq, amid a deadly summer heat wave, as Iraqis in several major cities demonstrated against electricity rationing by the government and what they say are poor public services.
Iraqi protesters in the provincial capital of Nasiriyah chanted "electricity, electricity" in front of government headquarters, later throwing stones at a group of police officers who were guarding the building. About 20 people were injured, including at least 14 police officers. Another demonstration also took place in Basra.