Don't Panic

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Who's running Iraq now?

Rampant street crime, religious extremists imposing their faith on the populace, televised celebrity court cases, a half-in-charge head of government who wasn't elected — Iraq is shaping up to be every bit the mini-America that the Bush White House promised it would be.

I suppose it helps that the two most powerful men in Iraq are both still Americans.

Man No. 1 is John Negroponte. (Born Dimitri Negroponte. It's true.) Officially, he's just the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, a title that conjures images of cocktail receptions, official handshakes, and helping American tourists overseas find doctors who'll treat their gonorrhea. In fact, Negroponte is actually just the slightly less public version of Paul Bremer, the American appointee who ran Iraq on the White House's behalf from shortly after Saddam's overthrow until June 28.

To understand why Negroponte is no mere ambassador, consider this: The American "Embassy" in Iraq has 3,000 employees, four branch offices, and control of the $18.4 billion Iraqi reconstruction budget, an amount roughly equal to Colorado's annual budget or the prorated net worth of Bill Gates' legs, right arm, liver and spleen.

Seeing as how you're being so considerate, also consider this: Ambassador Negroponte was the U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, where his job was to make sure that Honduras would a) never go Commie, and b) remain a friendly base for the U.S.-backed Contra militias. At the time, the Contras were fighting Nicaragua's popular (and, in 1984, fairly elected) government. According to several reports, Negroponte made sure that the U.S. Embassy's reports downplayed or simply ignored the Honduran military's human rights atrocities. Negroponte has said that he doesn't have "any regrets about the way we carried out U.S. policies in Central America" — spoken like a man who has never been raped, tortured or widowed for someone else's good cause.

Man No. 2 is Gen. George Casey. He just took over control of U.S. forces in Iraq from Lt. Gen. Ricardo "Dirty" Sanchez. He keeps a much lower profile than Sanchez, who gets something like 10 times as many Google hits as Casey, but he's every bit as in charge. By virtue of controlling the strongest fighting force in a chaotic, violent place, Casey is da man — or at least one of da men.

Among Iraqis, the man of the moment is Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. (He's a neurologist, so some publications refer to him as Dr. Allawi.) He's the face of "sovereign" Iraq's effort to crush the insurgency. The Iraqi cabinet just declared a state of emergency, giving Allawi the right to set curfews, detain people he deems dangerous, and impose the death penalty — a government power that, as we all know, works really well at stopping violent crime.

Allawi's an interesting guy. He was actually a Baath party activist for much of the 1960s and 1970s. According to an essay by Dr. Haifa al-Azawi, with whom Allawi went to medical school, Allawi was a thug who often would intimidate other med students by brandishing the gun he wore everywhere. "First do no harm," indeed. In the essay, al-Azawi described Allawi as husky, which I thought was just mean.

In 1971, Allawi moved to London, where he ran the European branch of Iraq's secret police. In 1978, Saddam axed him. I don't mean fired him. I mean axed him. The two had a falling out, and Saddam had some of his goons break into Allawi's English home and attack him with axes.

When the United States decided that Saddam was no longer its pal, the CIA gave Allawi and his organization, the Iraqi National Accord (named after his car), money to attack Iraq. Allawi's group never got near toppling Saddam, but they did attack some building with car bombs. They were good car bombs, though, not the evil terrorist kind.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Allawi prepped himself for taking over the government of Iraq by shooting to death six prisoners in an Iraqi jail in front of 30 witnesses just a week or so before the handover of sovereignty. According to accounts, onlookers were impressed with his nerve, which is only appropriate considering he's a neurologist.

Allawi will be prime minister until the January 2005 Iraqi elections, or his assassination (Abu Musab Zarqawi has a bounty on him), whichever comes first.

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