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Outspoken pro-Israel politician finds few allies

Liberal leader carries on despite 'violent reaction'

BAGHDAD -- In less than a year, Mithal al-Alusi fell from high-flying politico to hounded reformer, losing his job and his party membership, and by his count surviving nine assassination attempts, including one that killed his only two children.

His offense: visiting Israel, and then agitating for peace with the Jewish state.

For his unashamed advocacy, Alusi has become what is an endangered species in Iraqi politics: a pro-Western, pro-democracy leader unafraid to dispense harsh public criticism against clerics, former Ba'athists, and fellow exile politicians alike.

''If you break taboos, you have to expect a violent reaction," Alusi said Tuesday morning at the tightly guarded safe house that doubles as headquarters for the tiny party he has formed, the Democratic Party of Iraqi Nation. Here he receives visitors and sometimes spends the night in a hideaway.

Alusi's madcap ride to prominence, then infamy, and now the fringes of Iraqi democratic party politics, contains an explicit message: The young Iraqi political sphere will not tolerate a pro-Israel leader and is hardly ready for sharp public criticism of Islamist involvement in politics.

''I don't think there is a difference between the Ba'ath Party and the Islamic parties -- both are totalitarian," Alusi said.

He has drawn the most fire for his oft-repeated assertion that Iraq should join an alliance with Israel, which he says could offer unparalleled assistance in fighting terrorism and hunting down Ba'athists.

Unlike politicians in government, Alusi does not get dozens of government-funded bodyguards, armored sport-utility vehicles, or American security consultants. While nearly all Iraqi politicians face death threats and assassination attempts, few besides the prime minister have faced such frequent attacks.

The nearly universal condemnation among Iraqis that trails Alusi follows a pattern that bedevils most outspoken political liberals. Public outrage condemned the previous governing council as Israeli stooges when Kurdish leaders in April 2004 proposed a new flag for Iraq that had similar colors to Israel's. A leading member of the Shi'ite Islamist coalition was widely rebuked for making a comment perceived as disrespectful to the supreme Shi'ite ayatollah.

Many elected officials say they agree in principle with Alusi on relations with Israel and the United States -- but only off the record.

The fight has taken its toll on Alusi, who turns 55 next month. Since September, when he went to Israel and addressed a counterterrorism conference, Alusi's old life has dissolved. First, Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress expelled Alusi from the party even before he returned from Israel and fired him from his job as head of the national De-Ba'athification Commission.

Then he was accused of treason, and threatened with prosecution for violating a law from the Saddam Hussein era barring contact with Israel.

Despite the pressures, he immediately founded his new party.

In January, his two sons were killed in an assassination attempt aimed at him.

His hair has gone gray in the past eight months; he walks slower, his shoulders are more hunched, and he is more likely to stumble.

Still, Alusi has made it a personal crusade to campaign for a new, politically liberal Iraq.

His English has improved exponentially as he has lobbied in Washington for more support for political parties like his that are committed to democracy. In May, he is scheduled to testify before the US Congress about how America could more successfully spread democracy in the Middle East.

Alusi's new political party won only 4,000 votes in January's national elections. None of the other parties that also ran on a secular, nonsectarian platform won any seats in the Transitional National Assembly.

He acknowledges he has always been somewhat of a loose cannon ever since he fled Egypt, where he was studying engineering, in 1976, when the Ba'ath regime summoned him back to Baghdad to face charges of opposing Hussein.

Syria briefly granted him asylum but imprisoned Alusi when he refused to work with its intelligence service, he recalled. He finally fled with fake papers, landing in Germany where he lived until 2003, raising his two sons and several grandchildren.

As an exile politician, Alusi worked with the Iraqi National Congress, or INC, but did not toe its line, mocking the secular party for cozying up to Islamist clerics.

He is also contemptuous of the longstanding links that Chalabi and the interim Iraqi prime minister, Iyad Allawi, nurtured with Western spy services.

''Never in my life did I take 1 cent; never did I sit with an intelligence agency," he said.

In 2002, he and a group of armed friends ''liberated" the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin, driving out Hussein's diplomatic corps in the German capital by force. The stunt landed him in prison for a year but did not dull his sense of bold showmanship.

In the volatile, often lethal world of Iraqi politics, nothing seems to intimidate Alusi. He has publicly criticized the Association of Muslim Scholars, a group of Sunni clerics he believes are soft on terrorism, as well as Shi'ite clerics who he thinks answer to Iran and throttle democratic discussion as surely as Hussein did.

But more than any other subject, the Israel issue has been toxic.

''I was sure it would be a time bomb," Alusi said of his visit to Israel.

His own party at the time, the INC, immediately issued a statement divorcing itself from Alusi's action, saying the visit did not represent party policy. The government issued a warrant demanding that Alusi appear before a magistrate judge for questioning.

Newspapers called him a traitor, a Zionist agent, and an American pawn.

Supporters of the radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- like many of the more extreme groups in Iraq -- regularly blame America and Israel for all the terrorist attacks inside Iraq, part of a plot, they claim, to destabilize an oil-rich Muslim country.

''We want to purify Iraq of those suspicious people who want to reach out to the thief state [Israel]," said Sheik Yusif al-Nasiri, a Sadr aide. Alusi, he said, betrayed Iraq's religion and morality. ''Even his own party rejected him. We hope no one will follow his lead."

Even Alusi's natural allies, like the Constitutional Monarchy party, shy away from his stance on Israel. ''This was a very premature step for Iraqi politics," said Sadiq al-Mossawi, a leader of the Constitutional Monarch party. ''He should have waited until Iraq had decided a national policy."

But, he added, ''Every man has the right to express his free opinion."

Not everyone is as tolerant. After the Feb. 8 attack less than 700 feet from his home, a group claiming to be the Baghdad branch of the Ba'ath Party took responsibility in a statement posted on the Internet for killing Alusi's sons, Eiman, 30, and Gamal, 23.

''Next time we will not miss the dwarf," it said. ''This is a warning to anyone who thinks even in his mind to deal with the Zionist regime. We will be waiting for him."

When he is in Baghdad and not abroad, Alusi works beneath two oil portraits of his sons, painted when they were little boys.

''They watch me to make sure I stay on the right path," Alusi said.

The threats against him have only increased Alusi's fervor. This month, he sold his home for $250,000 to finance the party, and this week held internal elections so that party members could select their own leadership.

Alusi projects a sort of martyr's glee when he says fear of death won't slow him down.

''I am not afraid. This is my job, my country," he said, his deadpan baritone voice removing any trace of melodrama. ''You can never kill a free way of thinking."

Globe correspondent Sa'ad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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