BAGHDAD, Iraq – He promises "annihilation" for his enemies and laughs off threats against his life. Capital punishment will be back, he says, and rumors racing through the streets have him personally shooting terrorists in cold blood.
To Iraqis hurting from months of violence and chaos, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi (search) has developed the aura of a tough, perhaps brutal, leader. Surprisingly, that image has endeared him to many Iraqis, accustomed to strongman rule.
"I heard that he goes to jails to kill criminals," said Salma Abbas, a 50-year-old government employee. "This is good. we want someone as strong as Saddam."
A secular Muslim Shiite with CIA links and ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party (search) in the 1970s, Allawi had been a member of the now-defunct Governing Council, but was not widely known here when he became interim leader of the country June 28.
His blank public image has been filled over the past three weeks, in sometimes fearsome ways.
One persistent rumor has him killing as many as six blindfolded and handcuffed terror suspects held at a Baghdad police station just days before taking power.
When asked about it at a news conference last week, Allawi let out a hearty laugh and called the tale a "big lie."
"It's a rumor by our enemies, we definitely would not use the same tactics that Saddam has used, and we are, all of us, myself, as well as my government, far away from these activities."
Other stories making the rounds vary slightly in their detail, but the message is the same: Allawi, a 58-year-old British-educated physician-turned-politician, is a ruthless man willing to resort to horrifying brutality to restore security to Iraq.
One rumor has him visiting Najaf south of Baghdad and asking the local police chief to line up terror suspects. Allawi takes out a pistol and walks down the line shooting them one after the other.
Another has Allawi, who opposed Saddam from exile abroad for 30 years, at the police station of the Baghdad district of Kazimiyah (search). Common criminals are brought out.
"You were criminals under Saddam and you are criminals now. You don't deserve to live," he yells, before shooting them, execution-style.
"The security situation requires such actions from the prime minister," said gas station manager Hakim al-Yasseri, who called the rumors "unconfirmed."
These attitudes may be difficult to fathom — given that Iraqis have suffered terrible injustices under Saddam — but they reflect people's impatience with the violence that has been harvesting innocent lives for more than a year.
They also point out the qualities Iraqis respect in a leader and the distance the country has to travel before it fully embraces human rights and democratic values.
"Iyad Allawi must hint and give the impression that he too can be Saddam," said Feda'a al-Mawla, a postgraduate student at Baghdad's Mustansiriyah University. "He is telling every one that he can be as tough as Saddam. It's giving Iraqis hope."
Iraqis are divided on whether the rumors benefit Allawi, a heavyset man who often frowns, but occasionally flashes a smile. Some say they show that one Saddam has been replaced by another. Others say they feed Iraq's love-hate relationship with its dictators.
Still others — hinting that the government itself might be spreading the rumors — say that if they were designed to inspire fear, they failed.
"Death is everywhere. It's roaming our streets and knocking on our doors," said Qasim al-Sabti, a prominent artist and owner of a Baghdad gallery. "Nothing scares us any more."
In the three weeks since he took the helm, Allawi has shown resolve in trying to tackle the violence here, introducing emergency laws that give him the power to declare martial law and order curfews.
He said he would restore the death penalty suspended by the U.S.-run occupation, despite the European Union's opposition.
He has also ratcheted up the get-tough rhetoric. In announcing the formation of a new security agency last week, he said the service would "annihilate those terrorist groups."
When Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search) claimed responsibility for a mortar attack near Allawi's house earlier this month and posted a threatening statement on a Web site saying, "We are after you," Allawi smiled.
"Zarqawi is not going to scare us," he said.
Allawi's "get-tough" policy has yet to bear fruit, as suicide bombings, attacks on coalition troops, assassinations, kidnappings and sabotage to infrastructure has continued.
Asked about Allawi, retiree Mohammed Ahmed Mustapha paused for a few seconds to consider the Baghdad rumor mill on a recent 120-degree day. "What will the Iyad Allawi rumors do for me? Will it pay the $10,000 ransom that kidnappers want to give us back my grandson?"