ʿAllāwī was born into a middle-class Shīʿite family. His father was a physician, and his mother came from a well-known Lebanese family. He joined the Baʿth Party in 1961 and became active in the Iraqi National Students’ Union while studying at the College of Medicine in Baghdad. In 1972 he was sent to England to pursue advanced medical studies and to head the Baʿth National Students’ Union there. He received a degree in neurology (1982), but he never practiced medicine, preferring politics.
In 1976 ʿAllāwī broke with the Baʿth Party and reportedly established ties with the British intelligence service MI6. Two years later he and his wife survived a brutal assassination attempt, presumably perpetrated by the secret police of Ṣaddām, who was leader of the Baʿthists. ʿAllāwī recovered but sustained serious scars and thereafter walked with a limp. In 1979 he began organizing a political group composed of disaffected Baʿthists, which by 1991 had metamorphosed into the Iraqi National Accord (INA).
The Persian Gulf War (1990–91) opened new horizons for ʿAllāwī. Seeking Ṣaddām’s overthrow, the United States began to look for Iraqi exiles with ties inside Iraq and by 1992 had established contact with ʿAllāwī, who had been living in exile since the early 1970s. He was favoured by the CIA and some other agencies as a counterweight to Aḥmad al-Jalabī, then a more prominent Iraqi exile opposition leader. During the 1990s the INA was responsible for attacks inside Iraq aimed at destabilizing Ṣaddām’s regime, including a failed CIA-sponsored coup in 1996. After the U.S.-led invasion in early 2003, ʿAllāwī was chosen as one of the 25 members of the U.S.-backed provisional governing council.ʿAllāwī was not known to have a charismatic personality; he was a reserved man who sought to avoid confrontation. His Baʿthist training, however, made him a behind-the-scenes operator and a political survivor.
On June 28, 2004, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority officially transferred sovereignty in Iraq to the newly chosen Iraqi leadership. To the surprise of many, ʿAllāwī was named prime minister of the interim government. As prime minister, ʿAllāwī adopted a policy of trying to reconcile with Baʿthists who had not been involved in criminal acts during Ṣaddām’s regime. ʿAllāwī held out the prospect of pardon for all rebels—Shīʿite or Sunni—willing to lay down their arms, though he remained tough on insurgents and supported the U.S. assault on the city of Al-Fallūjah.
The INA finished third in the January 2005 election, and ʿAllāwī was succeeded as prime minister by Ibrāhīm al-Jaʿfarī. ʿAllāwī subsequently helped form the Iraqi National List, a secular coalition of Shīʿites and Sunnis. In the parliamentary election held in December 2005, the party won just 25 seats; ʿAllāwī protested the results, charging election fraud. ʿAllāwī and his coalition fared much better in the March 2010 parliamentary election, securing more seats than any other group and winning a narrow victory over the coalition of incumbent prime minister Nūrī al-Mālikī.