BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi simply smiled during the live television show when a man called to praise terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The Iraqi leader then moved on, offering to find information about a woman's detained son and see why a student didn't get into the graduate program of his choice.
The surprisingly frank hour-long call-in program, "The Iraqi Podium," is a rarity for the region, giving Iraqis the chance to pepper Allawi with questions, from the mundane to the serious. Judging by the show's popularity, Iraqis are taking advantage.
The show's host, Abdul-Karim Hammad, said he proposed the show to Allawi, who agreed. It may be a campaign ploy as Allawi tries to burnish his image ahead of Jan. 30 elections, but from the nature of the questions, it appears the calls aren't screened.
"I told him the one condition, which is that you have to accept anything the people say even if they insult you," Hammad said. "He said it was fine, as long as he wasn't criticized personally, but they can say anything they want about his work."
The program is broadcast every Sunday on the U.S.-funded Al-Iraqiya television station. Although it is linked to the United States, it's a major change for Iraqis after Saddam Hussein's 23-year reign ended in April 2003. Then, state-run media only praised Saddam, and many Iraqis would not dare criticize the president, even in their homes.
Other members of the government, including the interior minister and defense minister, have occasionally appeared in similar shows on Al-Iraqiya, but not with Allawi's frequency. Such programs have been aired in Lebanon but the practice is otherwise rare in the Middle East, where leaders are more accustomed to working behind closed doors, without much criticism from their people.
In last week's segment of "The Iraqi Podium," Nawal Ibrahim called from Baghdad to say her three sons have been held in detention for more than a year. Allawi asked her to give a reason why they were detained, then sought her phone number so that someone from his office can call her.
"We, God willing, will release them if they are innocent but we will call you to get more details," Allawi said.
Hussein Salem, a Kurdish civil engineer from the northern city of Zakho, called to complain that he wasn't admitted to a master's degree program at Baghdad University because his college average was only 62 -- lower than the required 65.
"You should have worked harder for an average of 70," Allawi chided him with a laugh. "I will speak with the minister of higher education and try to find what is going on."
The appearances could be a campaign ploy. Allawi has announced his candidacy for the 275-member National Assembly, and has been known for comments that seem aimed more at appealing to possible constituents than adhering to the truth -- as when he said a few months ago that Saddam could face trial in weeks. Now it turns out Saddam probably won't be tried for months.
An official at Allawi's office rejected the idea that the prime minister is using the program to promote himself. He said the reason Allawi is participating is to "listen to people's complaints and most of the time he gives orders to officials to solve the problem immediately."
Allawi was not well-known in Iraq before he returned after Saddam's fall, having spent 33 years in exile before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. If the government doesn't make progress against insurgents who continue to exact a high toll against Iraq's security forces, Allawi, as the most visible face, will be one of the easiest to blame.
Then there was the time when a man called and said simply, "Zarqawi is better than Allawi." Al-Zarqawi is the Jordanian terrorist mastermind whose group, al-Qaida in Iraq, is believed responsible for kidnapping dozens of people and beheading some of them.
The call came during the U.S.-led invasion of Fallujah, the insurgent hotbed where al-Zarqawi was believed to be hiding. All Allawi could do was smile; he said nothing.
"It is a good way to get close to people, but its success depends on how much the leader, through his contact with people, find solutions to their problems and demands," Baghdad University political scientist Nabil Salem said.