BAGHDAD, Iraq — Throughout this war-ravaged land, where facts are hard to come by, rumor and innuendo can often serve as the most reliable measure of the Iraqi mood. Consider the lurid tale about Iyad Allawi, the new Iraqi prime minister, that made the rounds in the Iraqi capital last week.
Late one night before taking power, the story went, Mr. Allawi was not to be found cramming for his new job but instead was in the innards of a Baghdad prison, overseeing the interrogation of a cabal of Lebanese terrorists. No one was talking.
"Bring me an ax," the prime minister is said to have announced. With that, the story went, Mr. Allawi lopped off the hand of one the Lebanese men, and the group quickly spilled everything they knew.
The tale passed from ear to ear, much like the rumors blaming the Americans for the many explosions that mar the capital. But in this case, the remarkable thing was that the story about Mr. Allawi was not greeted with expressions of horror or malice, but with nods and smiles.
After months of terror and anarchy here, many Iraqis are only too happy to believe that their new prime minister is a tough guy who is on their side.
Mr. Allawi's hard-nosed reputation, even the unearned parts, is indicative of the unusual ways in which the country's interim government, which took over on June 28, appears to be acquiring a measure of legitimacy among the Iraqi people.
Unelected, headed by an exile and chosen largely by diplomats from the United States and the United Nations, the new Iraqi government nonetheless appears to be enjoying something of a honeymoon, even as Mr. Allawi has quickly embarked on a series of sweeping and potentially draconian measures aimed at quelling the guerrilla insurgency.
Yet Mr. Allawi also faces a conundrum in the coming months: as he tries to assert Iraqi control and bring a degree of order to this country, thereby gaining the gratitude of many Iraqis, he will risk alienating the very group, the country's Sunni Arab minority, from which an overwhelming majority of the violence here has been generated.
Among Iraq's three major groups, it is the Sunni Arabs who are still most broadly resisting the American-sponsored framework that is designed to lead the country toward democratic rule next year. Iraq's Shiites, the country's largest group, are hungry for elections that promise them their first real shot at political power. The Kurds, America's closest friends, seem to be planning to hunker down and watch events from their stronghold in the north.
Without the support of the Sunni Arabs, a minority that has dominated the country for five centuries, it seems unlikely that Mr. Allawi will make much headway in bringing a measure of stability in time to hand over power to a democratically elected government next year.
Indeed, without some success in winning over the towns and villages of the Sunni Triangle, the area north and west of Baghdad where the insurgency is still churning, it is conceivable that the nationwide elections scheduled to be held by January might have to be postponed or even forgone in significant parts of the country.
In some ways, Mr. Allawi seems to be the perfect man, under the circumstances, to bring this fractious country together. As a Shiite, he is a member of the country's largest group, and although he is thought to be a largely secular man, his ascension to the post of prime minister was not opposed by Iraq's most powerful religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Mr. Allawi is known for his decade of work in trying to topple Mr. Hussein, but he is a former Baathist himself, with suggestions among those who regard him with suspicion that he once engaged in thuggish work on the party's behalf. That tough-guy past, even his former association with the Central Intelligence Agency, seems to warm the hearts of many Iraqis who miss Mr. Hussein's iron-fisted ways.
"That Allawi worked for the C.I.A. may be a problem for Americans," an Iraqi journalist said in conversation recently, "but it is not a problem for Iraqis."
In his first week in office, Mr. Allawi came out fast and hard, signing a law that granted the government broad powers to quell dissent and disorder. But in an equally significant way, Mr. Allawi signaled that he was prepared to reach an accommodation with many of those, including the former Baathists, who have been battling the American occupation.
In a series of statements, Mr. Allawi suggested that he believed he could split the insurgency and thereby break it, wooing his former comrades in the Baath Party into the mainstream of public life. He appears to be banking on the hope that ordinary Iraqis are appalled by the wanton slaughter of so many of their countrymen, in car bombings and terrorist attacks, and on the presumption that such attacks are largely the work of a relatively small number of home-grown Islamic fundamentalists, along with foreign terrorists like Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian suspected of masterminding many of the attacks on civilians.
Mr. Allawi said he was considering, among other things, an offer of amnesty to the guerrillas, who could be spared execution or prison in exchange for their cooperation and a promise to put down their guns.
"We can't give amnesty to, say, a criminal like Zarqawi," Mr. Allawi said last week. "We have to bring him to justice. But there are people who have been doing things around the periphery and who call themselves the resistance."
"I spoke to some of them myself," Mr. Allawi continued. "I told them: What are you trying to achieve? Let us know. Do you want to bring Saddam back to rule Iraq? Do you want to bring bin Laden to rule Iraq? We will fight you. You can't do this."
"You want to be part of the political process?" he said, posing the crucial question. "You are welcome to be part of the political process, provided that you sever your relations to the hard-core criminals and the terrorists."
There are hints that at least some Sunni Arab leaders are seriously considering Mr. Allawi's offer. There are signs, too, even dramatic ones, that fissures are opening up inside the Sunni-driven insurgency.
Last week, a militant group issued a video in which it threatened to kill Mr. Zarqawi, saying it was fed up with the mayhem he had caused.
The success or failure of Mr. Allawi's efforts could ride on the extent to which he is perceived as being independent of the Americans, who have inadvertently united several disparate groups who oppose their presence here.
"Because they are Iraqis, we will give them a chance," Abdul-Sattar Abdul-Jabbar, a top Sunni cleric, said of the new government.
But Mr. Abdul-Jabbar is not bursting with optimism.
As long as American soldiers remain on Iraqi soil, he said, most Iraqis in the Sunni Triangle will withhold their approval of the new government.
Mr. Abdul-Jabbar pointed to a press release in which Mr. Allawi's office said last week that the prime minister had approved of, and even assisted in, an American air strike on the city of Falluja.
"Is it the duty of the Iraqi national army to participate with the occupation, assisting them in bombing an Iraqi city?" Mr. Abdul-Jabbar asked. "This will make us all as Iraqis - whether resistance or ordinary people - mistrust them."
But the suspicion appears to cut both ways. The most important factor in determining the legitimacy of the new Iraqi government may turn out to be how far the Shiites are willing to let Mr. Allawi go. Even some members of Mr. Allawi's government are skeptical of his efforts to bring the beneficiaries of Mr. Hussein's regime to heel.
"These people," Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Mr. Allawi's national security adviser and a Shiite, said of the Baathists, "they have to be in charge."