New Iraqi President: No Figurehead

The New Iraq’s kingmakers might have been credited with a canny choice had they themselves picked Ghazi al-Yawar, 46, nephew of the head of the Shamar, one of the most powerful Arab tribes in the Middle East, as caretaker president. However, US President George W. Bush and UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had the appointment foisted on them at the eleventh hour by the Iraqi Governing Council, after their favorite, 81-year old elder statesmen Adnan Pachachi stepped aside “for personal reasons.” This was the IGC’s last act on June 1 before dissolving itself 30 days ahead of transition to sovereignty rule

It would be hard to find an Iraqi figure more representative of Iraq’s tribal, ethnic and religious tapestry than the white-robed sheikh. A civil engineer from Mosul, who studied at Georgetown University, Washington, he ran a telecom company in Saudi Arabia where he lived for 15 years. Al-Yawar steps into Saddam Hussein’s shoes bearing the gifts of connections in high places in Saudi Arabia and Syria. His patrimony is a tribal federation of two million Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, hardly the figurehead president envisaged by Washington and the UN envoy.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraq experts believe the full impact of the presidential appointment will emerge from the power-sharing arrangements he reaches with the new Shiite prime minister, Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi politician with the closest ties to the CIA. This 59-year old neurologist, scion of a prominent Shiite merchant family, was an intelligence officer until he fled Saddam’s Iraq. In 1990, he set up an exile group called the Iraq National Accord. A former Baathist himself, Allawi’s group collected Baathist military and security defectors. He tried and failed to persuade the United States to sponsor a coup against Saddam.

President al-Yawar was a member of the Shamar faction that supported an attempted putsch against Saddam led by Col. Shawwaf, commander of the Mosul army division. Shawwaf was executed but the Iraqi ruler did not dare touch his tribal backers.

If Allawi agrees to let Yawar appear – at least outwardly – as the strong man of Baghdad, while retaining real executive authority in his own hands, the 33-member caretaker government may succeed as a functioning administration. Failure of the two men to cooperate could cast the country into political paralysis and chaos.

Vested in the president by the interim constitution is the power to approve or veto legislation and intervene in matters of high state importance. Both these provisions can be exercised rigidly or elastically, depending on how relations evolve at the top of the provisional power structure that will rule for eighteen months starting at midnight June 30. It will be up to the new government to organize the January 2005 elections to the national assembly, the autumn 2005 referendum on a new constitution and the December 2005 full elections for a new government. In Jan 2006, Iraq’s first directly-elected government takes office.

As the new rulers settle into their roles in Baghdad, questions of sovereignty – in relation to the country’s dependence for its security and stability on US and foreign military support – will come increasingly to the fore and set up frictions.

The potency of tribalism Vs democracy

In his acceptance speech, prime minister Allawi appealed Tuesday for a national effort to promote democracy – even though this concept means little in Iraq, any more than in any other part of the Arab world. It is hard to see how a government ruled by tribal and family ties can move seriously toward that goal.

The new president’s uncle, Sheikh Mohsen Adel al-Yawar, rules a tribal federation whose members regard parts of northern Saudi Arabia, eastern Jordan, eastern Syria and most of the Iraqi-Syrian frontier region, particularly around Mosul, as their ancestral territory.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah‘s mother was a Shamar daughter. He is therefore kin to al-Yawar.

In April 2003, when Saddam Hussein was on the run after the US invasion, a Shamar chieftain, Ahmed Agale Al-Yawar, who also happened to be married to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s sister, gave shelter in Mosul to the deposed president’s wife Sajida, their three daughters and grandchildren, after they were asked to leave Syria. According to tribal culture, shelter and protection must be extended to wives and families who have committed no crime.

The tribe, part of whose turf is the smugglers’ haven of al Qaim, also helped some of Saddam’s henchmen flee into Syria. The Shamar border villages are known for growing wheat and sheep by day and smuggling by night. To control the outflow of ousted regime officials, and inflow of fighting strength, US forces raided the al Qaim village of Muger Addim – Wolf’s Den in Arabic – soon after the invasion.

A key element in the power equation: the Sunnis and Shiites of the Shamar place their tribal loyalties ahead of their religious affiliations. Many Shiite tribesmen pretended to convert to Sunni Islam while secretly holding on to Shiite customs and practices. There are also cases of Sunnis embracing the Shiite faith.

Al-Yawar could draw on his tribal culture to promote Sunni-Shiite religious tolerance and coexistence under a shared leadership umbrella – that is if he develops a harmonious working relationship with the prime minister. However, their failure to cooperate could spark serious civil strife among the communities which has thus far been averted.

More wheels within wheels

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Baghdad and Irbil, reveal that the new president is on excellent terms with both Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani. Neither was keen on Pachachi’s appointment and both pushed hard for Yawar’s appointment on the understanding that he would not obstruct the establishment of a semi-autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Iraq. Kurds and the Shamar will have to come to an accommodation in western Iraq, mainly in the Mosul area – an arrangement Yawar is in a good position to facilitate. The deal on the table would leave the Shamar in control of the Mosul region; but the tribe and Yawar himself would not interfere with Kurdish attempts to take over Kirkuk.

This secret accord between the Shamar and Kurdish tribes on the future of the oil-rich regions of Iraq flies in the face of US policy. It is but the first instance of the deep divisions in store for the new Iraqi administration and Washington.

Prime minister Allawi occupies a place of his own in the tribal landscape of Iraq. His wife is a Kurdish tribeswoman. Where most Kurds are Sunnis, she is a Shiite – in the local vernacular, Faylis.

The prime minister’s deputy, Braham Salah is currently prime minister of the Kurdish PUK region and fiercely loyal to Talabani and the CIA.

The web of power has gained another strong tribal strand with the appointment of the Shiite Hazem Shaalan, member of an Iraqi tribe of that name who has been assigned the key post of defense minister. Not many people in the Middle East know that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s first wife (in order of importance in the royal household), Hussa al-Shaalan comes from that tribe. Abdullah’s second wife is the niece of Syrian president Bashar Assad.

The Iraqi tribal council representing some 150 tribal groups is headed by Hussein Ali Shaalan, whose domains lie chiefly in southern Iraq and, like those of the Shamar, cut across borders and comprise both Shiite and Sunni members. Shaalan tribesmen are to be found in Syria, Jordan, Yemen and Egypt. In T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Shaalan tribesmen are placed also in former Palestine.

In contemporary power terms all these tribal affinities and affiliations are extremely valuable assets to an Iraqi leader. Sunni president al-Yawar from Mosul enjoys a high degree of multiple tribal protection, Kurdish and Shiite-Shaalan, as well as his own.

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