BASRA, Iraq—Two weeks ago, Sheik Muzahim Mustafa al-Kanan formed a tribal committee to work with British coalition forces to rebuild and run Basra. He was a widely despised military general in Saddam Hussein's Baath regime.
Last week, businessman Ghalab Kubba started his own council to advise the British. He got rich by cozying up to Saddam, many people here say.
"People don't want the sheiks or the heads of tribes to lead them," said Zuhir Jawal Kubba, Kubba's son-in-law and a member of Kubba's council. "They represent their own families and tribes. They don't represent everybody."
With the end of Saddam's regime, a duel for political influence between Iraq's urban secular elites and its rural Islamic tribes has begun in cities such as Basra. While such competition could lead to a democratic Iraq, it also could cause instability and undermine the creation of a political structure, British officials concede.
"It's something we need to keep an eye on," said a British Ministry of Defense official in Basra who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"There is a lot of resentment," said a Western aid worker in Basra who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "This is a city that doesn't want to be run by a tribal leader."
The scramble for power in Basra mirrors the tension over who should rule Iraq. Shiite Muslim religious clerics, some of whom want to impose Islamic law, and tribal leaders strongly oppose Ahmed Chalabi, the Pentagon-backed leader of the Iraqi National Congress, who landed in Baghdad last week to stake his claim over a new government. They say Chalabi, a London banker who has spent most of his life outside Iraq, cannot represent common Iraqis.
Chalabi, in turn, has publicly criticized the British for recruiting former Baathist leaders such as the sheik to help forge an interim government.
"If you want to have mayhem and chaos, put the Baathists back into the political structure. Then you'll have revenge attacks and killings," Chalabi said.
British and U.S. military officials say they are taking a pragmatic approach to rebuilding Iraq's shattered political system by working with existing power bases rather than trying to fashion a new nation from scratch.
By doing so, the United States hopes to avoid a long and costly reconstruction process and withdraw U.S. troops sooner. Administration officials also hope to avoid getting tangled in messy Iraqi politics, battles for influence by its neighbors and appearing to be colonizers.
Saddam, over three decades of authoritarian rule, shattered the centers of power in Iraq, leaving no single ethnic or religious group capable of ruling the nation. So across the country, the U.S.-led coalition is creating or encouraging committees and advisory councils comprised of different ethnic and social groups to help create an interim government.
In Kirkuk, for example, the biggest challenge is brokering power among competing ethnic factions, said Lt. Col. Harry Schute of the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion that deals with nation-building in northern Iraq. To that end, an "interim city committee" has been set up with six representatives from each of the four major ethnic groups, including members of both the main Kurdish factions. Baghdad, meanwhile, is filled with new political parties and self-proclaimed leaders.
Around the country, many of the technocrats and influential tribal, religious, business and local leaders who have signed on to help run the interim government were close to the old Baath leadership. British military officials say they are concerned that such people could perpetuate the Saddam regime or create something like it, but they say they have no alternative.
Their expertise is needed to maintain order at a time when Iraq's civil administrations, judicial system and police have crumbled. Many of these people, the British note, were forced to become Baathists in order to get jobs.
"While these are the set of people who may one day gain power, we are not trying to drive a political process here," the British official said. "We want these leaders to use their influence to bring law and order. The key point is getting people back to work."
The official added that they have not anointed the sheik or Ghalab Kubba to run Basra, and that Iraq's future administrative structure is "not set in stone." He said that Kubba and the sheik will bring their own people to help run Basra.
In interviews, Ghalab Kubba and a representative of the sheik said their first priority is to bring security to Basra. But neither side trusts the other.
Zuhir Jawal Kubba said the "job won't get done" under the sheik because his decision-making would be strapped by the need to consult dozens of tribal leaders in his fold. The efficiency of urban professionals like himself could get the job done, added Zuhir Kubba, who is a shipping contractor.
Mansour al Tamimi, a lawyer and top adviser to the sheik, said the sheik had already begun to find ways to revive the police force and other security issues. He expressed disgust toward Western-minded, urbanized Iraqis who wanted to turn the nation into "a battlefield of capitalism."
Both sides are displaying their credentials to lead Basra. Al Tamimi proudly talked about the sheik's older brother, who was killed by the regime for helping to organize a 1991 Shiite uprising during the first Persian Gulf War.
In an interview at his palatial house, Ghalab Kubba, who owns a string of companies from banks to a soft drink factory, brought out friends who had allegedly been allegedly tortured by Saddam's regime.
He insisted that he was not close to the Baath leadership and that his business thrived only because he paid large bribes to powerful people. Al Tamimi said Baathists had threatened to harm the sheik's family, and so he was forced to follow their orders.
But many ordinary Iraqis trust neither the sheik nor Ghalab Kubba.
Kubba is "a partner of Odai Hussein," said Abbas Mohamed Mousa, 47, a white-robed merchant, referring to Saddam's son. "This is well-known."
And the sheik, he added, also "benefited from the regime."
"Why don't the British allow us to choose who we want?" he asked.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Ken Dilanian contributed to this report from Kirkuk.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.