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U.S. wary of dealing with tribal sheikhs in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A thousand tribal sheikhs from across Iraq and other community leaders packed an auditorium at Baghdad's elite Alwiyah Club on Friday to demand security, jobs, food, money and human rights from the Americans, but there were no senior Americans officials there to hear their pleas.

The last time the Conference of Iraqi Dignitaries met, in late May, more than 200 sheikhs stormed out of the room after veteran U.S. diplomat Hume Horan, representing L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, used the word "occupation" in answering a question about the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Ten weeks after capturing the Iraqi capital, the United States is still struggling to extinguish the remnants of the old regime and begin assembling a new one out of the country's fractious religious, ethnic and tribal groups. The longer both efforts drag on, the more the Americans will appear to be occupiers rather than liberators and the more resentment their efforts are likely to provoke.

But as exile groups, the heads of political parties, merchants and even members of Iraq's long-exiled royal family jockey for power and access, the one arena American officials haven't dived into is the complex world of Iraq's tribal chieftains, who in many ways are closer to the average Iraqi than the political party chiefs and exiles the Americans first favored.

Perhaps 15 million of Iraq's 25 million people are members of tribes. At election time, hundreds of thousands of votes for regional and district offices are virtually guaranteed because many people outside the big cities simply follow their tribal leaders, said Hussein Amin, a Baghdad University history professor who has researched tribes.

But American officials have been slow to embrace tribal leaders because it has been hard to determine which ones are legitimate and which were installed by Saddam Hussein. Beginning in 1991, men were plied with money, cars and guns and are now known as "Saddam Sheikhs" or "Sheikhs of the `90s."

"There is some confusion," Amin said. "Some of them are not real. Saddam Hussein spoiled the system of tribes in Iraq by giving them money."

While Iraq's political parties have clearly defined leaders, the tribal world is harder to navigate. Many sheikhs dismiss one another as illegitimate and inflate the numbers of people they represent.

The Pentagon-backed Iraqi National Congress has regular press briefings, an accessible spokesman and an e-mail mailing list. But tracking down important sheikhs often requires driving through the back alleys of Nasiriyah, visiting tribal coalitions or confederations or congresses and sorting out who's who from a throng of men wearing khulafaa, the cloth headdresses that sheikhs wear, but who may or may not be the real thing.

Amer Fiad, a professor at Baghdad University's School of Political Science, said he didn't believe the sheiks are as powerful as they're perceived to be and that it will be difficult for the Americans—or anyone—to control Iraq's unruly and diverse population.

"Iraq is described in the history books as the country of coups and revolutions," Fiad said. "Saddam's regime made the sheiks. Are they really the heads of the tribes? He put them in power, he gave them cars and they gained obedience by force and money."

Still, they're an important constituency.

"We solve murders, theft, all kinds of cases," said Sheikh Kanan Howas al Sadeed, the leader of the Shemar Alsayah, a branch of the Shemar tribe. "We protect people; we have tribal law. The majority of people in Iraq belong to tribes, as opposed to political parties."

The top leaders of the largest tribes—including the Temeem, Benu Asad, Zubaid, Rabiaa, al Azza and Shemar—number about 50. Many members of this complicated community, though not all, have criticized U.S. administrator Bremer for being slow to consult with them. And yet, each wants to make sure that Bremer doesn't meet with the wrong people.

"Bremer has met with the seven political parties but he has not met with enough tribal leaders," said Jamal al Saadoon, the head of the al Saadoon tribe based in the southern city of Zubair, which he says has 22,000 members in Iraq. "Tribal leaders have a great influence on Iraqi people so Bremer should take their opinions into consideration. Bremer is working very slowly. We are living in chaos."

Said Sheik Muzahim al Temeemi, the leader of the Beni Temeem tribe in Basra: "When you hear the word tribes, you think of people living in a tent. But in the tribes we have well-educated and open-minded people—lawyers, doctors.

"The tribes are very angry with Bremer for many reasons. Before the war, the American and British coalition said they would liberate Iraq. Now they are ruling the country directly, and they justify their existence by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483."

Bremer's representatives say they're meeting as many tribal leaders as they can, and that they are reviewing the impact of their de-Baathification policy on former military officers.

"We're eager to consult with all segments of Iraqi society and we have been consulting very broadly with various tribal representatives," said Scott Carpenter, a member of the coalition provisional authority's governance team and also deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights. "It is a very difficult thing to sort right now, we don't know as much as we'd like to know, maybe in a year's time. But we continue to consult and we're not avoiding anyone in this process."

There are at least three newly formed councils of tribal leaders: The Union of Iraqi Tribes, the Congress of Iraqi Tribes and the Iraqi Tribal Confederation, each of which claims it is larger and more influential than the others.

"The aim of these unions and coalitions is to unite Iraq," said Abdul Muraf Abdul Hassan Mubarak of the al Raffei tribe, who said he was elected to lead the Iraqi Tribal Confederation on May 1. "Our coalition includes more than 300 tribes from the North to the South, so ours is the strongest group."

"Every person in Iraq, even though he is a doctor or an engineer, he belongs to a tribe," Muraf said. "We want to build a new Iraq, and we want to spread security and safety in Iraq. If the U.S. forces put their hands in the hands of the tribes, the troubles in the street now would never happen."

In the meantime, sheikhs and military commanders are making their own arrangements.

Sheikhs are moving about the country with a patchwork quilt of VIP ID cards, business cards and scraps of paper such as the one signed by Lt. Col. Mark Woempner, good only in Tikrit.

"Sheikh Kanan Howas al Sadeed is very important. For him to help in fixing the future government of the Tikrit Greater area, he has my permission within areas under my control to move to the front of a checkpoint ... let him pass and do not delay his progress," the handwritten note says.

Tribal leaders are especially frustrated by the security problems because that's their primary responsibility. Many sheikhs who remember less bloodshed and war under Iraq's monarchy support Sherif Ali bin al Hussein, a cousin of the former King Faisal II, who was assassinated with his family in a 1958 coup. Sherif Ali has returned the favor, greeting scores of tribal chiefs among other dignitaries at his Baghdad offices in a former merchant's villa just south of the river.

"There isn't an area of Iraq that doesn't have a tribal presence, and what's important about the tribes is they're not really politicized in terms of political ideology and that is why they are a force for stability," said Sherif Ali, an investment banker in London who has returned to Iraq as the head of the Movement for a Constitutional Monarchy in Iraq. "The sheikhs are local leaders who have an interest in maintaining law and order, maintaining stability and ensuring that the economy grows because it's their communities and they have an inherent interest in creating stability there. It's very important to reach out to them."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SHEIKS