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Iraqi president sets new tone with 1st official act

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Sheik Ghazi al-Yawer said his hands trembled and he felt "a butterfly inside my heart" as he became Iraq's first president since Saddam Hussein in a surprise, bare-bones ceremony Monday in Baghdad.

Onstage, al-Yawer composed himself long enough to make his first act in office a symbolic one. He handed a document announcing his appointment to an Iraqi judge, to show that the president no longer is above the law.

Al-Yawer, in an interview with Knight Ridder moments after the handover, said he would infuse his efforts to bring stability to his embattled country with tribal customs of integrity and diplomacy.

"Unfortunately, because of the mishandling of a dictator, we were taken back hundreds of years," al-Yawer said in his gleaming new office at the Iraqi government center. "We were taken on a detour, and now we're on the right track. ... There's no place in the new Iraq for a superman."

A Western-educated Sunni Muslim tribesman who built a successful company in Saudi Arabia, al-Yawer appears more renaissance man than superman. All his diverse skills will be put to the test as he works with Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to build a strong Iraqi leadership in a country still swarming with American soldiers. He made it clear he won't settle for the sidelines.

The president advocates amnesty for insurgents who fought U.S. forces in the name of protecting their country, but has no mercy for terrorists such as the ones who staged a series of car bombings in his hometown of Mosul last week, killing 62 people and wounding more than 200.

"My only comfort was that these people cannot be Iraqis," al-Yawer said. "The people of Mosul now say, `If we get these guys, we'll tear them with our teeth.'''

Al-Yawer said he'd be the first to shake Muqtada al-Sadr's hand if the rebel cleric disbanded his Mahdi Army militia and renounced violence. Likewise, the president said he didn't foresee attacks on the people of Fallujah, the staunchly anti-American city west of Baghdad, because they're "our flesh and blood" and crucial to rooting out the foreign terrorists in their midst. And the possibility of civil war, he said, "never crossed my mind."

However, he quickly added, capital punishment has been reinstated and some form of martial law is possible to rein in diehard insurgents, who have turned Iraq into a terrorist free-for-all.

"We're not going to be merciful with them," al-Yawer said. "We are offering a pardon and if they don't come, we'll come and get them."

The tough talk ended when the president described his wife, a Saudi Iraqi who taught industrial chemistry at Riyadh University before quitting to raise the couple's four children. The first lady lives in an undisclosed location because Iraq is so dangerous. The president said he sent "sentimental" handwritten letters to her.

Without his family around, books fill the president's increasingly diminishing free time. Machiavelli is a cautionary tale; Stephen R. Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" is instructive. Texts on female psychology help him "understand our better halves."

He said he read "Zabibah and the King," an allegorical love story written by Saddam, "to understand how this monster was thinking."

Saddam's fate, al-Yawer said, will be up to Iraqi courts. Legal custody of the fallen dictator will be transferred to Iraqis by next week, though Saddam will remain in physical custody of the U.S. military.

Al-Yawer said he hoped to be as accessible as he could under security restrictions. He will appear on a weekly "Meet the President" television show on Iraqi networks and will use his flawless English to reach out to the international media.

He hopes security improves enough for him to make the trips his mother, "an old-fashioned tribeswoman," took him on as a child. The president reminisced about escaping Mosul's chilly winters to visit Shiite shrines in the south, Sufi Muslim groups in Baghdad and Christian shrines to the Virgin Mary in the north.

As a high-ranking member of one of Iraq's largest and most influential tribes, the president said, he learned core leadership values of honesty and diplomacy. He said he sold all his shares of a telecommunications company when he was named to the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council to avoid conflicts of interest.

These days, vestiges of al-Yawer's tribal roots are most apparent in his immaculate white dishdasha—an ankle-length gown—and the traditional checkered headdress he wears.

"I'm comfortable in these clothes. This thing on my head keeps reminding me my ethics and principles," al-Yawer said.

"My tribe is Iraq and my tribesmen are Iraqis."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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


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