Blogs > Cliopatria > A Tribe of Arabia and its Destiny in Iraq

Jun 5, 2004 7:25 pm

A Tribe of Arabia and its Destiny in Iraq

One of the best examples of an Iraqi tribal leader is shaykh Ghazi Mish’al Ajil Al-Yawar, the scion of a shaykhly dynasty that traces its ancestry to the fifteenth century, and its origins to central Arabia. Today, he was made President of Iraq!

Shaikh Ghazi has the kind of intelligence and judicious frame of mind that is typical of the seasoned tribal leaders in the country. As a member of the most important family in the Shammar tribe, he undoubtedly has been exposed to tribal politics from an early age; shaykhs made it a point to preside over tribal councils with their young children in attendance. The virtues of learning the skills of diplomacy and fair play as well as good administration were prized beyond measure among the tribes, and who better but the sons and nephews of shaykhs to learn those lessons in the immediacy of the tribal elder’s assembly house?

The Shammar tribe in Iraq is an offshoot of the original Shammar tribal confederation in Najd, or central Arabia. They were nomads that depended on the camel, and less so, on the horse as their primary mode of transportation, as well as livelihood. The camel-breeding and horse-rearing tribes of the interior of Arabia were considered the aristocrats of the desert; although they supplied town markets with young camels, camel milk and hides, they were NOT viewed as merchants, and, until they were forced to settle in tribal towns in the early twentieth century, the Shammar saw themselves as the last people on earth to turn their hand at agriculture. This tradition carried over to Iraq, to which a large migration of Shammar tribes took place in the seventeenth century. Under the Ottoman re-centralization of Iraq in the nineteenth century, the Shammar, as well as a great many pastoralist and semi-nomadic tribes in the country were placed under heavy pressure to settle in towns, and start growing crops. It is safe to say that the Shammar were probably one of the last tribes to agree to this forced change; although many of their clans did take up agriculture in the last part of the century, the leadership kept up its resistance to the Ottoman military and political offensive for a very long time.

So it is surprising to note that by the mid-twentieth century, the Shammar had become keen farmers. In the northern Jazira, where water was always more plentiful than in the south, they became rich landlords, growing barley and corn; recently, they’ve begun to plant potatoes. In turn, prosperity allowed them to turn to other pursuits. The most interesting leader of the tribe was perhaps not Shaykh Ajil, the paramount shaykh of the Shammar in the thirties and forties but his second son, shaykh Ahmad (that is, Shaykh Ghazi’s uncle) who, by all accounts, was one of the most talented chieftains in Mosul (northern Iraq, where one section of the Shammar live). Shaykh Ahmad Ajil Al-Yawer was made paramount shaykh of the Shammar tribe while still a young man, edging out his elder brother, Sufuq.

At the famed Baghdad College, run by American Jesuits, shaykh Ahmad Ajil Al-Yawar cut a dashing figure; he was tall, with a broad smile. A classmate recalls that even at the age of fifteen, he was paying regular courtesy calls on Prime Ministers and Cabinet officers. With the quiet confidence of a real leader, shaykh Ahmad cultivated allies for his tribe, always threatened by other tribes in the vicinity, or urban politicians in Mosul. But it was really only in 1959 that Shaykh Ahmad came to national prominence.

After the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in 1958, a republican regime came to power, headed by Abdul-Karim Qassem. Qassem was an Iraqi Nationalist who made an expedient alliance with the largest political movement in Iraq, the Communist Party. In 1959, both the Iraqi Nationalist group under Qassem and the Communists moved against the Arab Nationalists, then an important party in Iraq, and especially in the northern town of Mosul. Shaykh Ahmad had some connections with the Arab Nationalists, and was earmarked for elimination by Qassem’s allies. Fleeing the city in his vintage Rolls Royce (which carried the license plate, “Mosul 5”), Shaykh Ahmad’s car was fired upon by military aircraft as it was racing through the desert. The bombing of the Rolls Royce nearly killed Shaykh Ahmad; it was only by sheer luck that he was pulled out of the car still alive. After that, he may have become more cautious, as did most of the politicized Iraqis of his generation.

Shaykh Ahmad was a bon vivant and a great conversationalist, a man who enjoyed good friends, as well as the occasional cigar. His second wife was a German who bore him a daughter, Yasmin. He lived in Iraq as he lived in Europe, a dignified, courtly man with an immense pride in being Iraqi. He died of cancer in the late 70’s in Rome. His nephew, shaykh Ghazi, reminds me of him. In his plain-spokeness, his respect for tradition and his political savvy, he hearkens back to an earlier generation of men who came to grips with their destiny in Iraq in a forceful and yet measured way. They built, but others destroyed what they had built. It is now up to shaykh Ghazi and the other political alliances in the country to rebuild the foundations of Iraq, and to make them permanent.

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Hala Fattah - 6/3/2004

Dear Daniel,
I'm sorry not to have replied earlier, my blog was down. I wanted to tell you that I'd found a book talking about the Armenians of Julfa and their role in the expansion of Iranian silk. Its by Rudolf Mathee and its entitled, The Politics of Trade in Safavid Iran: Silk for Silver, 1600-1730 (Cambridge, 1999). I'll look at your blog again and see if anything else jogs my memory.

As to the controversy over Al-Yawar's anti-Americanism, I just wanted to tell you that yesterday's Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, an influential Arabic-language paper quoted Dr. Adnan al-Pachachi as saying that Lakhdar Brahimi had toild him that he was by far the most popular choice for President on the Iraqi street, and that it was the Americans themselves that were supporting Al-Yawar's candidacy, and not his! See, in the Middle East, you immediately assume black is white and sometimes you're correct!
I'll reply about the nationhood question in a while. Salams,

Daniel B. Larison - 6/2/2004

Dear Hala,
All the news accounts in Britain and America are running with the story that the U.S. has been upstaged in the selection of Shaykh Ghazi. I suppose it is understandable why Bremer did not want to choose a serious critic of the occupation, but what continually troubles me about our government here is that they seem not to understand that such 'counterintuitive' decisions are exactly the ones they need to be making all the time. That is, of course, if I believed their intention was to restore the government of Iraq to Iraqis, but I'll leave that for some other time. Leave it to this government to oppose the one really good personnel choice so far! By the way, what does Shaykh Ghazi think of Allawi? They are set to become rival poles of the interim government, just by the nature of their divided authority, so it may go down very badly if they are hostile to one another. They do represent pretty radically different ends of the spectrum: one an exile with foreign backing, the other a traditional leader opposed by the foreigners.

One of the hurdles to an effective federalism, as others have noted before, would seem to me to be this Kurdish provision that a majority in any three provinces can block amendments. This is the equivalent of about seven American states being able to block a constitutional amendment, and with the added bonus that the Kurds feel confident that they can determine the majority in these provinces.

The problem of nationality is an acute one. You have probably already thought of this, but would Turkish Anatolianism be a useful model for conceiving of an Iraqi identity? I suppose some things like this have been tried before, including in the Hussein period, so I don't know how popular it would be. But one need not engage in absurd Pahlavi-esque anachronisms about the glories of ancient Babylon. The territory has a considerable history of its own before 1920 and since without needing to plumb the depths of ancient history. But I think the essential thing that has to be emphasised, if internal divisions are to be overcome, is the common history and territory in which this people has lived. This sort of particularity appears to me to be just about the only basis for a national Iraqi identity.

Incidentally, while we're on the topic of Iraqi identity, what is your opinion of the attempted flag change? I thought the new flag looked awful from a purely aesthetic point of view (white flags are not exactly the most inspiring, now, are they?), and it has proven to be wildly unpopular, and no wonder. I shouldn't be surprised if many Iraqis feel as if part of their identity has been stolen from them, or that someone has tried to steal it from them.

Daniel B. Larison - 6/2/2004

Dear Hala,
Thanks very much. It was very informative, as usual. One note--I believe Petraeus is a general. He is the overall commander of the 101st Airborne ("Screaming Eagles"). I had heard that Petraeus was very competent in working with local people, but I have never been sure how much that was the local sentiment and how much was the official success story.

My own interests are in Byzantine and medieval European history mainly, but the history of Byzantium can never be entirely untangled from the history of the medieval Near East. My particular period of greatest interest is in the sixth and seventh centuries, particularly revolving around the reign of Heraclius, but I have recently moved into medieval Byzantine topics in the twelfth century related to doctrinal controversy. I specialise in church history, and lately I have become interested again in the church of the East and its position there today.

I first encountered the medieval church of the East in the person of Catholicos Mar Yabh-allaha III and his famous emissary, Rabban Sawma. So far, I am not entirely clear on when the Chaldean Christians entered into communion with Rome, but as I understand it the Chaldeans and Assyrians are both branches of the same general ecclesiastical tradition there. As I recall, the Assyrians suffered very much earlier in the last century from Kurdish persecution. You already addressed this in the last post, but could you tell me what you think the prospects are for these churches. I suppose they have existed this long, so they'll probably be all right.

Lately I have been studying classical and late antique Armenia, and I noted that Armenia and Mesopotamia had a long history of trade and cultural exchange down through the centuries. I had been wondering, in light of the influx of Georgians into Baghdad you mentioned earlier: did these Armeno-Mesopotamian connections continue in the Ottoman period?

Your remark that Baghdad has a million Kurds in it actually came as quite a shock to me. Perhaps that's just a measure of my ignorance. Quite honestly, I have never read a single news account that revealed this rather important detail (perhaps a flaw in my choice of reading materials, I don't know, but surely it should have come up at some point). It only makes sense, as it is the largest city, but aside from rather hazy accounts of Sadr City, the Green Zone, the "Sunni Triangle" and a nebula of Shi'i cities, we do not get a very clear picture of who lives in Baghdad or how the city is organised.

I'll try to add some more in a little bit, but I must run right now. Thanks again!

Hala Fattah - 6/2/2004

Dear Daniel,
Phew! Thats a tall order, but thank you so very much. Terrific questions. I wish other people, INCLUDING Iraqis, would ask questions like that.
First, as to Shammar-Kurdish relations, I think you have to look at the question historically. Both parties are originally from the area, so both parties have learned to coexist with one another. The Shammar, just like the Kurds, are not monolithic, and different sections of both the Arab and Kurdish tribes have seen Arab-Kurdish relations in different ways. For instance, the Shammar have broad relations with SOME, but not all Kurdish tribes (and many Kurds are not tribal in the sense of belonging to a tribal organization, but of course they may still adhere to a tribal identity, even as villagers). Throughout history, the Shammar made alliances with Kurdish chieftains to fight both the Ottomans and the Persians (always lurking in the background, in the east).

The question takes on different contours, however, with the advent of Saddam Hussein, who warred against the Kurds and forbade Iraqi "patriots" from having anything to do with them. Here, the Shammar were more circumspect, and had to toe the line. Shaykh Ghazi's uncle, who was the paramount shaykh in all but name (his brother, shaykh Muhsin, held the title but lived in London)could not afford to appear be too friendly with his neighbors, even though they were, well...neighbors. But even here, the Kurds were divided into many interest groups. You know, there are many "Arabized" Kurds, or Kurdish families with ancient lineages that moved to Baghdad, joined the government (in the fifties and sixties) and became thoroughly "Iraqized", speaking Arabic and marrying Arabs. THOSE Kurds always found a ready welcome among the Shammar and other Arab groups.In brief, there were never cut-and-dried relations between the Shammar and the Kurds, tribes or townspeople; both parties got along with one another a) because of historical alliances, b) they faced sometimes the same centralizing push from successive governments, and autonomy was dear both to the Kurd as well as the Arab andC0 although there may have been some artificial distance between both parties under Saddam Hussein's regime, I doubt that the Arab tribes in the Mosul area actively abetted the Hussein regime against their neighbors. That is why, I think, shaikh Ghazi's card is seen as the winning one among Kurds, simply because they KNOW the fellow.
Now, as for shaykh Ghazi's opinions vis-a-vis the Americans, I think it is not all politics. I think that, hailing from the Mosul area as he does, he's heard about(or maybe seen)the almost daily American abuses in his home district, far more than at the end of the war. Mosul has became a cauldron of conflicts, whereas it was pretty peaceful at the beginning. I think this stems from two things, a) one of shaykh Ghazi's cousins, the son of shaykh Humaidi, who was then the reigning chief in the area, told me that Col. (or Major?) David Petraeus, then the chief American military officer in the area, was exceedingly capable, and understood the "Iraqi" way of solving conflicts (basically you sit down and have tea with one another) but that after his departure, the same old aggressive American tactics returned(breaking down doors, imprisoning elders before their wives and children, random shootings)which alienated a lot of people and b)the Fallujah incident, in which shaykh Ghazi played a major part as peacemaker. This has turned a lot of people against the Americans, including their appointees in the now defunct Governing Council.
Of course, anti-Americanism is all the rage now. Legitimacy is always bought at the end of a gun. So in a way, its also a suitable political ploy but how far, and how deep it runs among the new government, I don't know.I think, precisely because of the legitimacy question, there will be a strong and concerted push to push back the envelope and redesign the UN resolution still pending in the Security Council so that it grants COMPLETE sovereignity to Iraq, although the push to eradicate the US military presence will be tempered by the harsh reality of not being able to combat terrorism on one's own.
In terms of federalism, shaykh Ghazi has gone on record as being anti-ethnic federalism, which I think is all but dead among the governing elite. Geographical federalism, something akin to the relations between American states and the Federal government, may yet take hold, although there will have to be provisions put in place so that both arms of the government (local or Federal) don't transgress the other's territory. But I agree with you, Federalism is a thorny question, especially as we've been led to believe that the interim constitution, which gave the Kurds somewhat of an edge over the rest of the country, may not be respected in all its details under Prime Minister Allawi (who's a rather forceful character).
And, finally, to my favorite betre noire, the artificial divide foisted upon Sunnis, Shi'a and Kurds. With the exception of the Kurds, I really don't think there IS a divide, even now. And I think one of the major points of bringing in chief Kurdish personalities into the new Iraqi government is precisely to blunt their independence streak and grant them more say within an IRAQI context. In fact, the question is so pressing that I've co-arranged for two conferences, one in Amman, and one in Florence to examine the "nationality" question. Among Iraqis today, splits are emerging on the ethnic and sectarian line but thats because they're being promoted furiously both by external and internal factions. But I really think the center will hold. Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians have intermarried to a terrific extent, and who's to claim a single etnicity or religion or sect among their relatives? It is VERY hard to disentangle Iraqis, the more so that they do NOT live in separate enclaves (as frequently asserted) and cannot be neatly demarcated off from one another ( for heaven's sake, the largest Kurdish city is Baghdad, with over one million Kurds!).
I don't think your questions are simplistic at all, they're very central to the notion of a new Iraq, and I thank you for asking them. But I don't know much about your own interests, perhaps you can tell me about those in a future reply.

Daniel B. Larison - 6/1/2004

Dear Hala,
Thanks for your reply. It is a pleasure and a privilege to read a blog that actually informs the audience of things that they did not know before they started. Most blogs, however well-run, just rehash things that the readers already know very well. I'm sure it's all very post-postmodern and fun to comment on the commentary of the commentary, but it is refreshing to get a considerable number of entirely new facts. That may be why the others generate a lot of debate, but it is always a lot more heat than light, as they say. I have wandered around the 'blogsphere' a bit in the last few months, and I can safely say without exaggeration that yours is one of the most informative about the history and current affairs of Iraq. Blogs are great in that they allow everyone a chance to voice an opinion, no matter how poorly formed and uninformed, but a blog of informed, considered opinion is a real treat.

Something you mention in the first post came back to me later. You mentioned that Shaykh Ghazi's uncle hailed from the Mosul area, and that the Iraqi branch of the Shammar tribe was historically located in the northern Jazira. In your estimation, what is the state of relations between the Shammar tribe, as represented by Shaykh Ghazi, and the main Kurdish political parties or neighboring Kurdish populations in general? Media portrayals often highlight tensions between Arabs and Kurds in Mosul and Kirkuk. Is the situation as tense as these reports make out, or is this being hyped out of proportion? As you can tell, the nature of my questions is being shaped by this sort of reporting.

Shaykh Ghazi has reportedly been very critical of the occupation (and understandably so)--is this a reliable representation of the sentiments of his tribe in the north concerning the American presence? Do you foresee serious conflicts between Kurdish demands for autonomy, as structured in the provisional constitution, and Shaykh Ghazi's views of what a federal Iraq should be in light of his northern Iraqi background?

Please excuse what must be very simplistic questions, but you can appreciate that the quality of reporting about Iraq is not exactly the best, so the information I am able to find is usually defined by such simplistic categories. If I read one more article that begins with the "revelation" or "explanation" that Iraq was originally composed of three old vilayets (if the author of the given article even knows this term) and has different ethnic and religious groups, I think I might go mad.

As basic information, it is useful, but almost becomes a cliche and leaves Americans with the impression that the country is sharply and clearly divided along these lines (hence the oft-repeated argument that the country will collapse into bloodletting the moment Americans leave). It is my experience in reading history that such divisions are never so clear-cut in reality, but are manufactured by people with something to gain from them. It is much like hearing during the 1990s that the Serbs and Croats had been fighting each other for centuries, which was absolute rubbish to anyone with the faintest knowledge of Balkan history. Likewise, the media are very excitable here and are prone to highlight sectarian differences and invoke the ancient causes of the division.

Could you perhaps say something about the role of tribal ties in Iraqi society, and how they can transcend these categories? Many Americans are aware that Iraq is a "tribal society," so to speak, but I think they uniformly regard this as a negative trait. In light of Shaykh Ghazi's appointment, it seems that some tribal leaders can have a real unifying effect, perhaps depending on the tribe. Hearing your thoughts on this, or anything that comes to mind upon reading this, would be great.

That brings a more political question to mind, if you don't mind. On both sides of debate about the war and the occupation, the argument is often put forth, much as it was in the Yugoslav wars, that Iraq is not a "real country" because its shape was dictated by outside powers with little concern for the differences among the inhabitants (I'm afraid that I have sometimes entertained this notion). In the case of Yugoslavia, this was both a justification for the forcible dismemberment of the country and also for the indifference to the collapse of the country following foreign dismemberment by proxy. First, what would you say in response to this claim about Iraq, and what do you suppose someone's motives might be for proposing such an idea? This idea seems to have quite a hold on some elements of both antiwar and prowar camps here in the United States (some antiwar people arguing that it is the reason why the entire project is doomed from the beginning, and some prowar people arguing that it is the reason why the occupation has to continue indefinitely).

Hala Fattah - 6/1/2004

Dear Daniel,
Thank you very much. I've decided that its for you that I blog!
I'm going to write more profiles of Ministers and ex-Ministers (at least those I know) because its a very disparate Cabinet. Anyway, you're absolutely right, shaykh Ghazi is a splendid choice although I would have wanted Dr. Adnan Pachachi just because it would have been his swan song.

Daniel B. Larison - 6/1/2004

Thank you for a truly substantive post. This makes sense of Shaykh Ghazi's selection as president, and it does so at a level so much higher than the dreadful news coverage of the selection. All of the coverage has focused on the back-and-forth of Bremer vs. the council without offering much of an explanation of who this Shaykh Ghazi was or why he would have had such broad support. Your description of the man gives me some confidence that, for once, a good decision has been made during the post-war phase.

Keep doing what you're doing. Your blog is a real asset to this site.

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