The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

New Iraqi President Holds Tentative Grassroots Respect, Little Power

by Dahr Jamail

As its final act, the Iraqi Governing Council installs a relatively popular Sunni sheikh as interim president. Iraqis in Baghdad welcome the move, but doubt even a man known for standing up to the US can make a difference.

Baghdad; June 1, 2004 – After a brief, frenetic political battle between the Iraqi Governing Council and the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority, both parties today named Sheikh Ghazi Al-Yawer president of Iraq’s newly formed interim government.

Email to a Friend
Print-friendly Version
Add to My Morning Paper

Yesterday UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi and US administrator Paul Bremer announced that they favored Adnan Pachachi for the presidential slot, while IGC members strongly pushed for Al-Yawer. Those circumstances today forced both Brahimi and Bremer to reluctantly endorse Al-Yawer, a choice Bremer strenuously opposed on Monday.

With the move, Pachachi promptly stepped out of the running, and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) enthusiastically supported Al-Yawer as the first president of post-Saddam Iraq.

Iraqi reaction to the Sunni sheikh seemed to be a mix between guarded optimism and customary skepticism. The unusual signs of hope may be attributable to the reputation Al-Yawer has earned for highlighting and standing up against what many see as US attempts to undermine any movement toward true Iraqi sovereignty. Also of note is Al-Yawer’s strong tribal background, widely respected in Iraqi society.

Meanwhile, widespread skepticism seems to stem from the disastrous security situation, continuing economic turmoil, the lingering lack of infrastructure reconstruction in Iraq under US occupation, and the limited amount of power Al-Yawer’s office will be granted.

The presidential role to be filled by Al-Yawer is ironically an all but powerless one under the mandate of the interim government, rendering one of the only politicians for whom Iraqis express significant respect a mere figurehead with no real ability to affect the changes to which they aspire.

Kabel Hassan, a 47 year-old tailor sitting across from a mosque on Rashid Street in Baghdad today offered a typical, hesitant endorsement of Al-Yawer. "The sheikh is suitable," Hassan said, "because he is tribal, he has good culture and reputation, and knows what we need." But Hassan quickly added: "Our commerce is in a bad situation and nobody has jobs because of the American-led IGC. I hope it will get better with the sheikh, insh’allah [God-willing]."

In the lead up to this morning’s announcement, the Coalition Provisional Authority’s (CPA) heavily-fortified "Green Zone" in Baghdad was rocked by several mortar blasts over a period of half an hour. Later the Associated Press reported that just after Al-Yawer accepted his new position, a car bomb was detonated near a US base in Beiji killing at least ten people.

While the political machinations were underway, a separate car bomb exploded near the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party Headquarters in Baghdad killing at least 3 people and wounding over 30, according to the BBC.

President Al-Yawer, 45, lived in exile in Saudi Arabia, where he studied at the Petroleum and Minerals University beginning in the 1980s. He also studied at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Born in Mosul, the civil engineer is nephew to leader of the large Shammar tribe. Last year he was appointed to the IGC, which was officially dissolved with today’s announcement of the interim government. Al-Yawer had taken over temporary Council presidency after the assassination of Ezzidin Salim on May 17.

Al-Yawer has earned a reputation among Iraqis for standing up to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) when he felt it necessary.

One act that has earned Al-Yawer much respect from the Iraqi people was his renowned initiative while negotiating with representatives from Fallujah during the month-long siege of that city by US Marines in April.

During a telephone interview with Al-Jazeera Television on April 10, Al-Yawer was openly critical of the heavy-handed tactics employed by US Marines in Fallujah. "We called the coalition parties and informed them about our condemnation and we expressed our surprise at these acts," Al-Yawer said. "We held them responsible for what they are doing and also for the safety of the delegation." In the same interview, Al-Yawer condemned US forces for preventing food and medical aid from reaching the suffering residents of Fallujah.

United Press International reported that Al-Yawer expressed his disagreement with the UN resolution submitted by the US and the UK late last month concerning the political transition process and the fate of coalition forces in Iraq. Al-Yawer was reportedly disappointed that the draft failed to grant enough control to the Iraqi government over military operations by foreign troops.

Sattar Ali Mustafa, a 65 year-old Sunni man selling nargeela pipes in Baghdad today expressed a familiar sense of alienation from the political process. "We don’t know the IGC so how can we know the new president?" he asked. Showing concern over the state of the economy, Mustafa complained, "The situation is so bad here; no water, no electricity, no security, so what can [Al-Yawer] do?"

However, like many other Iraqis, Mustafa demonstrated satisfaction with Al-Yawer’s tribal affiliations. "He is the sheikh of a tribe and that is accepted by us, so I hope he can do a better job."

Much of Iraq’s politics remain tribal, particularly in rural areas where tribal sheikhs such as Al-Yawer often mobilize the population in line with the sheikhs’ own political loyalties.

At a café in central Baghdad today men played dominoes, sipped chai and shared political opinions. Mohammed Ali, a 52 year-old retired police officer, says he is relatively fond of Al-Yawer and hopeful about the new president’s potential to make a difference for Iraqis.

"The sheikh is an honorable man who I hope will bring us security and help our economy," Ali said. "We all need jobs, Iraq is suffering too much. The coalition has not done their job of bringing prosperity here like they promised. I think the sheikh will help us very much until we can have elections. The Americans did not come here to help -- the last year shows us this."

The new interim government’s primary responsibility will be to administer Iraq’s affairs, in particular by providing for the welfare and security of the Iraqi people, promoting economic development and preparing Iraq for national elections, according to Susan Phalen of the CPA Public Affairs Office.

The presidential role to be filled by Al-Yawer is ironically an all but powerless one under the mandate of the interim government, rendering one of the only politicians for whom Iraqis express significant respect a mere figurehead with no real ability to affect the changes to which they aspire.

The plan, according to Phalen, is that the Iraqi interim government will take power on June 30 and will dissolve when a transitional government is chosen through democratic elections to be held no later than January 31, 2005.

US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell have joined President Bush in denying that there was ever a rift between the IGC and Coalition authorities -- and praising the UN for its part in shaping the Iraqi cabinet, the BBC reported.

Bush referred to UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi as "the quarterback," and said that Brahimi made important decisions to bring the names of the candidates for the interim government to the table.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair also praised the naming of the new Iraqi cabinet, while dismissing suggestions that a "puppet" Iraqi government was to take power on June 30.

But other perceptions of yesterday’s political turmoil differed from these accounts. The general understanding presented by officials at the offices of both Bremer and Brahimi was that Brahimi’s word would carry the most weight. The Governing Council, then, is widely seen as having used its final moments to undermine Brahimi’s role by taking the initiative to appoint top members of the new government. Brahimi had said his intentions were to fill the interim government with technocrats, but the IGC instead injected politicians with various interests into key seats.

If president Al-Yawer is true to his word and decides to push for an end to the occupation, as has been reported he will do when he feels the time is right, Iraqis may come to view him as a strong opponent of US control. But by most accounts, Al-Yawer’s lack of real power may render that opposition rhetorical, at best.

Send to Friends Respond to Editors or Reporter

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Dahr Jamail is a contributing journalist.

Recent contributions by Dahr Jamail: