Global Policy Forum

A President with Panache:


By Edward Wong

New York Times
June 1, 2004

By all appearances, Sheik Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar seems well suited to the presidency of the interim Iraqi government, a largely ceremonial post. His robust figure, flowing white robes and rimless eyeglasses — together with a well-groomed mustache, the essential accouterment for so many Arab men — give him a regal air that heads of state with slighter frames and less panache might envy.

But from statements he has made while on the Iraqi Governing Council and the influence he wields through his tribal position, Sheik Yawar does not appear to be the sort to content himself with presiding over parades and giving tea parties for visiting dignitaries.

Sheik Yawar is a political creature, one rooted in the sensibilities of the Shammar tribe, one of the largest and most powerful in Iraq. A Sunni Arab, he retains a fierce pride in his country, and it is pride in himself that drove him to battle Adnan Pachachi, an older former exile on the Governing Council, for the presidency of Iraq, according to a close aide. How that political combativeness will manifest itself as the new government moves toward some form of sovereignty no doubt weighs heavily on the minds of many Iraqis and American politicians.

Though Western-educated, the 45-year-old sheik is unlikely to allow himself to appear the puppet of the occupation forces. That might not win him many points with the White House or American administrators, but it could help him gain the trust of the Iraqi people, who have turned in large numbers against the occupation in recent months. In his first speech as president, Sheik Yawar called Tuesday for the United Nations Security Council to approve a resolution granting Iraq "full sovereignty."

In an earlier interview on television, he pulled no punches when criticizing the United States for the dismal lack of security in Iraq. "We blame the United States 100 percent for the security in Iraq," he said. "They occupied the country, disbanded the security agencies and for 10 months left Iraq's borders open for anyone to come in without a visa or even a passport."

Sheik Yawar was born in the multiethnic northern city of Mosul in 1958, the year that the monarchy fell in a coup that ushered Iraq into a seemingly endless twilight of military rule. His grandfather had in fact served as a member of the king's Parliament. Sheik Yawar completed high school in Mosul and eventually moved to Saudi Arabia with his family in the mid-1980's to study engineering at the Petroleum and Minerals University. He did further engineering studies at Georgetown University before becoming a senior executive at a telecommunications company in Saudi Arabia. After the toppling of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, Sheik Yawar returned to Iraq at the request of his uncle, Mohsen al-Yawar, who has led the Shammar tribe for decades.

The younger Yawar's tribal connections lend him some credibility among Iraqis, especially those from his hometown, Mosul. "Yawar is appropriate for this post because he's a tribal leader and knows exactly the situation in Iraq from tribal and sectarian perspectives," said Ahmad Khalaf Othman, 28, a schoolteacher in Mosul. "He's from a big tribe and won't accept injustice. I think his appointment will affect the resistance, but it is impossible to go back to what we once knew."

In the southern city of Basra, a prominent leader, Sheik Ibrahim al-Hassan of the Basra Great Mosque, said he had met Sheik Yawar before and considered him "humble and prudent and cultured." Basra is dominated by Shiite Arabs, the majority in Iraq, and Sheik Hassan seemed to respect the fact that the Shammar tribe has many Shiite members. But Sheik Hassan also pointed out what could be Sheik Yawar's greatest obstacle as he tackles his new job. "We hope he won't be like the Governing Council," Sheik Hassan said. "We need him to care for the people and look after the security issue."

But Sheik Yawar was part of the Governing Council, which has lost virtually all legitimacy after its inability to solve the military and political crises that erupted across Iraq in April. Like Iyad Allawi, the prime minister, and many of the council members appointed to new jobs in the cabinet and ministries, he faces a struggle to live down his role as a former council member.

Whether the sheik's appointment will give disenfranchised Sunni Arabs greater confidence in the new government also remains to be seen. The downfall of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, and the favoring of Shiite leaders by American administrators has increased the distrust and hostility of Sunnis toward the occupation and its Iraqi allies.

"I think he's a good choice for the presidency, but I don't think this will eliminate the feelings we Sunnis have of marginalization," said Mosaab Omar, 42, an electrical engineer from Mosul. "As for the resistance, I don't think anything will change unless the Iraqi people get full sovereignty."

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