Local elections show the power of the tribe in Iraq

On election day, Sheik Wahid Issawi held court in his mudheef, a tribal guesthouse tucked among the family’s acres of date groves and rice fields. Relatives filed in, kissed his hand and cheek and asked his guidance on how to vote in Saturday’s provincial elections. His answer was simple: Choose the list of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

If Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party proves victorious in Najaf province, the spiritual capital of Shiite Islam, the graying patriarch will have played a key role. The tribal leader, who claims 80,000 adherents, functions in a manner similar to that of an old-fashioned ward boss in the U.S., delivering his district’s vote to his party.

“The prime minister became the right man to protect the Iraqi state,” Issawi told The Times on a visit to his home. “He is a strong man, courageous and a son of the tribes.”

Issawi is one of several leading Shiite sheiks with whom Maliki has curried favor. The prime minister has sought to boost his party, which favors a strong central government, over another Shiite faction, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which supports a semiautonomous Shiite Muslim region in the south.


Maliki has named Issawi to head a local tribal body funded by his office, and appointed one of the sheik’s sons to a job in Baghdad. He has summoned Issawi to conferences in the capital city, where he has listened to his ideas for the nation’s future. Observers say that if Maliki wins a large share of provincial council seats in the oil-rich southern provinces, it is in large part because of his diligent wooing of men like Issawi.

“It was a very strategic step for Maliki and for his movement to bring votes to his [party] list,” said Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitaa, head of Al Thaqalayn Center for Strategic Studies, an Iraqi think tank, considered close to the government.

The courting of the Shiite tribes has given Maliki a boost in the electoral race, and he appears in a dead heat for provinces where his Dawa Party was weak only a year ago. But his patronage deals could have harmful effects on how the country is ruled.

“They [the tribes] are expecting many things, especially contracts. . . . All of it is a [form of] corruption, but who is going to be the king of the corruption -- the tribal leaders or the government?” Ghitaa asked.


The maneuvers have elicited outrage from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, which controls Najaf’s provincial council and five other local governments in the south that Maliki might capture when results are announced in coming days.

At home, Issawi mouths his afternoon prayers in a raspy voice, mixing wheezes, coughs and laughter. The 82-year-old walks with purpose; despite his fragile appearance, he is not one to be trifled with. He dominates the room. If he sits, his guests sit. If he prays, his guests pray.

Kneeling by a photograph of his late father, Issawi, along with his guests, performs the evening ritual beneath a mirrored ceiling and an elegant wooden balcony.

A prized possession is the 107-year-old rifle his father used to kill a British major in Iraq’s 1920 uprising against Britain’s occupation. The revolt stands as a source of pride for Iraqis.

When his father passed away in 1951, Issawi took on the mantle of leadership in the final years of Iraq’s monarchy. “There was stability and safety then,” he says wistfully.

Time has not been kind. Issawi has watched as a succession of rulers whittled down his tribe’s influence. Both Gen. Abdul Karim Qasim, who overthrew King Faisal II in 1958, and Saddam Hussein grabbed land from his family. Issawi suffered for his role in the 1991 Shiite uprising against Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Baath Party. One of his sons was executed, and three others fled to Australia.

After U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, Issawi watched the rise of religious parties. He speaks darkly about radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia and SIIC. He harbors a special hatred for SIIC, Maliki’s main Shiite rival for power. He accuses members of carrying out dozens of assassinations in the post-Hussein years as they looked to stifle opposition to their rule in Najaf province. He blames them for several assassination attempts against his son, Abdul-Aal, who heads secular politician Iyad Allawi’s list in Najaf.

Issawi claims the attempts stopped only after the tribe went to Maliki and other leaders in protest in September 2007. SIIC has long denied involvement in any such attacks, and claims that it surrendered its arms when its leaders returned from a safe haven in Iran in 2003.


Issawi hasn’t spoken with his son in more than a month, when he ignored his father’s wish that he not run in Saturday’s election.

Abdul-Aal, a lean, intense figure, campaigned with posters of his body wrapped in blood-stained bandages from his scrapes with death. He says the tribes have hurt the nation and he vows to refuse if his father ever asks him to head the clan.

The men say they love each other -- but that politics is one thing and family another. Still, Issawi confessed: “I want to give him a spanking.”

His other sons are loyal: One is a tribal advisor to Maliki in Baghdad; another ran in the elections on a tribal coalition slate, with the understanding he would back Maliki if elected.

After talking awhile, the sheik stands up to adjust his vest while studying President Obama on the television news. He praises Maliki for standing up to U.S. forces and demanding a withdrawal date.

He wishes that Maliki or another Iraqi would act boldly and declare martial law, and do away with SIIC and the other parties he feels are destroying the country.

“Since Saddam was destroyed, I hoped things would get better, but it has become worse,” he rasps. “There is a revolution needed in Iraq. And when it starts, all parties will be gone.”




Fakhrildeen is a special correspondent.