Sword Play: The Secret Weapon In Saddam's Arsenal May Drive an SUV --- And It Can Backfire

Tribes Of Iraq Are a Key Source Of Loyalty and Rebellion --- Washington's Wait-and-See

MOSUL, Iraq -- For a glimpse of one of Saddam Hussein's oldest weapons, look at a sign along the desolate highway that leads to this city: Territory of the Al Dulaimi Tribe -- Sword in the Hands of the Leader. Or look in a nearby suburb at a ranch house with an SUV out front, or across the border in Damascus, Syria, where plots are hatching against Saddam Hussein.

These are all modern manifestations of the tribes of Iraq. When loyal, they refer to themselves as the leader's sword and provide a guide to how Saddam Hussein clings to power. When rebellious, the tribes suggest that his grip is slipping. They also are one possible lever that Western officials have largely ignored in their long campaign to unseat the Iraqi dictator.

At least three-quarters of the Iraqi people are members of one of the nation's 150 tribes, which originated in the Arabian peninsula and moved north in search of water. They are bound more by family ties and a strict honor code than by ethnic background or religion. All of Iraq's rulers -- the Ottoman Turks, the British and then a British-backed monarchy -- had to win their cooperation.

But tribes grew weaker when nomads settled into towns and cities, and as the state took responsibility for schools, roads and power. By the 1960s, Iraq was a modern state, with an educated elite. Who cared about the sheiks now?

The answer was Saddam Hussein, who seized control of Iraq after a 1968 military coup. Most of his co-conspirators came from cities, but he grew up surrounded by tribes near his birthplace in the poor town of Tikrit. He identified the sheiks as good friends to have in a fight, and he later called on them to battle Iran.

Over the years, he has helped to restore a tribal identity that had been ebbing in Iraq for generations. Saddam Hussein regularly dons traditional Arab dress and makes televised visits to tribal elders, sipping thick coffee and negotiating what amount to power-sharing agreements with the sheiks.

The result is that the tribes have become his prime source of power outside Baghdad -- a combination of mercenary army, local government and loyalty club, paid and patronized for maintaining order and fealty. Favored tribes get better roads and schools, welcome bounty in a country withered by sanctions for the past decade. (The United Nations is debating a plan that would revive a weapons-inspection regime in Iraq and could pave the way for at least a partial lifting of sanctions over the next several months. But U.N. officials say there is little hope for a breakthrough soon.)

"The only way to get a job for many Iraqis today is by returning to the tribe," says Falath Abdul Jabar, a writer and sociologist in London. "Sanctions created a vacuum, and the tribes filled it."

Bassem Abed Al Shammari is a typical urban sheik, living in a comfortable ranch house in a Mosul suburb -- with about 30 members of his extended family. Cooperation with the Iraqi regime earns him perks that seem modest but go far under sanctions. He drives a 1999 GMC Suburban and receives $2,000 a month to distribute among the Shammar tribe's 500 families. The tribe recently got a new garbage truck from Baghdad. The 49-year-old Mr. Shammari also acts as mayor, judge and social worker for the tribe.

A year ago, for instance, farmer Abas Al Shammari killed his city-dwelling brother-in-law in a fistfight. His parents, fearing reprisals, asked the sheik to hold a fasal, or mediation. He sat members of the two families on opposite sides of the room, and the aggrieved family made its demand: about $1,000 in compensation, the return of Abas's wife, and the betrothal of Abas's sister to one of the murdered man's relatives. After two months of haggling, the two sides agreed on $250 and a wedding. Abas was able to keep his wife.

But the patronage system also can nourish a threat to Saddam Hussein. The greater the bounty from Baghdad -- much of which comes from the smuggling trade that has formed around the trade sanctions -- the more manpower the clans generate for their militia. The stronger the tribes become, the more the Iraqi leader has to worry that they will become a weapon for his enemies.

"Saddam knows it is the tribes who can destroy him," says Ghanim Jawad, a director at the London-based Al Khoei Foundation, an Islamic research institution. "The men who died fighting his wars were from the tribes."

Some of the swords that have fallen out with the leader have turned sharply against him. One example is Machann Al Jaburi. His father, a sheik, was killed by members of another tribe, and the son's older relatives were locked in a succession struggle.

Just 17 and the youngest member of the sheik's family, Mr. Jaburi was in a weak position. That, he believes, is exactly why Saddam Hussein summoned him to Baghdad. "He asked me what I needed, and I told him I wanted to be a sheik," Mr. Jaburi says in an interview. The Iraqi leader gave the young man a watch, $10,000, a car and a villa, and a high-paying job in Baghdad. His state-backed appointment as sheik quickly settled the tribal power struggle.

Payback time came in 1980, when war broke out between Iraq and Iran. "I went to my hometown with 50 buses, and came back with 50,000 men," Mr. Jaburi says. Whatever the real number was, the Al Jaburis were the country's most powerful clan by the time the war ended in 1989. Mr. Jaburi's territory was transformed with public-works projects.

But Saddam Hussein apparently concluded the tribe had become too powerful. He cut off their patronage, played down their contribution to the war effort, and excluded the tribe from his first postwar government. Forced to choose between the state and his increasingly resentful tribe, Mr. Jaburi chose the tribe. He and his family members plotted to assassinate the Iraqi leader and take over the government. The coup plan was discovered in early January 1990, when Mr. Jaburi was in Paris, and the other plotters were arrested and executed.

But the Al Jaburi problem didn't go away. Saddam Hussein purged the tribe from the military, prompting another coup attempt from them in 1993. Machann Al Jaburi moved to Damascus, and although he lost authority over his tribe, he kept his connections to other, increasingly restless clans. He says he has allied himself with clan leaders in the Kurdish north, and diplomats believe he also has formed ties with tribes in the Shia south, where many opposition groups are based under the protection of the allied Western forces' no-fly zones. His office is adorned with photos of him alongside tribal leaders in traditional garb.

"We are trying to make small incidents into large ones," says Mr. Jaburi. "But it won't happen overnight."

In April, the Arab-language Al Shark Al Awsat newspaper reported that security units arrested 40 Republican Guard officers who were allegedly planning a coup. A U.S. government official said one of the senior-most plotters was an Al Jaburi tribesman who escaped from the country through the Kurdish north. The incident also provided some confirmation of diplomats' belief that the loyalty of Republican Guard members, once Saddam Hussein's janizaries, can no longer be taken for granted.

Before that, in March, members of the Bani Hasan tribe clashed with regular troops in the marshes of southern Iraq, according to diplomats in Baghdad and dissidents abroad. The fighting, in which two dozen soldiers were killed and 14 tribesman executed, was over a government land-distribution and tax plan. Last year, according to the same sources, the regime had to put down a much larger challenge from forces related to the Al Dulaimi tribe, whose turf lies in northwestern Iraq.

While the drumbeat of opposition has been steady since the mid-1990s, diplomats in Baghdad say the incidents have grown more serious. Shia opposition groups say they can buy guns from the military, according to a U.S. official in the Middle East. Parts of Iraq, particularly in the impoverished south, are no longer safe for Iraqi troops to enter after dark.

With their standing militias, "the tribes can rise up overnight if the sheiks give the word," says Sami Alzara al Hajam, a sheik of the 8,000-strong Bani Hajam tribe and now a dissident living in London.

Mr. Hajam is still a tribal sheik, and says he keeps in touch with his fellow tribesman in southern Iraq. Three years ago, Saddam Hussein summoned young Hajam members to Baghdad, in a clear attempt to win loyalists the same way he wooed Mr. Jaburi. "We sent dozens, even men who weren't invited," Mr. Hajam says. "This way, Saddam doesn't know who he can manipulate."

He says he has frequent contact with British officials about the situation in Iraq, though not so much with Washington. "The British know us, because they understand how the tribes work," he says. "But not the Americans."

U.S. officials are starting to take notice of these outbreaks. Having failed to unseat the Iraqi leader by war and sanctions, Washington has occasionally tried to seed the clouds of opposition in the hope of a desert storm from within. Two years ago, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution that provides funding for opposition groups formed along religious and ethnic lines. They include Kurdish militia leaders, Shiite-Muslim Arabs with ties to Iran, and Sunni-Muslim Arab intellectuals. Now, some State Department officials are communicating with dissident tribal leaders in the hope of developing ties with clans on the ground.

The idea isn't an easy one to swallow, though. "Many in the U.S. establishment feel more comfortable dealing with their own type," says Sharif Ali, a cousin of Iraq's last king and an Iraqi dissident who meets regularly with U.S. officials. "When I talk about the tribes, they give me blank stares," he says. Mr. Ali, who heads an opposition group from exile in London, says he is in frequent contact with tribal leaders in Iraq. "They can take any town, but they can't hold it," he says. "For that, they need outside support."

A big problem with the U.S. approach, according to a senior diplomat in the region, is that it tends to focus on cultural, ethnic and religious differences -- instead of the family ties that bind tribes and offer the most fertile sources of opposition when they unravel. U.S. officials concede that their efforts haven't been fruitful. Now their strategy involves waiting to see whether opposition groups can work together and muster a substantial force worth backing.

Saddam Hussein reacts to trouble by drawing loyal tribes even closer -- and rehabilitating those that fall out of favor, as he has with the Al Jaburis. His meetings with the sheiks have become more frequent. State-controlled newspapers react to each crisis by listing, on the front page, tribesmen loyal to the leader. And the regime has hinted it will transfer some legal authority to the sheiks.

One man who makes the loyalty list is Rashid Abdula Salem Al Jaburi, an Al Jaburi leader responsible for about 20,000 people throughout Iraq who has stuck with the regime throughout its confrontation with his tribe. The government recently built a school in Al Jaburi territory, not far from the sheik's orange and date farm just outside Baghdad. Unlike most other schools, this one even has new textbooks.

"When we ask for help, the government doesn't hesitate to provide it," says Mr. Jaburi, 55, who greets two visitors -- including the minder sent along by the Iraqi government -- in a brown checked robe and carrying a bamboo walking stick.

Part of what the regime expects of Mr. Jaburi is to keep small problems from developing into big ones. From dawn to noon, he tends his orchards. After lunch, he leads a caravan of automobiles in his marine-blue Chevy Impala, to see to the needs of his people. In a few days, he must travel to Dialla, several hours away, to head off a blood feud after one of his tribesman murdered a member of the Bani Said.

"We'll sit down and talk it out," Mr. Jaburi says. "Though this may take mediation from a third-party tribe."

Mr. Jaburi is a popular sheik, praised by some Iraqis who privately complain about the government. When his father died last year, thousands of mourners attended the funeral, including a senior delegation sent by Saddam Hussein.

But the regime still keeps an eye on the clan's latest sheik, sometimes assigning an official to "coordinate" between tribe and state, as Mr. Jaburi puts it. He says he doesn't mind. "Our responsibilities are getting so big," he says, keeping one eye on the minder. "We can use the help."