Iraq Election Highlights Ascendancy of Tribes

Hamid al-Hais is a tribal leader and party boss, part sheik and part showman, in Anbar province. The tribes, he thinks, are kingmakers.
Hamid al-Hais is a tribal leader and party boss, part sheik and part showman, in Anbar province. The tribes, he thinks, are kingmakers. (By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
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SOURCE: | The Washington Post - January 24, 2009
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 25, 2009

RAMADI, Iraq -- In rugged western Iraq, once the bastion of the insurgency against the American occupation and now a freewheeling arena of electoral politics steeped in payola, the conversation in the tribal guesthouse in Anbar province was the equivalent of a stump speech.

"If anything happens to any of our candidates, even a scratch on one of their bodies, we will kill all of their candidates!" bellowed Hamid al-Hais, a tribal leader and party boss whose voice was like his build -- husky, coarse and forceful.

"That's right," shouted another sheik, who had suggested -- in jest, inshallah -- that a friend resolve a dispute by strapping on explosives and blowing himself up.

"Of course!" yelled another, who had accused the governor of urinating on Anbar.

"We'll break all the ballot boxes on their heads!" Hais declared, wagging a finger.

Part sheik and part showman, with a dose of barroom humor, Hais leads a party that has helped make Iraq's provincial elections this month the first truly competitive vote in Sunni Muslim lands since the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. By all accounts, that is a good thing. But the results of next Saturday's ballot may say less about the campaigns themselves than about the political geography of Anbar, where tribes, sprawling clans steeped in tradition and courted by the U.S. military, enjoy more power than at any time since the Iraqi monarchy was toppled half a century ago.

Here, the new Iraq looks like the old one, imbued with politics that might be familiar to Gertrude Bell, the British diplomat and adventurer who drew the country's borders after World War I.

There is a saying heard these days in Anbar: "Everyone claims they have the love of Laila, but Laila loves none of them." In other words, Laila gets to choose. The same might be said of the tribes, whose mantle everyone claims and which often demand a tidy sum for their support. Coddled and cultivated, the tribes are kingmakers.

"The center of power in Anbar," Hais called them as he sat in the guesthouse, decorated with purple, red and yellow plastic flowers, with 25 tribal leaders gathered over a sprawling, artery-clogging dish of chicken, lamb and a slab of fat, mixed with rice.

The Americans might have hoped the tribes had less power, Hais said, in their vision of a modern state built on the rule of law. "But now," he added, "they're stronger."

It is still democracy, the sheik insisted, gruffly.

A soft-spoken doctor, Sabah al-Ani, managing a crowded clinic in Fallujah, shook his head at the assertion. "If you believe in a stone," he said, "you can say it's God."

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