The Iraq Study Group report, released Wednesday, makes only two references to Iraq’s tribes.  --  On page 19 it says that “The Iraqi government and Sunni Arab tribes must aggressively pursue al Qaeda,” and on page 56, in “Recommendation 62,” it suggests that ”local tribes” might be paid to product oil infrastructure.  --  But as is shown by a recent piece about the Shammar tribe that appeared in the French press and is translated below, Iraq’s tribes are an essential element of Iraqi society.[1]  --  They might be a key to holding the country together — yet they’re an element that Americans have failed to (or perhaps, as many Shammars believe, have chosen not to) take into account.  --  Said to number one million persons in Iraq (and three million more in other countries of the region), the Shammars are key to Iraq’s food supply and are crucial players in the Mosul region.  --  They have been a power to be reckoned with in the Middle East since the 16th century.  --  Iraqi tribes often cut across religious identities, and Shammars include both Sunnis and Shiites.  --  On Sunday, the Baghdad newspaper Azzaman published an editorial accusing the West of deliberately undermining Iraq’s tribes and other pan-Iraqi institutions, the better to effect, ultimately, a partition of the country.[2]  --  Although the West purports to desire (and the Iraq Study Group insists) that Iraqis resolve their differences and work together for the common good, the Azzaman editorial shows that many Iraqis perceive American policy as having the opposite effect, and perhaps the opposite intent:  “The invaders have indeed destroyed the fabric of coexistence and tolerance that unified the country."  --  The author of the editorial, Abdujabbar al-Samarai, whose name implies he’s a Shammar, recalls that "[i]n the institutions they dismantled, differences like those surfacing currently in Iraq were non-existent."  --  (Azzaman is thought by most to be the most widely read newspaper in Baghdad; many believe it is funded by Saudi sources; as the French piece points out, the king of Saudi Arabia is the son of a Shammar woman.) ...


[Translated from Paris Match]


By Stéphane Ravion

** There are not only Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds in the country. There are also powerful tribes. Our special correspondents met with Sheikh Abdullah, who reigns over one million subjects. -- His personal bodyguard is that of a head of state. And that's what Sheikh Abdullah is considered to be. At 41, he is, since the death of his father, in 2003, the supreme leader of the Shammar, a powerful tribe throughout the Middle East, and the most important tribe in Iraq. Scattered throughout the country, one million persons belong to it, bound in unshakeable solidarity. They thus constitute a veritable nation within the nation. Since the beginning of the occupation, three years ago, the Americans have not known how to, or have not wanted to see their numerical and political importance. But no solution to the Iraqi quagmire can be found without obtaining the approval of Sheikh Abdullah, the guarantor of his tribe's interests. The United States has not learned the lesson of Lawrence of Arabia. **

Paris Match
November 23-29, 2006
No. 3001
Pages 72-77

[PHOTO CAPTION (pages 72-73): On Oct. 30, at the entrance to his palace in the Mosul region, Sheikh Abdullah, in the midst of the thirty-odd armed men who keep watch day and night, with unfailing loyalty, over his security. In the distance, the sheikh's horses: an Anglo-Arab (to the left) that races in Dubai and three purebred Arabs.]

[PHOTO CAPTION (page 74): Proud of belonging to a dynasty of glorious horsemen, Sheikh Abdullah shows us a purebred Arab, one of the twenty horses in his personal stud farm.]

[PHOTO CAPTION (page 74): The sheikh's palace is equipped with Wi-Fi, which permits the leader of the Shammars to work on his laptop anywhere on his estate. A modern sovereign, the sheikh is nonetheless respectful of traditions, and takes counsel with an elder wise man, a "hajd."

[PHOTO CAPTION (pages 74-75): Sheikh Abdullah can mobilize 20,000 men within an hour. Three times that many in a half-day. The sheikh (extreme left) observes, with part of his family and his bodyguard, the adh-dhouhr (midday) prayer. His father and Shammar right arm leads the prayer, turning toward Mecca. -- A skillful blend of tradition and modernity. It's by succeeding in maintaining their Bedouin heritage, and the strength of mutual assistance that implies, even as they adapt to their environment and evolving history, that the Shammar have been able to remain a tribe both feared and respected from Iraq to Yemen, passing through Syria, Jordan, and Qatar. Not counting Saudi Arabia, whose king is a son of a Shammar woman. And a powerful ally for Sheikh Abdullah. Pious without being fundamentalist, he’s a cultivated man. He’s studied in European universities and has a flair for diplomacy. But he knows that thousands of Shammars, descendants of hardened warriors, would take arms if he ordered them to, in the name of the tribe's welfare.]



The Americans won't budge. Without a visa, it's impossible to cross the Iraqi-Syrian border at Yarubieh, 700 kilometers (438 miles) northeast of Damascus. We've been negotiating for more than an hour with Zaccarias, the Syrian officer in charge of the frontier post, one the most strategic in the country. He refuses categorically to break the rule. Yet all it takes is a phone call to save our situation: "The two Frenchmen are my guests. They'll only stay forty-eight hours. Let them pass." The Americans look the other way this time. What Sheikh Abdullah al-Yawar wants, the supreme leader of the tribe of the Shammar gets. Zaccarias allows us to enter Iraqi territory. With a solemn recommendation by way of welcome: "You're arriving in an extremely dangerous zone. Kurdish militias, the peshmergas, and some Sunni militias won't handle you with kid gloves if you're caught in an ambush. Don't forget it."

Once across the border, three escort vehicles are waiting for us. A completely armored Toyota Land Cruiser with tinted windows, flanked by two pick-ups. Inside, men in Bedouin dress with revolvers on their belts and AK-47 Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. They indicate we should get into the back of the 4x4. In the course of a forty-five-minute trip to get to the fiefdom of the Shammars, we go through at least three checkpoints. All are held by Sheikh Abdullah's men, for whom security is no joke. As our convoy goes through, they salute deferentially the guests of their leader.

Halfway between Yarubieh and Mosul, behind a curtain of luxuriant vegetation, enormous gates emerge. They open to reveal the bunker palace of the Al-Yawar family. The gate, twenty meters high, is surmounted by the former Iraqi flag. Armed men, posted as sentinels, are guarding it. We are finally really entering the home of one of the lords of Iraq.

They lead us into the reception room for prestigious guests, dominated by a monumental Murano chandelier. A crowd comes in. In the midst of the twenty-five bodyguards who never leave him, Sheikh Abdullah emerges. From his two-meter (6' 7") height, his charisma is imposing. It's impossible to guess the age of this 41-year-old in Bedouin dress -- caftan, keffiyeh [traditional Arab headdress], and abath. His manners are those of a sovereign. When we express concern about being targeted by militias, he reassures us placidly: "In just one little hour, I can raise an army of 20,000 men. Triple that in half a day." The Shammar tribe counts one million persons in Iraq -- there are four million of them in all, among all the Gulf countries, so fused by tribal solidarity that the English secret service has called them "the international Shammar." Their tribal affiliation has, for them, the same importance as their national affiliation. Whether they be Sunnis in the north, or Shiites in the south. That's what's so special about the most important Iraqi tribe, to which American experts did not pay attention when devising the occupation plan for post-Saddam Iraq. Marriages explain this religious diversity. When a man or a woman marries one of the descendants of the Shammars, it's the entire bayt, or house, integrated into the hamulas, or extended family, that pledges allegiance to the afkhad, or sub-clan. All recognize Sheikh Abdullah as their supreme leader. In 2003, a tribal council judged that he had the stature and qualities required to succeed his father and enter into the lineage of a dynasty that has been feared and respected since the 16th century. He grew up hearing the stories of the glorious deeds of the Shammar, their legends, the history of these men who have known how to show themselves, in every circumstance, implacable warriors and shrewd diplomats, allowing the tribe to survive all the somersaults that have shaken the Middle East. The sheikh, too, never tires of narrating them for hours on end. From the age of twelve, he went along on all his father's trips, before studying in the West. There he acquired perfect English, with an Oxford accent and an astonishing aptitude for reconciling tradition and modernity. As well as wide knowledge of what’s at stake internationally. About ten days before the Iraqi ex-president's death sentence, he told us: "Saddam was able to make himself respected only by imposing his arbitrary courts. The tribunal that is judging him is a farce, the same farce he was able to inflict on the Iraqi population throughout his life. He'll die in despotic fashion, after an abbreviated trial. He should have been judged by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. We must not forget that a few months before the gassing of the Kurds, Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Baghdad as a friend of Iraq, bringing it one billion dollars in credit for the purchase of arms . . ."

Why, then, does the sheikh fly the former Iraqi flag over his palace? "For us Shammars, the present government has fulfilled none of the objectives guaranteeing the fundamental rights of justice and security for the people of Iraq. Jalal Talabani, the president, is a constitutional anomaly in the hands of the Americans. He has no legitimacy, no roots among the people." The leader of the Shammars holds no brief for the regime of the fallen raïs. He emphasizes that in 1979, shortly after Saddam's accession to power, his father was sent to prison in Mosul at the order of the dictator, because he had organized the flight through Syria of dozens of dissident families being sought by the secret police. "After my father was freed," he says, "the watchword was clear, and everyone followed it. We had to keep quiet so as not to endanger our tribe's future, and not destroy any chance of seeing the day arrive when we could again act for the good of the Iraqi people."


The Shammars' return to the political stage took place on May 17, 2004. On that day, Ghazi al-Yawar, Sheikh Abdullah's cousin, was chosen as the new president of the Iraqi Interim Government, after the assassination of the Americans' favorite candidate. He remained head of state until Apr. 7, 2005, and then became its vice-president. Last spring, he left the government, politics, and Iraq. Sheikh Abdullah, like many other members of the al-Yawar family, advised him from the start to refuse the position. He did not want to see his tribe's greatness tarnished by the exercise of a puppet presidency. His dissuasive efforts were insufficient to weigh in the balance against pressure from the king of Saudi Arabia. Son of a Shammar woman, married to two Shammar women, King Abdullah saw in the nomination of Ghazi al-Yawar an unhoped-for opportunity to play a role in the new Iraq. Yet for a long time, the al-Yawars and the al-Sauds were sworn enemies. "Several times my grandfather sent his cavalry against the Sauds," Sheikh Abdullah recounts. "At the time, the fighting would begin over control of wells, thefts of livestock, or else territorial boundaries." The marriage of the future founder of kingdom of Saudi Arabia with a woman from the Shammar tribe put an end to these struggles. Almost a century later, the sheikh has thus an important ally in the figure of King Abdullah. The future of this alliance is assured: one of the sheikh's uncles, who lives in London, has promised his daughter to the grandson of the Saudi king. She is only twelve years old.

Despite the great importance of this alliance with one of the richest families in the world, the boss of the Shammars is worried. He sees his country plunging into anarchy and terror. He is anxious, and warns solemnly: "To draw a line through the history of our tribes, our struggles, our commitments would be grave mistake. The values that we are defending are timeless, they have been given to us for the good of our people, for the good of Iraq. Insha'Allah [i.e. 'If it be God's will']." The sheikh does not have words harsh enough to describe the militias' demands, and hints at his annoyance in the face of the powerlessness of the American forces to prevent the atrocities committed by these factions, whether they be Sunnis or Shiites. "For us, all these groups, including those that claim to be followers of Zarqawi or bin Laden, whether they say they're Sunnis, Wahhabis, or Shiites, are Takfiris, non-believers. They are making use of the argument from divinity for purposes of personal power to abase, kill gratuitously, and get rich. They are giving Islam a bad image in the world. The mafia clans must be eliminated at any cost, to put a stop to this."


One militia causes the sheikh special concern -- and with him the tribe as a whole: the peshmergas who, supported by American logistics via Turkey, are dreaming of an independent state. The discreet Turkish cooperation with the 2003 American assault has been rewarded by a promise made by the United States to resolve the status of the Turkish Kurds through the establishment of an autonomous Kurdistan. In northeast Iraq. On a major portion of the Shammars' territory, which has been considered since Antiquity, thanks to the presence of the Tigris, as the country's granary -- the tribe's immense farms feed Baghdad, Mosul, Tikrit, Kirkuk, Fallujah, and Samarra, the most important cities. Plus, there are oilfields there.

That evening, the sheikh received a party of about forty men. Clan heads who have come from throughout the region to pay homage after Eid [marking the end of Ramadan], braving bad weather and checkpoints. To attest to their allegiance, they launch into long litanies glorifying Allah, the long line of the Shammar, the sheikh, and the destiny of Iraq. Then they evoke their own problems. Scowling, they recall how, last year, Shammar peasants were executed by peshmergas. The Americans did nothing. Then the entire region erupted. Proudly, the sheikh describes a mini-revolution: tens of thousands of Shammars took arms and located the murderers, then killed them themselves in front of transfixed Americans.

“It was a trial of strength,” explains the sheikh. “We had to show the Americans that if they could not ensure security and justice, in accordance with their mandate, we could do it. A Third Army general from the north came to see me after it was all over. I let him know I shall render justice, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. He then assured me that no other incident of that kind would occur again.” He continues firmly: “The autonomy of Kurdistan, why not? But certainly not at the expense of Shammar territory.” The sheikh knows that everywhere in Europe Kurdish identity cards are being proposed to the diaspora with a view to a “law of return” favorable to tilting the balance. His guests are alarmed at this. “Without wanting to, the Americans have perhaps thereby signed Iraq’s first partition, a veritable time bomb that will, when the time comes, blow up in their faces,” says the sheikh, with no sign of spite. He’s no warmonger, nor is he primarily anti-American. Rather, a leader of men, charged with preserving their interests.

The future of the country is a matter that preoccupies the sheikh: “The declaration of war is the final diplomatic act, when all others have failed, and today it is not up to me to decide for the government what it must and must not do. Each must fulfill his own responsibilities. It’s time to take stock. You know, governments come and go. The Americans, too, will have to leave. As for me, I’m staying.” Beyond the fate of his own tribe, what does he think of George Bush’s policy in the Middle East? He answers with an anecdote. In 1938, Nazi leaders invited his grandfather Ajil to Berlin, to try to make an ally of him. After visiting the Hitler’s most important arms plants, they asked him his opinion of “the Führer’s grand vision.” “Then my grandfather said to them: ‘A man who is mad can only do mad things.’” He bursts into laughter and gets up to accompany us back to the armored car that must take us back across the border.

[PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. The sheikh and his eldest son, Humeidi, 7. 2. One of the sheikh’s nieces with her tutor. Each child has his own special teacher. Later, boys and girls are sent to the West to complete their education. 3. A family photo in the palace’s reception room. The sheikh (in black) with his two sons, Humeidi and Muhsan, four of his five brothers, Ajil (extreme left), Faisal (beside him), Soufouq, and Shummar (to the sheikh’s right) as well as his cousin, Fahad.]

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Phone: 253-535-7219
Home page:
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



By Abdujabbar al-Samarai

Azzaman December 3, 2006

Several years before the 2003 U.S. invasion, Western media had already divided the Iraqi society into several ethnic and sectarian groups. Even Western powers, particularly the U.S. and the U.K., had their prior invasion policies based on the fact that Iraq was divisible into at least three separate ethnic, sectarian, and geographical regions.

The two powers even resorted to military means to translate their strategy of partitioning the country on the ground. They create two no-fly zones one in the north and one in the south ostensibly to protect the northern Sunni Kurds and the southern Arab Shiites from the ‘oppressive’ Arab Sunni regime in the center.

When the two powers occupied Iraq, they pressed ahead with their strategy. Instead of working for a unified and multicolored Iraq, they began driving one wedge after another between the different components of the society.

In the pre-invasion period they had two no-fly zones. In the post-invasion period they destroyed the country’s institutions in which the various sects, faiths, and nationalities were represented.

In the institutions they dismantled, differences like those surfacing currently in Iraq were non-existent. There were Arab Shiites and Sunni Kurds serving at the various levels of administration. In fact many Iraqis would even not bother to ask whether the president of a university, the dean of a college, the governor of a province, or even the head of the security or intelligence at the provincial levels was Shiite, Sunni, Christian, or Kurd.

There were Christian and Shiite Baathists at the head of Baath party organizations in many provinces in Iraq. Iraqis rarely asked whether the boss who reported to former leader Saddam Hussein was Shiite, Sunni, Kurd, or Christian. Those were rarely issue of concern to them.

Today, conditions are different in what is supposed to be a democratic Iraq. Every where and at any level of government -- civil or military -- the first thing to know is who is who at all ranks of the newly formed institutions.

Not only that. The ministries are now divided on sectarian and ethnic grounds. So are almost all the new institutions the invaders or their lackeys have set up. A ministry could be Shiite, for example. Not only that. It could be under the hegemony of a certain Shiite faction. The minister owes his presence and loyalty to the faction he belongs to and not to the nation.

Every new brick the invaders added to our institutions is tainted with sectarianism. The first thing Iraqis would like to know now is whether the police or military commander of the force assigned to protect them is Shiite, Sunni, or Kurd, and which faction he belongs to. Some communities would rather have the anti-U.S. rebels or even al-Qaeda-related insurgents govern their areas than relinquishing control to units led by commanders of opposite sect.

The invaders are the reason of this mistrust. They nourished these divisions right in the aftermath of their occupation. They are to blame for the carnage and atrocities taking place now because they fueled the sectarian divide in a country where sectarian borders are impossible to draw.

Take the Iraqi Arabs who make up more than 80 per cent of the population. The major Arab tribes like the Shammar, the Zubaid, the Rabiaa, the Jibour, the Tai, the Iza, and many others straddle the sectarian divide the invaders have created. These tribes are composed of both Arab Sunni and Shiite members who for centuries defended each other and have been connected through bonds of blood and marriage.

Kurds and Turkmen, the other two major minorities, are present throughout the country. There are about one million Kurds in Baghdad alone and it is almost impossible to have them distanced from the rest because of the ties of marriage and shared cultural and religious values.

The invaders have indeed destroyed the fabric of coexistence and tolerance that unified the country. This is why most Iraqis would rather have them leave in humiliation. Their presence is part of the problem and not solution.