June 10, 2004 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 178

The New Leaders of Iraq (1): Interim President Sheikh Ghazi Al-Yawer

June 10, 2004 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 178

With little of the pomp and circumstance appropriate for historical occasions such as the installation of a new regime, but with a lot of formalism and under the watchful eye of armed guards, the new Iraqi transitional government was announced on June 2, 2004.

The government comprises a president, two vice presidents, a prime minister, and a deputy prime minister, and 30 ministers. The ethnic distribution of the portfolios was first introduced with the appointment of Iraq's Governing Council (IGC) and was maintained under the new configuration as well. The president, Sheikh Ghazi Mash'al Ujail Al-Yawer, a Sunni Muslim with no party affiliation, will have two vice presidents, Dr. Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari, a Shi'ite, and head of the Islamic Da'wa Party, and Rosh Nouri Shawis, a Kurd, and speaker of the Kurdish parliament. The prime minister is Dr. Iyad Allawi, a Shi'ite, whose deputy is Barham Saleh, a Kurd. The cabinet will comprise a total of 33 members, including the prime minister and his deputy, with its portfolios distributed among 16 Shi'ites, 9 Sunnis, 6 Kurds, 1 Turkeman, and 1 Christian. The cabinet includes 6 female ministers—1 Shi'ite, 2 Sunnis, 2 Kurds, and 1 Christian.

Initially, it was thought that the government would assume power on June 30 when the IGC as well as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) were dissolved. In fact, members of the new government, including the president, assumed their positions immediately upon their inauguration, and the IGC declared itself dissolved.

The Two Key Figures in the New Government

The two key figures in the new Iraqi government are the president and the prime minister. These two, as well as their deputies and the members of the cabinet, were selected through tripartite consultations and deal-making involving the United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdhar Al-Ibrahimi, [1] the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, and members of Iraq's Governing Council, which has ceased to exist. The fact that the members of the new government are not a product of democratic elections may raise doubts regarding their legitimacy. However, one should keep in mind that their two most critical detractors, the Syrian and the Iranian governments, are not exactly paragons of democracy themselves.

Sheikh Ghazi Mash'al Ujail Al-Yawer – Interim President

Sheikh Ghazi Al-Yawer was born in the northern city of Mosul, and is a descendent of the distinguished Shammar tribe, which extends from the Arabian Peninsula in the south through Syria to Mosul in the north. Upon his selection for the presidency, Al-Yawer said, "I am Sunni, born in Mosul. My family has maintained excellent relations with the Kurds and, when I was young, my mother would take me to visit the holy [Shi'ite] shrines in Najaf and Karbala, in addition to the Sunni Mosques in Baghdad, and St. Mary's Church." [2]

He is the first-born son – one of four – of Sheikh Ujail Al-Yawer, the former tribal chief, and the nephew of the present tribal chief, Sheikh Muhsin Ujail Al-Yawer, who, because he had refused to support Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait, went into exile in London after the war. As punishment for the lack of support, thousands of hectares of tribal lands were confiscated by Saddam Hussein.

Ghazi Al-Yawer attended primary school in Mosul and secondary school in Baghdad. In 1974 he left Iraq for the first time to attend the Petroleum and Mineral University in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Shortly before the invasion of Kuwait, Al-Yawer traveled to the U.S. to earn a master's degree in engineering from George Washington University. Upon the completion of his studies he went to Saudi Arabia, where he established and managed a telecommunications company with his maternal uncles, and served as vice chairman of the board. While in Saudi Arabia he followed his uncle's advice to stay away from political involvement with any of the opposition groups. His uncle has said that as a tribal chief, his main concern is to maintain the cohesiveness of his tribe. Further, he has often said that political action is not appropriate for a tribal chief because, if it should fail, it would bring an end to the tribe as a social organization. For Sheikh Muhsin's nephew, Sheikh Ghazi Al-Yawer, "silent opposition is more eloquent than chitchatting in the media." [3]

As a scion of a tribal tradition, Al-Yawer brings many good qualities that could serve him well in his new position; deeply ingrained generosity, loyalty, perseverance, and personal courage. But he is also an engineer and a successful businessman who brings with him the added qualities of entrepreneurship, openness, and deductive thinking.

At his uncle's instigation, Al-Yawer returned to Iraq in May 2003, approximately two months after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Shortly thereafter, he was selected as a member of Iraq's Governing Council.

Al-Yawer is married to a woman who is a descendent of the Rashid tribe, which is a branch of the Shammar tribe. He has four children: a daughter Rif'a, 16, and three sons - Mash'al, 18, a student at the college of administrative sciences at King Sa'ud University in Riyadh; Ali, 14, and Muhammad, 11.

Al-Yawer has traveled in the past on a Saudi passport, although he said he is not a Saudi citizen. His family, however, has remained in Saudi Arabia because of the security threats in Iraq and the educational needs of his children. It is not surprising that the Saudis were among the first to congratulate Al-Yawer on his selection as president of Iraq. [4]

Al-Yawer's Selection To the Presidency

A combination of chance and accident brought Al-Yawer to prominence. Following the assassination of the president of the IGC, Izzidin Salim, Al -Yawer was selected as the president of the council, and within two weeks, following the refusal of the venerable Iraqi politician Adnan Al-Pachachi to take on the post of president of Iraq, Al-Yawer claimed the honor. In any case, he was endorsed by an overwhelming number of the IGC's members.

Sheikh Ghazi Al-Yawer is the first Iraqi president since the demise of the monarchy in 1958 who has reached that high position competitively and without bloodshed, the first president who does not hold a military rank, and the first one with academic diplomas in engineering and experience as an entrepreneur. Demonstrating a strain of independence, he has made no reference to the U.S. or the CPA in his acceptance speech. [5]

Al-Yawer is considered pragmatic but firm, and he criticized the IGC for engaging in fruitless debates. He said, "While the country is burning we are sitting to discuss procedural matters. We are like the Byzantines in Constantinople who debated whether angels were masculine or feminine while the enemy was knocking on the door." [6]

Al-Yawer's Views and Positions:
Internal Reconciliation

President Al-Yawer is portrayed as a person above ethnicity and tribalism. While he grew up in Sunni-nationalist Mosul, his own tribe, Al-Shamma, is a mixture of Sunnis and Shi'ites.

In his first interview as president with the Iraqi daily Al-Mada, Al-Yawer said that his focus has always been on "a complete national reconciliation" which ought to be the cornerstone of the new Iraq, adding that reconciliation means reordering the social forces. Reconciliation also means recreating the national equilibrium, putting an end to assassinations, and strengthening the criteria of free and equal citizenship through free and honest elections. He has said that national reconciliation does not mean "may Allah forgive what has passed "or" burning the green with the arid;" nor does it mean "vengeful liquidation" of opponents.

He has called for bringing to account the criminal elements from the Saddam era but for doing so in lawful and fair trials that "will show the humane face of the modern democratic Iraq." He acknowledged that reconciliation is difficult and complex and could be painful to those whose loved ones were victims of terror, "but it is an honorable act that will bring blessing to the homeland." [7]

Relations with the Neighbors

In his interview with Al-Mada, Al-Yawer sought the support of Iraq's neighbors in establishing a stable government that would be beneficial to all sides. He said he was "determined to build our democratic experiment and liberate our country from the shackles of occupation." Taking exception to the U.S. position that Iraq should be a democratic model, Al-Yawer responded firmly, "What we can confirm to our Arab brethren and our neighbors is that we harbor no ill will towards anyone nor will we serve as a stepping stone for aggression against a neighbor or brethren. We shall not permit ourselves or others to convert our experiment [in democracy] into a model for export elsewhere."

Al-Yawer set out for Al-Mada a program of seventeen objectives, including the following:

  • Restoring peace and security, including the rehabilitation of the army, the police, and other (security) agencies.
  • Reinstating those who lost their jobs (through the program of de-Ba'thification).
  • Founding political life on democratic principles.
  • Reconciling with the Kurds and establishing a federal democratic political system.
  • Seeking relief for the unjust debts.
  • Introducing educational and cultural renaissance. [8]

Al-Yawer voted to repeal the law approved during the rotating presidency of the IGC under Abd Al-Aziz Al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), that would have subjected the rights of women to the laws of the Shari'a. [9] In fact, his leading assistant and spokesperson is a woman – Hind Al-Shannen. [10]

Perhaps one of the most intriguing revelations in the interview with Al-Mada is the expression of his admiration not for an Arab or Muslim author or philosopher, but for Thomas Paine (1737-1809), the American colonial-era political activist whose writings are said to have served as the basis for the Declaration of Independence. Paine was considered the champion of the rights of the common man. But in his later years, because he was opposed to organized religion, "he was widely regarded as the world's greatest infidel." [11] It is highly unlikely that such a characterization would apply to Al-Yawer, but his stated devotion to democracy and free elections may indicate a secular bent.

The Issue of Elections

Long before his rise to prominence, Al-Yawer expressed some doubts about the demands by Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani for immediate elections. After expressing great respect for the Ayatollah, Al-Yawer raised doubts about the feasibility of free and transparent elections in the face of five militias, excluding the Mahdi Army, which came later: "How can the elections be free and honest," he asked, "in the shadow of irregular armed forces?" He added: "It is imperative to guarantee the proper security for the voter and insure that he does not come under undue pressure. The existence of these militias conveys to the Iraq people the message about the loss of security in the country." [12]

Endorsement of the New President

Upon his designation as president, Sheikh Al-Yawer received endorsements from many leaders, including a telephone conversation with U.S. President George W. Bush. Perhaps the most significant endorsement came from Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who told him that the Iraqi people are now in Al-Yawer's custody, and expressed confidence that the president will be up to the challenge. [13]

A thoughtful editorial by Mish'an Al-Jabouri, president of the Iraqi Watan (Nation) Party, asserted that the new government and its president constitute "a balanced government supported by the majority of the Iraqis. We don't say all of the Iraqis because there is no government in a democratic country which pretends to be supported by the entire people… Governments in democratic countries are established with a majority of a little over 50% of members of parliament, and our new government would receive more than 50% if it were subject to a plebiscite." [14]

Division of Power Between Al-Yawer and the Prime Minister

Operating in an environment of threats and violence, the new Iraqi government can ill afford any dissention in its ranks, and certainly between the two highest position holders, the president and the prime minister. A modus operandi will have to be negotiated between the holders of the two highest posts, as well as between each of them and his two deputies.


The selection of Sheikh Ghazi Al-Yawer was fortuitous, because this man brings with him a unique balance of tradition and modernity. Being rooted in one of the most powerful tribes in Iraq will earn strong support from the powerful Iraqi tribal structure.

The distribution of portfolios in the new transitional government, which follows the pattern established in the appointment of the members of Iraq's Governing Council, carries with it the risks of institutionalized ethnicity ('hasshassa, best translated as share allocation of portfolios based on ethnicity or religion). There are risks, however, that at times of crisis a system based on ethnic allocations of posts carries with it dangers reminiscent of the situation in Lebanon. A new government, elected directly by the people, could bring different configurations that would remove the danger of Lebanonization from undermining the Iraqi political system.

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

[1] See MEMRI The Shi'a-Sunni Debate in Iraq Over Lakhdar Al-Ibrahimi's RoleMay 14, 2004, 'The Shi'a-Sunni Debate over Lakhdhar Al-Ibrahimi.'

[2] Al-Zaman (Iraq), June 1, 2004.

[3] Al-Hayat (London), June 2, 2004.

[4] Background information on Al-Yawer can be found in Al-Mashriq (Iraq), June 2, 2004; Al-Zaman (Iraq) June 2, 2004; and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 15 and June 4, 2004.

[5] An Iraqi academician who resides in Vienna and who has written extensively in the past about Iraqi personalities describes Ghazi al-Yawer as follows: "Shy and reserved. Never raises his voice. Good natured and easygoing, but his Bedouin upbringing has imbued him with rare talents. He is like a falcon able to see the details on the ground from great heights… He wants to change Iraq from being [an arena for] games by others into becoming a player itself." Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 2, 2004.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 2, 2004.

[7] Al-Mada (Iraq), June 3, 2004.

[8] Al-Mada (Iraq), June 3, 2004.

[9] Al-Qabas (Kuwait), June 1, 2004.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 2, 2004.

[11] Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 13, (1978). pp.867-869.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 22, 2004.

[13] Al-Sabah (Iraq), June 3, 2004.

[14] Al-Ittijah Al-Aakher (Iraq), June 5, 2004.

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