Choice of leaders restores political clout for the Sunni Arabs

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The Independent Online

The choice of Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawar as the interim Iraqi president is a sign that the Sunni Arabs are beginning to restore the political influence they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein.

The choice of Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawar as the interim Iraqi president is a sign that the Sunni Arabs are beginning to restore the political influence they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein.

Mr Yawar, 46, is a Sunni businessman from northern Iraq's Shammar people, one of the most important Iraqi tribes, which also has members in other Arab countries. He was born in 1958, the year the Iraqi army overthrew and slaughtered the Iraqi royal family. A year later, it launched a revolt against the new Republican regime.

In the middle of the 1980s, Mr Yawar moved with his family to Saudi Arabia where he studied engineering at the Petroleum and Minerals University. He also studied in the US and became a senior official in a technology company in Saudi Arabia. He was not involved in opposition to Saddam Hussein and returned to Iraq only after his overthrow by the US-led invasion last year.

As a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, he has been critical enough of the US to retain his credibility with many Sunni Iraqis although his rival for the Presidency, the 80-year-old former foreign minister Adnan Pachachi may have been more popular. Mr Yawar also has the advantage that he has a political base in his hom -city of Mosul, and his uncle is head of the Shammar tribe.

The choice of Mr Yawar as president, following the selection of Iyad Allawi as Prime Minister of the interim government, strengthens the Sunni over the Shias. Although Mr Allawi is a Shia he was a member of the Baath party, and his organisation, the Iraqi National Accord, draws its membership from mostly Sunni former officers in the Iraqi army and security forces. He does not have support from the Shia religious leaders and, unlike the Shia religious parties, the Supreme Council for Islamic revolution in Iraq (Sciri) and Dawa, he has no relationship with Iran.

The disadvantage from the US point of view of Mr Yawar being chosen as president is that he will be more difficult to predict and control than Mr Pachachi, a vastly experienced diplomat. On the other hand, Mr Yawar may be able to use his links with Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan to gain a measure of acceptance in the Arab world.

The new president was not part of the exiled opposition, much disliked by most Iraqis, so that may also help his popularity. He was heavily critical of the attack by the US Marines on Fallujah in April.

But the interim government will be weak because it is dependent militarily on the US. The old Iraqi Governing Council, now disbanded, was discredited by its lack of real power over security and the economy.

Mr Allawi and the new president will try to lure back at least some of the Sunni opposition to the US occupation to split the armed resistance. Critics say Mr Allawi was a member of the Saddam Hussein's security forces when he was a student at medical school in Baghdad in the 1960s. He changed allegiance in the UK in the 1970s and was supported by MI6 and the CIA.

There is likely to be opposition to Mr Yawar from Shia leaders, secular and religious, as well as Iran. The interim government will try to get the security forces of their Arab neighbours to close their borders to anti-US resistance forces which have been able to cross unhindered into Iraq.

The US is likely to try to keep real power in Iraq in its own hands after the so-called transfer of sovereignty on 30 June. But the George Bush administration will also be expecting Mr Yawar to try to deliver good news from Iraq in the months before the US presidential election in December.

FIVE LEADING FIGURES IN THE CABINET

PRIME MINISTER: Iyad Allawi Educated in London. Grandfather helped negotiate Iraq's independence in 1920. With help from MI6 and the CIA, formed the Iraqi National Accord.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Hoshiyar Zebari Remains Foreign Minister, a post he has held since September. He studied in Jordan and Britain. A leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

DEFENCE MINISTER: Hazem Shaalan Shaalan went into exile in Britain in 1985 and returned in April 2003. Was appointed governor of Diwaniya.

INTERIOR MINISTER: Falah al-Nakib Was a member of Ahmad Chalabi's INC. Nakib returned and was appointed governor of Salahaddin province.

OIL MINISTER: Thamir Ghadhban Studied in London. Worked for the Iraqi Oil Ministry, but early in his career was detained for supporting democratic reforms. Named chief executive after invasion.

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