Iraqi tribal leader adapts to future
An Aspen Times exclusive
An Aspen Times exclusive: Preston Mendenhall, who grew up in Aspen, is MSNBC.com’s international editor. He has been covering the war from northern Iraq and has agreed to send us dispatches about his experiences.
SAMARRA, Iraq – This town of 200,000 on the banks of the Tigris River was once home to the largest mosque in the Muslim world. Today, more than a thousand years after its construction, only a single minaret of Samarra’s Great Mosque remains standing. Across town, however, a grander edifice is under way, thanks to Saddam Hussein.
Samarra and its northern neighbor Tikrit are in Saddam’s heartland. The former Iraqi leader was born in Tikrit, where streets are filled with statues and mosaics with his likeness – a sort of open-air museum to the cult of Saddam.
In Samarra, Saddam gave the money to rebuild the magnificent mosque in the city center. Its golden domes dominate the skyline, noticeably higher than Samarra’s ancient mosque.
At his house in the shadow of the mosque construction, I recently paid a visit to Sheik Khatan Yehiah Salim, a tribal leader in Samarra who is a direct descendant of Islam’s caliphs, who ruled after the death of the prophet Mohammed. Sheikh Khatan’s cool sitting room provided a respite from the intense midday sun of Samarra. A few hours before, I had crossed over from Iraq’s fertile north to the desert on the east side of the Tigris. In a matter of minutes, the temperature jumped by 15 degrees.
After a meal of roasted chicken and warm apricot and lamb soup, the sheik had his aides spread his family tree before me on the floor. Flowing branches traced his lineage back to the early days of Islam.
Twenty-four hours before my arrival in Samarra, Sheik Khatan’s life underwent a dramatic change. Saddam Hussein had fallen, and the 5th Brigade of the U.S. Marines was camped out next to the former Samarra headquarters of Saddam’s Baath Party. If the overnight shift in power had unnerved him, the sheik was showing no signs of it.
Still, as we sipped sweet tea below portraits of Sheik Khatan’s father and grandfather, I was perplexed by his relatively easy transition to American military rule. During Saddam’s time, tribal leaders like Sheik Khatan were handsomely rewarded for their loyalty to the Iraqi leadership. The gilded new mosque – and the sheik’s survival as a tribal leader – were testament to that. So how could it be so easy to embrace the Americans, and so suddenly? One day, the sheik was tight with Saddam’s clan. The next, as the sheik boasted, “I negotiated the peaceful entrance of the American military into Samarra.”
Perhaps it was because Sheik Khatan’s family had lived in Samarra for centuries before Saddam’s rise to power, and he fully expected his ancestors to be in the region after America left.
The sheik told me that he was not thrilled with the American military presence. “The sooner they go, the better,” he said of the young Marines from the 5th Brigade. He then proceeded to praise the anti-war movement in Europe, while at the same time saying life would be better without Saddam. “We weren’t free to express ourselves. We always had to be loyal to Saddam’s regime,” he said.
This dichotomous diatribe was tribal Iraq in its truest form. Overnight, Saddam’s tribal heartland had easily adapted to the future – a future without Saddam. But the future of these former loyalists was uncertain, and Sheik Khatan was reluctant to put a foot firmly in either camp.
Before I stepped back outside into the blazing heat, I asked Sheik Khatan if he knew anything about the seven American POWs who had been rescued from a private home in Samarra the day before.
“I was astonished,” he said. “We are a tightly knit community, but nobody knew about it. We can’t imagine why they were held in Samarra.”
When I asked the same question of an officer with the 5th Brigade, he also expressed astonishment – that tribal leaders were professing ignorance about the POWs. This was, after all, Saddam’s heartland, where everyone was loyal to the leader.
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Max Weintraub has been senior curator at the Aspen Art Museum since January 2019.