Seated in the gilded hall of Baghdad's Alwiyah Club, Sheikh Yunis Hamed al Lateef marvels at how quickly his fortunes turned. Just months earlier, the chief of the Utbah tribe was convinced he was a marked man. Saddam Hussein's regime was cracking down on tribal conflicts that it had sown itself.
But now, Mr. Lateef is part of Iraq's new political elite - tribal leaders who have brought order to the countryside and votes to the city.
"People have begun to realize just how much political power the tribes have," says Lateef as he mingles with other tribal leaders, who are called sheikhs. "We've learned a lot, we've organized, and we are ready; we have a real future now."
For decades, Iraq's 2,000 tribes were dismissed as relics of Arab history. Over the past two months, however, they have reemerged as some of the most organized political powers in the country. Unlike the more prominent Shiite clergy who have staged massive rallies over the past two months, the tribes have worked the halls of power quietly, emphasizing their influence in numbers and in allegiances. In much of the country, tribal legacies cross religions, regions, and ethnicities. Some tribes include both Sunnis and Shiites, and have numerous branches in different parts of the country. In effect, they possess far more influence that most imams do.
Much of that new clout, ironically, comes from the promise of democracy in Iraq. In the countryside, these hereditary tribal chiefs have worked to deliver protection and some semblance of law and order. In the cities, they have promised to lend nascent political parties legitimacy and votes. And throughout Iraq, they have sought to have a strong hand in the rebuilding of the country and its future institutions in their favor.
Law and order, of course, remains a significant problem for US forces. On Sunday, rocket-propelled grenade attacks on two US military convoys wounded at least four Americans, two of them seriously, a US military spokesman said Monday.
These days tribal chiefs like Lateef figure prominently among the list of those invited to political events. Where once Western diplomats mingled with Baath cadres, sheikhs in the traditional woolen cape - known as an abaya - and headdress now mingle with Iraqi political leaders and coalition representatives hoping to build ties and curry favor with the tribes.
"It's basic physics. The political parties have just arrived and have no real legitimacy," notes Basil Naqib, a senior adviser with the National Independent Party. "In the meantime, there's a power vacuum and these guys are [filling] it."
Iraq's largest tribes, the Shumar from southwestern Baghdad, the Obeidi from Northern Iraq, and the Azzawi in Diyala, are emblematic of that presence. Most tribes are comprised of tens of thousands of Iraqis, but the Shumar can lay claim to well over 100,000. Some cross Iraq's borders into Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria.
In his home town of Aziziya, Lateef has been filling in for the police chief, judge, and mayor, presiding over property disputes, family squabbles, and criminal tribunals. He and other tribal chiefs have worked to recover materiel looted from government offices and private homes. He has worked to defend tribal lands from looters and has created alliances to expand security and cooperation. And he has exacted justice based on tribal law.
"In the absence of law and order, they are the only thing going," Naqib adds. "The government institutions have all disappeared but these fellows are still around."
Such control is controversial, however. The tribes' ability to dictate the law can include extrajudicial executions in tribal wars. Some tribes have also come under criticism for upholding tribal traditions that have given refuge to former Baathist leaders. Tribal leaders insist that tribal law does not protect criminals and outlaws. But some acknowledge they are still bound by the age-old law of dakheel - the unequivocal offer of protection to any stranger who presents himself to the tribe.
Such conflicts are straight out of the history of Iraqi tribes. Centuries ago the tribes and subtribes formed as collectives to pool resources and provide protection. With the arrival of the English-backed King Faisal in 1921, tribal power receded as Iraqis began moving to cities and tribal chiefs found themselves supplanted by institutions of civil society. Under Saddam Hussein, who himself hailed from a Tikriti tribe, tribal relations were reinvigorated as Saddam sought to play tribes off one another. He lavished those who supported him with resources and denied those who didn't basic services like water, electricity, and fertilizer.
"Saddam used to fragment the tribes. His job was to keep people fighting with each other," says Nouri Badran, senior adviser with the Iraqi National Accord whose father was a tribal chief.
With the fall of Saddam, tribal leaders say they are ready to pick up the reins. More educated and worldlier than their grandparents, many tribal chiefs have been more willing to engage with Western powers and have a better understanding of democratic institutions.
Sheikh Talib al-Said, chief of the Hiyalin tribe of Baghdad represents the new breed of sheikh. A businessman and inventor with several patents to his name, Mr. Said has worked to revive the Tribal Congress, the largest grouping of tribal leaders, dormant since 1948. The goal of the congress, he insists, is to ensure a smooth transition to democracy. But the congress may well serve as a showpiece for tribal influence.
"We are looking to work together and to organize a government that is not controlled by just one party," Said says. "The power of the congress is in unifying Iraq and in giving a bigger role to Iraqis."
For Lateef, that is all just par for the course.
"Most people listen to the tribes more than to the parties," he notes. "That is partly because we are different. We've opened up to the world, we've opened up to politics."