Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ruling Council Seeks Best of Both Worlds

The Shia woman tipped as favourite to join Governing Council fits the bill because she combines a local power base with an international profile.
By Saif al-Khayat

As Iraq's Governing Council prepares to appoint a new member, the key question in political circles is not whether the candidates are Kurds or Arabs, Shia or Sunni, but whether they spent the last few years inside or outside the country.


The front-runner to fill the seat is Safia al-Souhail, because she combines the right blend of domestic and international experience.


If appointed - and that is by no means certain - she will fill a seat on the 25-member council left empty by the assassination of Aqila al-Hashimi, one of three woman members, in late September.


Although there has been little public discussion of the candidates, the talk among Iraqi movers and shakers centres on the balance between "insiders" who remained in the country throughout Saddam Hussein's rule, and the "outsiders" who have recently returned from exile.


Each of these groups carries its own political baggage, and is subject to a certain amount of suspicion in Iraq. "Both categories have negative aspects," Governing Council member Mahmoud Othman told IWPR. "As far as the insiders are concerned, some of the people who have surfaced recently might have been with the Iraqi regime in the past. But there are also outsiders who were 'engineered' in America and other countries."


Some recently-returned politicians enjoy a high profile abroad but have no real support base inside Iraq, because they have been away for so long. Iraqis have more respect for domestic politicians, as long as they did not take an active part in Saddam's government. But because they were not politically active they could not build a constituency, either. And unlike the outsiders, they have little experience of dealing with the complexities of foreign policy.


One of the two other women also considered contenders for the post, Rend Rahim Frenke, is a good example of the outsider. She is better known abroad than in Iraq, having been executive director of the Washington-based Iraq Foundation for many years. As a result, she is an influential figure in émigré circles and is on good terms with the US State Department and Congress.


Fawziya al-Atiya is the insider. She has a doctorate in sociology and is a lecturer at the University of Baghdad. Little more is known about her, even in Iraq, except that Al-Hashimi nominated her for the interim post of minister for labour and social affairs, although she didn't get the job.


Between the two, however, there stands a third category - exiles who managed to retain strong ties with Iraq. Typically, they will have spent the latter years of the regime abroad to escape persecution, giving them political skills and contacts that they can now put to good use. But they will have kept a power base - often a political party or a tribe that remained as an institution within the country, and whose resources and support they can now draw on. That makes them a known quantity to Iraqis, and puts them in a position to win support beyond their natural constituency.


Several members of the Governing Council fall into this category, and Al-Souhail would strengthen their numbers. Although she returned home only after Saddam's regime collapsed, she has strong credentials in the country, and many see her as a bridge between two worlds.


In one of these worlds, the Jordanian-educated Al-Souhail, 37, is advocacy director for the International Alliance for Justice, a Paris-based human rights group that has spent years tracking abuses committed by the Ba'athist regime. She was a keynote speaker at last December's Iraqi opposition conference in London.


In the other world, she is effectively the leader of the one million-strong Bani Tamim, Arab tribe from central Iraq. She was an aide to her father, Sheikh Taleb al-Souhail, the tribal chief, who opposed Saddam until Iraqi agents assassinated him in 1994 in Beirut. These connections mean she was already well-known when she arrived in Iraq.


Al-Souhail has made a point of working across sensitive ethnic and sectarian divides. Although her views are regarded as secular, she enjoys good relations with both Shia clerics and Sunni Kurds. A Shia Arab herself, she is married to an Iraqi Sunni Kurd, her two-year old son has both an Arab and a Kurdish name.


Saif al-Khayat is an editor with the Al-Nahdhah newspaper and a freelance writer.