The sheik and his men still chuckle about being captured by the Americans. Back in 1991, as Iraqi soldiers retreated from Kuwait, a revolt erupted in cities across southern Iraq against President Saddam Hussein. In the district of al-Battha, not far from the ancient Biblical city of Ur, Iraqi tribal warriors led by Sheik Kadhim Al-Menshab Al-Habib rallied to the side of Baghdad's troops to crush the rebellion. But afterward, on the dusty highway home, the sheik and 14 of his men suddenly found themselves surrounded by about 50 U.S. soldiers.
As hereditary leader of one of Iraq's biggest tribes, Sheik Kadhim is a vital supporter of Saddam's regime. His capture would have been bad news for the Baghdad government. But he lied to the Americans. "I said we were rebels," the sheik says. "So the U.S. soldiers returned our weapons and told us how to find other antigovernment forces in the nearby marshes. I guess they hoped we would regroup and destroy more cities." He and his men drove a mile or so down the road, out of the Americans' sight, then made a U-turn and went home. Today the sheik controls 267,000 armed fighters, and his walls are decorated with photos of him and Saddam.
In the weeks ahead, the loyalties of Sheik Kadhim and other Iraqi tribal leaders could prove crucial. Since the days of Ottoman rule, the fate of every Iraqi government has hinged on tribal support. At least three quarters of Iraq's 24 million people belong to one of the country's 150 tribes, and about 8 million still follow the ancient ways, carefully obeying the sheik who governs them. In the past decade Baghdad has tried to minimize unrest and the burden of economic sanctions by strengthening the tribal system. That has been accompanied by a resurgence of other old customs, from smuggling to polygamy. Iraqi law says a man must obtain permission from all his wives before marrying another, but that requirement "seems to be ignored these days," says Sheik Kadhim, the husband of three. Tribes and their leaders are rewarded for their loyalty in other ways, with infrastructure projects, SUVs, weapons and cash.
Some of the biggest beneficiaries are clansman and cronies from Saddam's hometown, Tikrit, who help him maintain his grip on power. Even so, a lesson the Taliban learned the hard way in Afghanistan holds just as true in Iraq: tribal loyalties can be rented, but never bought. U.S. psy-warriors are working to break Baghdad's authority in southern Iraq, where rebels briefly held 14 cities in 1991. American planes have dropped blizzards of propaganda leaflets around Basra, just across the border from Kuwait. "Many such pamphlets fell in the suburbs," says Adnan Ibnian Abdullah, a member of the Suwaad tribe. "We gather the silly things and burn them."
No Iraqi can forget that Baghdad may be listening to any conversation. After crushing the 1991 uprising, Saddam set to work destroying the southern marshes where many of the rebels once lived. Those wetlands had been inhabited since Sumerian times, more than 4,000 years ago. Now they are an ecological wasteland, drained of water and life--and a clear warning. "American people don't understand us," a tribal leader in Basra told NEWSWEEK one recent evening. "Iraqi tribes are in great solidarity with the leadership." One of his young aides leaned close and added: "We follow the central government. But of course if communications are cut between us and the center, all authority will revert to our sheik." The sheik motioned to a young tribesman--apparently something of a court bard--who promptly began reciting an anti-Bush poem. In the street outside, Kalashnikov-toting members of a neighborhood militia marched and shouted pro-Baghdad slogans. Communications with the central government remain intact--so far.