By Jonathan Schanzer
POLICYWATCH #850 - March 26, 2004

The Yemeni media recently reported that thousands
of Iraqis who fled Saddam Husayn's brutal regime
and have lived in Yemen for more than a decade are
now thinking about returning home. Many of these
individuals are encouraged by signs of new
infrastructure and a recovering economy in Iraq. If
and when they return, they will see a number of
stark similarities between their old homeland and
Yemen, including primordial federalism, a "triangle"
of terrorism, and questions of Sunni-Shi'i relations.
Although Yemen is certainly not a model to which
Iraq should aspire, San'a does have experience in
dealing with challenges similar to those currently
facing Iraq. Yemen's handling of these challenges
provides reasons for cautious optimism about
Iraq's future.

Primordial Federalism

The Iraqi government that will assume authority
after June 30, 2004, is not expected to be strong.
Given the influence of Iraq's primordial social
structure, the first few years of self-governance
will likely be characterized by weak central
authority. In particular, tribal and ethnic factors will
dominate Iraqi politics, making the future
president's job a difficult one.

Despite having to operate within similar social and
cultural conditions, Yemen's relatively weak central
government has remained functional since President
Ali Abdallah Salih came to power in 1978. Salih's
government is not bound by strict regional,
sectarian, or tribal lines. Yemen's political system,
although not a democracy, is representative. It is
modeled after one of the most basic forms of
government in the region: "primordial federalism."
As former U.S. ambassador to Yemen Barbara
Bodine noted, "By maintaining a balanced and
informally representative cabinet, Yemen has
avoided the sectarian or ethnic divisions that have
sundered other governments in the region and has
given Yemenis a shared interest in the survival of
the state." In other words, although Yemenis are
aware of their sectarian, tribal, and regional
identities, these identities are not politically

The new Iraq may need to conduct its politics in a
similar fashion, particularly during its first few years
of self-governance. Since Saddam's fall and the
resultant power vacuum, the Iraqi people have
increasingly fallen back on the most basic authority
structures: family, clan, and tribe. Local patriarchs are
seen as the primary powerbrokers, particularly in rural
areas. The longer instability plagues Iraq, the more
entrenched their power will become. Hence, when the
Iraqi Governing Council yields power to the eventual
Iraqi president, the new leader will likely have to
negotiate with local authorities in order to earn a

The case of Yemen shows that a weak government is
not necessarily a failing government. Even if it is initially
reliant on a primordial system, the forthcoming Iraqi
government will still be able function. Its effectiveness
will depend on the ability of Iraq's leaders to learn how
to play tribal politics until the central government gains

'Triangles' of Terrorism

In Yemen, the contiguous governorates of Marib, Shibwa,
and Jawf form a "triangle" (it is actually more of a
rectangle) that is rife with kidnappings, terrorism, and
attacks on oil installations. Moreover, due to the central
authority's limited reach, this area is susceptible to
nefarious outside influences, including Saudi wahhabis
and al-Qaeda militants. Adding to Yemen's security
problems are its porous borders, particularly in Jawf,
which abuts Saudi Arabia.

Iraq is currently struggling with similar issues. U.S.
officials contend that the most problematic areas of the
Iraqi insurgency are Falluja, Ramadi, and other spots
within the so-called "Sunni Triangle," where extremism
and terrorism are most prevalent. Security authorities
also struggle with preventing infiltration of Iraq's porous
borders with Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. As a result,
al-Qaeda militants and other foreign fighters have
penetrated Iraq in the same way they penetrated
Yemen from 1998 to 2002. During that period, al-Qaeda
elements in Yemen attacked both Western targets (the
USS Cole and the French tanker Limburg) and local
targets (hotels, liquor sellers, and courts).

Similarly, both Western and local targets in Iraq have
been victimized by terrorist attacks over the past year.
Iraq's security forces, once they are fully operational,
would do well to learn from Yemen, which has not
experienced a terrorist attack since the October 6, 2002,
bombing of the Limburg. Yemen has deported hundreds
of illegal immigrants and suspected terrorists, expended
greater efforts in monitoring mosques and Islamic
organizations, stepped up its border control efforts, and
launched a domestic public relations campaign warning
of terrorism's cost to the economy. Yemen provides a good
example of how an Arab security force can be trained and
influenced by the United States while still maintaining its
strong national and Arab identity. For example, on
November 5, 2002, CIA-Yemeni cooperation reached its
zenith when six al-Qaeda operatives were killed by a CIA-
launched Hellfire missile from a Predator unmanned aerial
vehicle. Similarly, U.S. Special Forces have backed up
Yemeni forces in operations against al-Qaeda fighters in
the Hattat region. Yemen's armed forces have established
strong security ties with the United States even while
maintaining trust among a population that may not be
enamored with U.S. policies in the region. The Iraqi
military will face this same challenge in the months and
years to come.

Sunni-Shi'i Relations

Much has been made about the tensions between Sunnis
and Shi'is in Iraq. Under Saddam, the minority Sunnis ruled
over the majority Shi'is, whom they oppressed. Animosity
has festered between the two groups in Iraq since as
early as the 1920s, when Britain occupied the nascent
country. The challenge for the new Iraqi government will be
to allow for greater Shi'i political participation while not
alienating the Sunnis, who lost power overnight upon
Saddam's fall.

Yemen's predominantly Islamic landscape is also split
between two schools, Shafi'i (a Sunni sect claiming 53
percent of Yemeni Muslims) and Zaydi (a Shi'i sect with
47 percent of Yemeni Muslims). Prior to the unification
of Yemen in 1990, the Zaydis dominated politics and
cultural life in the country of North Yemen. Although the
demographic balance shifted dramatically following
unification and the integration of South Yemen's almost
entirely Shafi'i population, inter-Muslim strife was not a
problem. Indeed, Yemenis are relatively oblivious to Shi'i-
Sunni enmity; they recognize that the interests of
individual members of these sects are anything but
monolithic. Currently, tensions between Yemenis exist
mostly on the tribal level, irrespective of whether the
individuals in question are Sunni or Shi'i. Even though
Shi'i tribes have long dominated the country's political
and tribal life, Sunnis do not resent this arrangement.
In fact, Shi'is and Sunnis pray together in Yemen's

Despite a host of other problems, San'a has found a way
to de-emphasize religious differences among Yemenis,
focusing instead on a common Yemeni identity.
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts for Iraq to reach this
kind of social arrangement; the balance between Yemen's
Shi'i and Sunni communities has evolved over hundreds of
years within a unique culture. Yemen can serve as an
inspiration, however, proving that ethnicity and religion do
not have to dominate the Iraqi political landscape.


To be sure, there are many differences between Iraq and
Yemen. First and foremost, Iraq is endowed with substantial
oil wealth. "Black gold" will provide the country with a fiscal
edge and likely propel it forward at a faster pace than
Yemen, where poverty has undoubtedly hindered progress.
Iraq will also benefit from the expertise of thousands of U.S.
officials, as well as billions of dollars from U.S. coffers
designed to get Iraq up and running. Still, Iraq and Yemen
shoulder some of the same burdens. For its part, Yemen
has shown that a unique approach to some of these
challenges can generate working solutions. As Iraq nears
sovereignty, these Yemeni examples serve as a reminder
that Iraq can and will find organic solutions to some of its
toughest problems.

Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref fellow at The Washington
Institute. Over the past year, he has conducted research in
both Iraq and Yemen.

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