AL RASHEED, Iraq -- The Iraqi army, the Republican Guard and even his Baath Party are among Saddam Hussein's main military forces. But one of the Iraqi leader's secret weapons may well be a 72-year-old man who wears flowing desert robes and lives with his family in this village just south of Baghdad.
He is Khudeir Abbas Hamdan Shwerid, a mild-mannered grandfather who, since age 15, has been the leader, or sheik, of one of Iraq's largest tribes, the Abu Hamdan.
The sheik says the tribe has hundreds of thousands of members spread across Iraq -- people bound by birth to a group with roots stretching to the Omayyad Empire in the 7th century. They are, at least for now, loyal to Hussein and are prepared to serve as a militia fighting foreign forces and as a national guard that could quell internal conflicts.
The Abu Hamdan are one small piece of a larger weapon. Hundreds of tribes are scattered throughout this land. And whereas previous Iraqi rulers have tried to crush the tribes for fear they would challenge their authority, Hussein has nurtured them, winning their good favor with money and supplies.
No one is saying the tribes could match the firepower of the U.S. armed forces in the event of an invasion, but they promise to complicate any military operation. Perhaps more consequential to U.S. policymakers, the tribal system adds yet another balkanizing element to a society already fractured along ethnic and religious lines. Should the Hussein regime fall, a replacement government would have to win the hearts of not only the Sunnis and Shiites, the Kurds and Turkomans, but the hundreds of tribal leaders to whom they're also loyal.
"Yes, we will resist anyone who comes here, using our own weapons," Shwerid said while seated inside a guest house he uses to greet tribal members who travel from around the country seeking his help and advice. "The tribe is fully cooperating with the government."
Conversely, if a significant number of tribes abandoned their fealty to the regime, a drive to topple Hussein might be strengthened. But there is ample evidence that tribes could play a crucial role in helping Hussein maintain his grip on power.
In 1991, after a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, an armed uprising erupted in the south. The Iraqis deny internationally accepted accounts that the revolt was staged by Shiite Muslims, who constitute a majority in this nation ruled by Sunni Muslims. The official Iraqi version is that Iranians staged the rebellion.
But whoever was responsible, the government acknowledges that it was the tribes, including the Abu Hamdan, that helped restore order and, with the military, reaffirm Hussein's control over the country.
The tribes proved themselves a valuable ally during the previous decade as well, when they supplied tens of thousands of their members to help fight Iran in a war that stretched on for eight years and left hundreds of thousands dead on both sides.
"The tribes are very influential," said Saad Naji Jawad, a political science professor at Baghdad University.
Although Shwerid's tribe members are spread across the country, he maintains loyalty through a system of family ties and honor that has been handed down for generations -- and also, he says, with a good deal of cash.
These are hard times for Iraqis, and the government cannot provide all the resources people need to survive. Each month, Shwerid says, he gives an allowance to 1,000 needy members of his tribe. He says he also routinely gives cash gifts to young men, so that they can get what they need to marry.
In addition, Shwerid serves as a mediator in disputes, both civil and criminal. Although he is careful not to place himself above national law, his followers often turn to him, rather than the Iraqi courts, to resolve disputes. For example, if one person kills another on purpose, Shwerid will order the aggressor to pay the victim's family $7,000 in blood money.
So deep are the roots of tribal identity that they spread far beyond the reaches of small, agricultural villages like this one and into the heart of Baghdad, the capital.
"There is great respect for the tribes, even among those of us who live in the city," said Eehab Rafe, 29, owner of an electronics shop in Baghdad's most upscale neighborhood. He is a member of the Zobeida tribe, which hails from the northern city of Mosul.
Before Islam came to the Arabian Peninsula, about 1,400 years ago, the main source of identity for many people was their tribe. Tribes provided a sense of community and order in what could otherwise have been a lawless existence. Tribal members lived by a code of conduct centered on pride and honor.
Even after Islam came to the Arab world, religion became intertwined with the traditional way of life, particularly in countries such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, where tribal identities were strong and central governments generally weak.