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IRAQ: The Role of Tribes

Author: Sharon Otterman
November 14, 2003
This publication is now archived.

What part can tribes play in Iraqi politics?

Experts disagree. U.S. military officials have sought the cooperation of many local tribal leaders, but it is difficult to determine how much political authority tribes and sheiks still exercise. There is, however, a consensus among experts that tribal traditions remain culturally important to many Iraqis.

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Why are occupation authorities reaching out to them?

Tribes are regional power-holders, and tribal sheiks are often respected members of Iraqi communities. Building relationships with tribes, especially in the Sunni triangle— the center of the anti-U.S. insurgency— could help stem the ongoing resistance to U.S. forces, some experts say. More broadly, there are few social organizations for U.S. forces to work through as they try to win over the hearts and minds of Iraqis. Other national groups that, for better or worse, unified the people— Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, the nation's large army— no longer exist, and most political parties are just beginning to gather strength.

What is the relationship between tribal leaders and religious leaders?

Among Iraq's Shiite majority, religious leaders appear to be a more potent political force, some experts say. Fatwas, or rulings, by Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, are broadly respected and followed. That said, religious leaders, including Sistani, appear to derive some of their strength from tribal connections. One example: when militiamen tied to an increasingly influential cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, beseiged Sistani's home in April, armed men loyal to local tribal leaders came to his aid, according to press accounts. In Iraq's Sunni population, religious leaders have had a lower public profile.

What role are the tribes playing in Iraq now?

Tribes appear to have limited influence in Baghdad. In smaller cities and rural areas, however--especially in the Shiite-dominated south--press reports indicate that many tribal sheiks have emerged as intermediaries between occupying authorities and the Iraqi people. The U.S. occupation government in Baghdad, the Coalition Provisional Authority, has been meeting regularly with tribal sheiks to discuss reconstruction and security, according to press reports. U.S. military forces are seeking greater cooperation with tribes, especially in the Sunni triangle: in early November, General John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, held a meeting with mayors and sheiks in the region's al-Anbar province to discuss security.

What is a sheik?

In Arabic, sheik means leader, or simply a venerable male elder, and each level of tribal organization--tribe, clan, and house--generally has a sheik at its head, says Iraqi tribal expert Amatzia Baram, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington and a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa in Israel. Because there are so many sheiks, finding one with a significant degree of authority can be a challenge for U.S. occupiers. Another problem: Saddam subverted the traditional tribal hierarchy and elevated many sheiks in return for their cooperation.

What is a sheik's traditional role?

Sheiks are traditionally responsible for protecting their people from harm and guaranteeing them a basic level of economic well-being. They also act as mediators and judges, settle disputes, resolve property claims, and suggest marriages, among other roles. In exchange, they have their people's allegiance, Baram says. For centuries, sheiks were appointed by a council of elders within a tribe, and a sheik's authority was not unlimited. The British— who ruled Iraq between 1920 and 1932— eliminated some of these checks and balances to exercise stricter control over Iraq's tribesmen. In essence, this turned tribal sheiks into the sole source of law and authority in wide stretches of Iraq's countryside.

What do the sheiks working with U.S. forces do?

They are serving as conduits for reconstruction aid and, to some extent, they provide security by organizing guards to protect pipelines and other infrastructure. In exchange, U.S. forces have asked sheiks to contain anti-U.S. violence in their areas. However, U.S.-tribal cooperation in some cases has failed to take hold or is mishandled by coalition forces, some experts say. The web of tribal allegiances is complex, and the U.S.-led authority lacks sufficient local knowledge to operate within it, Baram says.

Are tribes playing a national political role?

At least two tribal coalitions led by Sunnis in Baghdad are trying to represent the wants and needs of tribal leaders to the new authorities. The Iraqi National League for Chiefs of Tribes, headed by Thameer al-Dulemi, and the Iraqi Tribal National Council, led by Hussein Ali Shaalan, both claim hundreds of sheiks as members, press reports say.

What are these organizations trying to accomplish?

They are trying to influence domestic and international politics. In September, Shaalan's group met in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to discuss Syrian-Iraqi relations. Al-Dulemi's group issued a statement condemning the coalition's plan, which was later shelved, to deploy Turkish peacekeepers to Iraq. Some reports indicate there are Shiite tribal leaders within the ranks of these organizations. The level of popular support for these groups is unknown.

Should the United States engage more with Sunni tribal leaders?

Experts disagree. In the short-term, securing cooperation from the Iraqi tribes in the Sunni triangle could help stem the growing resistance to U.S. forces and bring more areas under control. The handpicked Iraqi Governing Council does not include any Sunni tribal representatives, and the religious group— in accordance with their population in Iraq— are a minority on the council. Sunnis dominated Iraq under Saddam's rule, and the Baath Party was largely Sunni. Some scholars believe this population is now dangerously alienated.

What are the arguments against working with tribes?

Engaging closely with tribal sheiks across Iraq shores up their power. Some scholars argue this could hurt a longer-term effort to create a unified national identity and a political party system in which Iraqis do not vote along strictly sectarian lines.

What are the origins of Iraq's tribes?

Most of them formed in the Arabian Peninsula and migrated north, and some are from the lands that constitute modern-day Iraq. Some tribes pre-date Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, who lived in Arabia in the sixth and seventh centuries and was himself a member of the Quraysh tribe. For centuries, the tribes were the primary form of social organization through much of the region. While their influence has diminished through the years, the Ottoman Turks, the British, the British-backed monarchy, and the Baathists all sought their cooperation.

What binds a tribe together?

A mixture of shared ancestry, geography, and a strict social code that demands allegiance between members. Ethnic background and religion are less important factors— in fact, some tribes in Iraq have Sunni, Shiite, and even Kurdish branches. In some cases, tribal affiliation is a much older bond than religious affiliation. For example, a number of tribes in southern Iraq adopted Shiite Islam only in the 19th century.

What are the main Iraqi tribes?

Many Iraqi Arabs can trace their ancestry back to one of nine tribal confederations, or qabila, that arose in Iraq before the 17th century, says Yitzhak Nakash, author of the "Shi'is of Iraq" and a professor of Middle East studies at Brandeis University. Each of the confederations— the Muntafiq, the Zubayd, the Dulaym, the 'Ubayd, the Khaz'al, the Bani Lam, the Al Bu Muhammed, the Rabi'a, and the Ka'b— encompasses many individual tribes. By the 19th century, the tribal map of Iraq was filled out by other powerful confederations and tribes, including the Shammar, the 'Anaza, the Bani Tamim, and the Zafir.

How many tribes are there in Iraq today?

It's not known exactly, in part because comprehensive anthropological research has not been conducted in Iraq for decades. That said, tribes have grown and divided over the centuries, and there are certainly hundreds— and likely more than 1,000— tribal organizations now in Iraq, Baram estimates. Of these, Baram says there are likely 20-30 large tribes or federations that have 100,000 or more descendents. A caveat: Arab tribal society is traditionally ordered on multiple levels— by confederation, tribe, clan, house, and extended family. Deciphering which unit is being referred to by the word "tribe" from one situation to the next can be difficult.

What tribes are the most powerful in Iraq today?

In general, Sunni tribes that were favored by Saddam, although members of some of these tribes have occasionally attempted to rebel against him. This includes the Dulaym confederation, which occupies a wide stretch of territory in central Iraq, and the Shammar, which lives north of Baghdad between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Other important Sunni tribes include the al-Jaburi, the Ubaydis, and the 'Azza. Saddam particularly favored members of his own tribe, the al-Bu Nasir— though he also made enemies within the tribe by murdering members he considered disloyal.

How have tribes been weakened over the centuries?

In Iraq, significant blows to tribal authority came in the 1960s. Socialist Baathists split up large estates of the tribal sheiks and enforced land reform. Millions of Iraqis moved into cities, taking jobs in industry as Iraq began to build a modern economy. Tribalism was originally condemned by the Baathists. Their push for a unified Arab nationalism and the widespread migration from traditional tribal areas eroded tribal ties.

Why didn't tribes disappear under the Baathists?

In part because, in the late 1980s and 1990s, Saddam shifted his political program and openly supported the tribal sheiks. Experts say this was at least partially a reaction to the erosion of Saddam's power after the disastrous eight-year Iran-Iraq war and Iraq's defeat in Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War. Giving tribal leaders money and significant autonomy over their areas in exchange for their allegiance helped control the countryside and force recruitment for the Iraqi army. Overall, tribes have proved to be resilient social structures, enduring through the advent of Islam— which encourages all Muslims to think of themselves as part of a single community and opposes some traditional tribal practices— as well as concepts of modern nationalism.

What percent of the population associates itself politically with a tribe?

It's unknown. But because Iraq's population of 24 million is quite urbanized— in 1988, just 27 percent of Iraqis lived in the countryside— some experts say the number is likely around 25 percent of the population or less. On the other hand, cultural tribal values— such as allegiance to members of one's clan or tribe, avenging the blood of a relative (al-tha'r), and demonstrating one's manly courage in battle (al-muruwwah), are still thought to be important to many Iraqis, even, to some extent, in cities. One example: according to statistics cited in The New York Times, nearly half of all marriages recorded in Baghdad over the past two decades were between first or second cousins, a common tribal custom. "Iraqi culture builds to a very large extent on tribal traditions. From a cultural point of view, you cannot understand Iraq without understanding the importance of tribalism," Nakash says.

What is the most basic unit of tribal organization in Iraq?

The extended family, or khams. According to Baram, a khams consists of all male-born children who share the same great-great grandfather— in other words, five generations of men in a single family. Of all the levels of tribal organization, Baram believes the khams remains the most vital. "Once the khams structure is broken, there's no longer a tribal society in place," he says.

How does the khams function?

Within each khams, every man owes allegiance to the other. The most dramatic display of this loyalty is found in the tradition of blood feuds, or al-tha'r. According to Baram, if one member of a khams is killed, other members are obligated to avenge the death. This could take the form of killing someone from the khams that murdered the family member or, more commonly, working out a blood price— a financial repayment— from one khams to another.

How common is this practice today?

It's difficult to know for sure. Some experts feared that revenge killings would skyrocket in southern Iraq in the chaotic period immediately after Saddam fell. They didn't, some experts say, because Shiite clerics in the city of Najaf— especially Ayatollah al-Sistani— issued fatwas that ordered Iraqi Shiites to refrain from such attacks. Even so, the practice continues to some extent: in Basra, an ongoing feud between two tribes— the Bukhatra and the Bukeheet— has resulted in the deaths of seven tribal members since June, according to The New York Times. Particularly in the Sunni triangle, some scholars see echoes of the blood feud tradition in some killings of U.S. soldiers, especially after Iraqis have been killed in the same area.

How do women fit into the picture?

They are members of their father's tribe. But when they are married, they become members of their husband's tribe. This explains why marriages between first cousins in traditional tribal society are not uncommon, Baram says. If a man's daughters marry out of the clan or tribe, he no longer has benefit of her or her sons, who could one day increase the clan's strength.

What are the other levels of tribal organization?
  • A biet, or "house," is similar to a khams. It can resemble a single, vast extended family with hundreds of members.
  • A number of "houses" form a clan, or fakhdh.
  • A group of clans forms an 'ashira, or tribal organization. For example, in Falluja, the tribe named for the town--al-Fallujiyyin--has 16 clans, according to Iraqi genealogical charts from the 1980s. Tribes can vary widely in size--they can have a few thousand or 100,000 members.
  • A group of tribes forms a confederation, or qabila, which consists of a number of tribes. In Saddam's case, his Al-bu Nasir tribe was part of a federation named after the town, al-Tikriti.

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