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iraq tribes

In the Middle East, as in Africa, ethnic or tribal factors play a key role in politics and society. Middle-eastern countries, as opposed to African ones, also have to deal with religious differences. All of the above have to be taken into account when evaluating the scenarios unfolding in a specific country. Iraq is no different. More so when dealing with areas or cities that have been retaken from ISIS. The issue is: Which troops can I deploy in order not to frighten or hurt the susceptibilities of the locals? And this has nothing to do with the religious infighting between sunnis or shia, nor the ethnic-cultural divide between Arabs and Kurds. More often than not tribes represent the expression of social consensus. Saddam Hussein was well aware of the fact and exploited rivalries and dispensed brutalities in order to benefit from the tribal fabric of his country. In fact, Saddam had established an Office for Tribal Affairs that worked under the presidency for this specific purpose.

The characteristics of the tribes

There are several tribes in Iraq. Some of them are a confederation of tribes, while others are more similar to a clan. The tribes are basically classified on the basis of how many members they have: at the top is the "Kabila" (generally the biggest tribe), followed by the "Ashirah" (big tribe), the "Fakhd" (clan), the "Fundah" (a portion of a clan), "Khams" (which means “five” and stands for the number of generations the tribe has lived through) and finally the "Hammulah" (a conglomerate of families) and the "Baith" (meaning “home” and refers to a single family).

Starting off from their founder, the families evolve along patriarchal lines, gain in strength through weddings, especially among cousins. The members of these tribes not only share the same blood, but also a series of common values: loyalty, sense of belonging, honor. It is worth noting that the biggest tribes have both sunni and shia members.

The tribal leader rises to become a sheykh, a title granting him both political and religious leverage over his community. One becomes a sheykh based on hereditary lineage, but also through talent, charisma, social status, financial wealth or influence. Sometimes the power of a sheykh is shared with a religious leader. The sheykh is the one negotiating with the State, although any decision within the tribe is the result of negotiations, consultations and mediations. Generally speaking, there is a certain degree of democracy in the decision process. Those who don’t abide by it are marginalized by their own tribe.

The elders also play a key role both as advisers to the sheykhs, and as go between the families and the leadership. Decisions and obligations for all members of this social group run through this hierarchical system.

abu nasr
Abu Nasr tribal leaders' press conference

The tribes affiliated to Saddam Hussein’s regime

The Iraqi dictator was born into a small clan of the Majid family, which was affiliated to the Abu Nasr tribe. From this starting point, Saddam created a series of alliances with other important tribes in the areas of Mosul, Tikrit, Samarra, Awajh and Anbar. Thanks to this network he took over and managed power. The cadres of the Baath Party, the members of the security services, the military or the Republican Guard all came from tribes loyal to the regime. And the majority of them came from the triangle between Mosul, Ramadi and Baghdad in the north of Iraq. This was Saddam Hussein’s powerhouse and this is where the fate of ISIS will be decided.

It is only by analyzing the tribes that populate the area, the so-called “Sunni triangle”, that one can evaluate the success of the military operations to retake control of Mosul and the rest of Iraq. The area around Mosul is home to Iraq’s most important tribe: the Jabbur. They are a confederation of over 50 tribes and can count on over 2 million members. They are the biggest in the country and are present in a number of provinces throughout Iraq. Despite being largely sunni, there are also shia members south of the Iraqi capital.

The Jabbur were very close to Saddam Hussein because of their affiliation to the Abu Nasr. During the two Gulf Wars in 1991 and 2003 its men fought with the regime and held key posts in both the army and the security services. There was a time, in the early 1980s, during which Saddam Hussein, possibly scared by its growing influence, started confiscating lands and persecuting members of the tribe. After a series of coup attempts and deals, the majority of the tribe continued backing the regime. Some of the sheykhs that were still opposed to Saddam fled to Damascus.

Another important confederation of tribes (it includes about 200 of them) is the Dulaym. Its members are also in the millions and are spread along the border with Jordan and up to the Euphrates river in the west of the country. As with the Jabbur, its members south of Baghdad are shia. The loyalty of this confederation to Saddam has been fluctuating: in 1991 they were on his side after the uprising that followed the military defeat against the US, but a few years later they were involved in a coup attempt led by a number of Dulaym officers, including a general. When Saddam’s revenge struck one of the tribes belonging to the confederation, the Abu Nimr, stood up against the dictator and its rebellion was quashed in blood.

Being such a big confederation, Saddam Hussein found a way to reconcile with most of its members. After their uprising he signed a series of deals with a number of sheykhs. Before the 2003 invasion, high ranking Dulaym officers were still part of both the armed forces and security services. This is one of the reasons why a portion of the Dulaym, the loyalist part, sided with Saddam Hussein (and is now, with varying degrees of involvement, supporting ISIS), while another part remained hostile to the regime. Among the latter is the Abu Nimr tribe that has been contributing men to the Suhar al-Iraqi (Iraqi Awakening) militia that should be now involved in the liberation of Mosul.

Another relevant confederation of tribes in the area of Mosul is the Shammar. They can count on 1-1.5 million members grouped in 40 or so tribes. The majority of them are sunni, although shia are also present in the south of Iraq. It is mainly present east of Mosul and along the Syrian border, one of most crucial areas. The Shammar are also present in neighboring countries such as Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Now defunct Saudi king Abdallah was the son of a Shammar and married one himself. Given their international standing, the Shammar always kept a neutral stance with regard to Saddam. Very few of them were in leading positions during the regime. With the exception of a few clashes with government forces in the 90s, and despite a failed attempt by Saddam to link the Shammar to his loyalist tribes in Tikrit, this confederation has kept out of the civil war. One of their characteristics is that they are in good terms with the Kurds and especially with Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party.

The Ubayd are present instead in Kirkuk, the areas around Tikrit and south of the capital in Wasir. If both the Dulaym, Jabbur and the Shammar can be considered “Kabile”, the Ubayd are an “Ashirah”, or a big tribe. They have almost always been loyal to Saddam because of their ties to the Abu Nasr tribe.

masoud barzani
Masoud Barzani

Tribal role in the offensive against the ISIS

The liberation of Mosul will not succeed without the support of the Sunni tribes that live in the city and the areas around it. Some of them have supported al Baghdadi because of their loyalty to Saddam Hussein and their armed opposition to the shia-led government in Baghdad. Those who didn’t support the caliphate were persecuted by the Islamic militias.

When dealing with a confederation of tribes, it is hard to think of a unanimous behavior. Individual sheykhs can still decide on their own, regardless of what their tribe deliberates. This is true especially for the Jabbur, Dulaym and Shammar tribes. And each tribe’s recent past dictates on which side of the barricade they now stand. Several tribes have gotten closer to the ISIS because of their common agenda against the government in Baghdad. Others have criticized the caliphates’ reach in curtailing the power of the sheykhs. The only message al Baghdadi can’t get across is the sunni-shia divide and fueling an intra-religious civil war.

The new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al Abadi, is more prone to reconciliation with the sunni tribes in the north. Just like in the past with Saddam Hussein, social consensus in Iraq depends on an agreement with the sheykhs. Without them the war for Mosul could last for years, not months, and al Baghdadi’s men would be able to flee or hide elsewhere.

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