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Societal Framework


Instead of asserting their separateness and privacy as independent individuals, Iraqi Arabs tend to interact as members of a group-family, clan, village, neighborhood, tribe, etc. Group norms guide individual behavior, and Iraqi Arabs display a high need for social approval. Shaming is the primary instrument with which Iraqi Arab society enforces conformity. The group often determines a person's identity, status, and prospects for success in life. As a result, Iraqi Arabs are subjected to immense family and community pressures.


Within Arab culture, the group takes precedence over the individual. Loyalty to the group is highly valued, and responsibility is generally considered to fall upon the group in its entirety rather than on any particular individual. Distant cousins, neighbors, and friends can develop bonds as strong as any between close family members. Kinship ties are sometimes fabricated, denied, and manipulated to accommodate these social realities. Because of the primacy of the group, obligations of group members to one another are wide, varied, and powerful.

The basic units of tribal social structure are a series of concentric circles, from the outermost (the tribe) to the innermost (extended family). Historically, the extended family had its own herd and was the center of daily activities. The sub-tribe is composed of a number of extended families tracing themselves back to one patrilineal father. The sub-tribe traditionally constituted the main defense unit. The tribe consists of four to six sub-tribes tracing itself to a real or fictional ancestor. The tribe's activities are mainly political, consisting of managing relations with other tribes and governments. At this level, the tribe is led by a sheik and advised by a council. The tribal system in most of the Shia Arab south is different from that of the Sunni Arab center-north in that the Shia sheiks often had to share power with the sadah-holy men-and the ulema. Finally, some tribes join together to form confederations.

Iraqi tribes are characterized by solidarity, hospitality, and independence. Tribal values also include courage, gallantry, attachment to and mastery of arms, and manliness. In general, the degree of hierarchy and centralization in a tribe correlates with the length of time it had been sedentary. Tribal membership did not impose a rigid structure on behavior. The tribe provided its members with an identity, a sense of security, and a blueprint for the resolution of conflicts, but everyday behavior was pragmatic and adaptive to specific situations.

Modern Nation State

When modern Iraq was put together from three disparate Ottoman provinces, it lacked a common religion, language, or ethnicity. Both the religious split between Sunnis and Shia and the ethnic split between Arabs and Kurds have undermined a sense of shared Iraqi identity. Every Iraqi government has attempted with varying degrees of success to create a nation from the diverse elements within its boundaries. To that end, the regime experimented with methods ranging from pluralism and assimilation to oppression and annihilation. It also periodically embarked on explicit campaigns to create a culture that would be both uniquely Iraqi and common to Kurds, Shia Arabs, and Sunni Arabs. Under the current regime, this culture has somewhat awkwardly combined elements of Iraq's Mesopotamian, Arab, Islamic, and tribal heritages. However, no single formula has been capable of rallying all parts of the population. To the contrary, such fluctuating and contradictory policies further undermined the creation of a clear Iraqi national identity.

Despite these efforts, sectarianism, tribalism, and other forms of local communal solidarity have persisted in Iraq. Moreover, Iraq's circumstances under Saddamn forced Iraqis to revert increasingly to "pre-state" networks of religious sect or tribe. The regime's repression as well as the growing economic deprivation of both the Shia and Kurdish regions has fed a sense of Shia and Kurdish identity. As a result, the contemporary regime has reinforced Iraqi diversity and factionalism.

The 1991 uprisings in both the north and the south, both brutally repressed, constituted the most serious challenge to the cohesion of the Iraqi state and the identity of Iraqi citizens. They revealed the level of Shia and Kurdish disaffection for the regime. Significant distrust continues to exist between the Shia community and the government. However, because of the absence of a clear and common goal for the community and the virtual disappearance of their religious and secular leadership, the Shia never seriously challenged the Iraqi state or expressed a desire for self-government. The tremendous tension that existed between the Shia and the Sunni government is not because of a Shia desire to separate from the state or merge with Iran, but from their desire to gain access to power and resources proportionate to their numbers.

At various times in the modern history of Iraq the Kurds raised demands ranging from independence to federal union with Iraq to the liberation and unification of "Greater Kurdistan." Most Kurds advocate autonomy in a federated Iraq as a middle ground. Overall, most Iraqis, with the possible exception of the more militant Kurds, want the unity and the territorial integrity of the state maintained.

Other Centers of Authority

Arab culture favors centralization of authority. Arabs are generally submissive and obedient to their superiors. Projecting a paternal image, leaders securely occupy the top of the pyramid of authority. Power in Iraq, according to one scholar, is personalized and finds "expression in the coercive and suppressive apparatus of the state and derives its legitimacy not from some formal (constitutional or even traditional) sources but from the reality and possession of power."

For more than 30 years, Saddam Hussein's regime had lethally effective mastery of the pillars of authority in Iraq: the Baath Party, the military and security services, and the tribal and religious leaders. To maintain its power, the regime practiced repression, monopolized wealth, and manipulated religious and tribal values and affiliations. The destruction of those modern institutions that exist outside of state control (political parties, unions, etc.), forced much of the population to seek refuge in their traditional institutions (sect, tribe, family). The regime managed to expand its powers and authority by controlling both traditional and modern institutions.

Iraq developed an intricate sort of family rule. Upon assuming power, Saddam Hussein appointed members of his extended family, clan, and tribe to key posts. Specifically, Iraq has come to be ruled by members of the Bejat clan, which is part of the Al-bu Nasir tribe and based in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. The Bejat clan is made up of 10 households. When Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr assumed the presidency of Iraq in 1968, his al-Bakr segment gained clan leadership. When al-Bakr relinquished control in June 1979 to Saddam Hussein, power shifted to three households, the Talfah, al-Majid, and Khattab, the section from which Saddam descends. Allied with Saddam's tribe are neighboring clan and tribal groupings such as the Duris, the Juburis, the Ubaidis, and the larger tribal confederation of the Dulaim. These clans especially dominated the military.

To reinforce his rule, Saddam Hussein also had drawn on the models of past Mesopotamian and Arab rulers. For example, he had traced his ancestors back to the Quarayshis, Mohammad's tribe, and has claimed descent from the prophet's grandson Husayn. Historically, descent from the Quraysh tribe (and especially from its Hashim sub-tribe to which Mohammad's family belonged) was one of the means of establishing the legitimacy of a Muslim ruler. Claims of decent from Husayn (a Shia martyr) boosted Saddam's legitimacy in Shia eyes.

At the local level, tribal authority came to play an increasingly important role. The authority of the tribal sheiks traditionally stemmed from both personal influence and largess as well as from nobility of lineage. In theory, especially among the Shia tribes, leadership was confined to one lineage. In practice, however, nobility often turned out to be a function of the success of the leader in defending the tribal lands and managing and resolving intra-tribal conflicts. Contemporary tribal authority largely stems from the fact that the regime delegated it to them. Tribal influence was derived from personal attributes such as generosity, honor, and the ability to deal with government officials.

The Shia in Iraq under Saddamn had no discernable local leadership or organization. The most notable opposition group was the SCIRI (The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), but it is headquartered in Tehran and largely controlled by Iran. It was unclear how much support this group has among the Shia of Iraq. The clerical leadership of the community, usually a strong source of leadership, centered in Najaf and Karbala, had been systematically assassinated or executed by the regime. As a result, the Shia religious establishment wes greatly weakened.

The Kurds were represented by two major political parties with well-established leadership and organization: the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) under the Barzani family and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani. Their leaders behaved and were perceived as neo-tribal leaders. As long as they maintained the fundamental virtues associated with such leaders-courage, loyalty, dignity, and magnanimity-they remain popular. For many decades, the KDP was the most active Kurdish political party. Other parties, including some Islamic groups and tribal elements, also competed for a share of leadership.

There was a long-standing rivalry, occasionally erupting into civil war, between the KDP and PUK. The KDP controls the northwestern region; the PUK the southeastern parts of the Kurdish-inhabited areas. Both had limited appeal outside their tribe and region. The Barzani-led KDP was familial, with firm grass-roots connections through tribal and local elders and community leaders. The Barzanis are religious, with their followers being traditionalist and inward-oriented people. The Talabani-led PUK represented a more urban, modern, and outward-looking population. The party was less religious, accommodated multiple political ideologies and agendas, and its leaders seldom consulted local tribal or religious leaders.

Rule of Law

The Baath regime's security services penetrated every aspect of Iraqi society, even in the Shia south. There was little organized opposition after 30-plus years of ruthless repression. The Kurdish north was an exception because it was mostly self-ruled. In later years, the regime grafted tribal traditions, such as blood money and honor killings, onto the legal system and has respected tribal customs in criminal cases. There was some tension between tribal traditions and the regime's totalitarianism. At the heart of the tribal system was a fairly democratic process of consultation with elders, and, in some cases, the ability of tribesmen to challenge the sheik.

The rule of law was uneven across the Kurdish region. The KDP and the PUK have occasionally engaged in armed conflict. The KDP was in control of the northwestern region, with its headquarters in Irbil; the PUK controlled the southeastern portion, with its headquarters in Sulaymaniyyah. Both had weak control over their borders with Turkey and Iran. The Kurdish militia, or peshmerga, numbered between 50-70,000 men and women.

Role of State vs. Role of Ethnic Group

Each of the three main groups that make up Iraq's population-Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds - was torn between two affiliations: as Iraqi and as a member of an ethnic or religious group. Because the Iraqi state was a relatively recent creation, the Iraqi identity was the least rooted. The ethnic and religious affiliations had deeper roots, greater historical weight, and a transnational character. Historically, Arab identity was based primarily on language and a collective memory of their place and role in history. Kurds, despite speaking different dialects, were bound together by their lack of a state and their history of experiencing repression. These ethnic and religious ties impeded the emergence of an Iraqi nationalism, created dilemmas of self-identification, and made relations among the three groups problematic.

The Sunni Arabs, as the ruling elite, have tried to balance and reconcile "Iraqiness" and a broader pan-Arabism. By its very nature, however, a pan-Arab ideology precluded a separate Shia identity and by definition excluded the Kurds. These efforts were accompanied by a divide and rule strategy, discouraging contacts between the Shia and the Kurds. The geographic location of the Sunnis in the center of the country facilitated this approach. In addition to benefiting from the current political hierarchy in Iraq, Sunni Arabs tend to support the regime if only because it represents a bulwark against possible Shia or Kurdish power.

The establishment of modern Iraq posed a major dilemma for the Shia and sharpened the problem of their identity. Unlike the Kurds, who constitute a distinct ethnic group, the Shia are Arab. In coping with their identity crisis, the Shia explicitly stressed their Arab culture as compared with their Iranian co-religionists. For the most part, Shia have made attempts to accommodate their religious identity to the framework of the Iraqi state. Although Shia resent the Sunni minority's repeated questioning of their loyalty and Arab bona fides, the Shia community has never unified behind a Shia cause. The Shia political groupings that did occasionally emerge lacked a strong, leading personality, unified leadership, and a well-developed organization. In 75 years of modern Iraqi history, there have been only two serious initiatives by the Shia aimed at effecting political change: the "Great Iraqi Revolution" of 1920 and the intifada of 1991. Both attempts failed. For the most part, the Shia are a silent, passive majority in Iraq.

The Kurds have consistently emphasized their separateness as an ethnic group, insisting, for example, on using the term "Kurdistan." For the past 30 years, Kurdish nationalism has been in open conflict with Iraqi Arab nationalism disseminated from Baghdad. Overall, the collective memory that Iraq had been made up of three separate provinces remains powerful.

From time immemorial the Kurds have led the same wild pastoral life in the mountain tracts between Persia and Asia Minor. In their clannishness, their love of thieving, their fine chivalrous sense of honour and hospitality, and their unquestioned courage, they resembled the Arabs of the "Days of Ignorance" before Islam, or the Highland Scots before the reforms of Marshal Wade. They have ever been a gallant and warlike people, impervious as a rule to civilisation and difficult for strangers to manage, but possessed of many rude virtues. At least, they gave birth to Saladin.

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Page last modified: 20-01-2016 18:22:17 ZULU