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Tribes Under the Ottomans

During the Ottoman period, nomadic tribes formed the bulk of Iraq's population. Throughout most of Iraq, direct Ottoman control was weak. Loose tribal confederations prevailed, with each tribe acting as a sort of mobile mini-state. In the absence of a strong central authority, the tribal framework fulfilled the primary functions of conflict and resource management. The most important tribal confederations in Iraq included: the Muntafiq, Anaza, Dulaim, Shammar, Zubayd, Ubayd, Bani Lam and Al-bu Muhammed. Tribal origins varied, religious divisions were not always clear-cut, and there was often a fusion between the different groups. Despite the shared religion of Islam and a general feeling of Arabness, Iraqi tribes did not have a sense of common identity.

During the Ottoman period, the Iraqi tribes earned their livelihood from herding animals, trade, raiding, and collecting tribute. A hierarchical system based on the mode of subsistence developed, with the camel-breeding tribes at the top, followed by the sheep-breeders, peasants, and the marsh-dwellers. Where sedentary agriculture prevailed, another hierarchy placed rice-growers on top, followed by vegetable growers, and manual workers. Tribesmen regularly visited towns, both to trade and to visit the holy shrines.

The principal Arab tribe in Upper Mesopotamia was the Shamar Jerba, who migrated from Nejd about at the start of the 19th Century, and who were still Bedouins a cenutury later. The Shamar wandered over the whole of Northern Mesopotamia. In the summer their chief encampment was at Shergot, on the Upper Tigris, a short distance below Mosul, and in the winter they approached Baghdad to buy supplies. The Shamar pay no tribute, but their Sheikh, Ferhan-ibn-Sfuk, accepted from the Turkish government the title of Pasha with a yearly allowance (which was rarely, if ever, paid), and in return for which he was supposed to guarantee the safety of travellers in his territory.

The Shamar were at feud with the neighboring tribes, such as the Anizeh, the Dilem, and the Montefik a state of things which the Turkish authorities naturally regarded with entire satisfaction, for the stability of Ottoman rule in Mesopotamia depended in a great degree on the quarrels and animosities which divided the Arab tribes. In the feud with the Montefik, Arab sympathies are on the side of the Shamar. The feud began when Abdul Kerim, brother of Ferhan, the Sheikh of the Shamar, being hard pressed by the Turks, took refuge with Nasir, Sheikh of the Montefik, and claimed sanctuary from him. Nasir granted it, and in accordance with well known Arab usage became responsible for the safety of his guest. Nasir, however, by all accounts was anxious, for reasons of his own, to make a display of loyalty to the Porte. It happened that just at this time he was Mutasarif or Lieut.-Governor of the Montefik country, and on the pretext that his duty as an Ottoman official was paramount to his obligations as an Arab Sheikh, he surrendered Abdul Kerim to the Turks, who took him to Mosul and hanged him on the bridge.

The Montefik proper were comparatively a small tribe, and in point of fact the country which was known as that of the Montefik Arabs comprised the lands of a number of Fellah tribes who had attained a considerable degree of prosperity through trade and agriculture and who accepted Montefik protection. The Al-Sadun the particular clan to which the ruling sheikhs of the Montefik belonged claimed descent from the Sharifs of Mecca. Consequently, they were of course Sunnis, but most of the tribes subordinate to the Montefik held Shia tenets.

Beginning the mid-19th century, the Ottoman Empire increased its control over Iraqi tribes through settlement policies and land reform measures. The result was an erosion of the sheiks' traditional source of power and a disintegration of the traditional tribal system. Following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British decided to unite the three Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra into one nation-state called Iraq (a name borrowed from the medieval past of the region) despite the significant religious, linguistic, ethnic, and tribal divisions running through Iraqi society. British policies restored power to the tribal sheiks, thereby helping to preserve and reinforce Iraq's tribal structure. At the same time, the British colonial state gradually appropriated former tribal functions like control of land, water distribution, and law enforcement. Nomadic tribes continued to settle in village communities based on extended families or sub-clans.

These communities often retained their tribal names, but they were linked to the agricultural market, rather than the subsistence economy. Iraqi tribes continued to lose power under both the modernizing monarchy and the republican regime. The republican regime enacted and began to implement agrarian reform. At the same time, a new wave of emigration from countryside to city weakened the remaining tribal units and ties.

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