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Tribal Structures

The Iraqi parliament's first reading of the law on the Council of Tribes and Clans in December 2016 was met with rejection. Under teh draft law, a council of tribes and clans would be formed as a legal entity, with financial and administrative independence. The council would offer advice to the state institutions in relation to issues concerning the affairs of tribes. But some tribal norms are in direct conflict with Iraq's laws. Blood money is at the basis of tribal rules, not to mention that women are used as commodities and offered in the settlement of disputes. In Iraq's tribal communities, fighting over trivial matters takes place on a daily basis. Instead of placing tribes under the law, the government is putting them at the level of state institutions.

At least three-quarters of the Iraqi people are members of one of the country's 150 tribes. Iraq's society is very feudalistic, with most of the population identifying him/herself with one tribe. Tribes have become an increasingly important part of Iraqi society. Even those Iraqi citizens without a tribal background often turn to neighborhood shaykhs for representation or assistance with the government.The tribe is an extremely important factor in Iraq, even in a republic. The vast majority of Iraqi people identify themselves as members of one of the country's 150 tribes. Even those Iraqi citizens without a tribal background often turn to a neighborhood sheikh for representation or assistance with the government.

Most contemporary tribal groupings in Iraq still revolve around their old cores and occupy the same regions. Certain surnames reveal the area or tribe from which a person's family originated: for example, al-Najafi, al-Samawi, al-Mashhadi, al-Zubaydi, and al-Asadi. The importance of tribe, clan, and village affiliations has increased in Iraq despite urbanization and other changes, largely because of war, economic sanctions, and Saddam Hussein's manipulation of tribal identity and tribal values.

The tribal society brought along some other consequences: individuals are protected, yet at the same time limited by the tribe. This fact is very visible for women and children. Women belong to the family and do not have much right to choose about their own future. Deciding whether to work or not, choosing a profession, choosing their spouses is not in their hands. What is decisive is the family's approval. If one defects from the existing social structure, it means that one is immoral. Since immorality would ruin the honor of the family, the respective family member should be punished.

Tribes have always been, and continue to be, a stabilizing force within Iraq. Historically the tribes have fulfilled the functions of conflict resolution and resource management. This is a positive for the nation as a whole as tribal leaders are key in providing resolution to disputes and conflict. However, the tribal system and tribal law will often come into conflict with the rule of law.

It is common for tribal leaders to solicit officials to release a detained suspect to them or to let the tribal leaders handle an incident that that came under the scrutiny of the law. A Commander may come under intense pressure to consider to the tribes and tribal law in these instances. He is often a member of a tribe and this will have a great deal of influence on him. But he is an enforcer of federal law and obligated to serve the rule of law. The commander must be considerate and strike the right balance with the tribal leaders.

Commanders must be considerate and interact positively with the tribes in their operational environment as well as be able to uphold the law of the republic. If the tribes are ignored the units will become ineffective and not have the trust or support of the people. If a sheikh is ignored he is shamed, and his legitimacy threatened. Often the commander will spend a great deal of time negotiating with the tribal leaders, but he does not cave to them and submit to their wishes. He will often compromise and let the tribes handle situations where it is appropriate. The rule of law must be upheld, but the tribes are also important. The Commanders must find the right balance.

Since the rise of the Islamic State [IS] in 2014, many Arab tribal leaders in Iraq and Syria pledged allegiance to the group, fearing persecution and repression and hoping to remain on their lands. Those who have refused loyalty faced persecution. In 2014, IS killed 700 members of the prominent Syrian tribe al-Shaitat when the tribal leaders refused to pledge allegiance. IS tried to keep tribal differences in check as it established a networking infrastructure of the Diwan al-'Asha'ir (Council of Tribal Outreach), which is responsible for tribal affairs in Iraq and Syria. It prevented in-fighting among tribes while under IS control.

By mid-2016, some Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq, driven from their ancient lands by Islamic State (IS), were planning their return in a post-IS scenario. Dozens of tribes, whose ancestors date back to Biblical times, were waiting in Iraqi and Syrian areas outside of IS control, weighing strategies and hoping to return home more powerful than ever. Arab tribes cannot do much currently, given that [IS] controls all aspects of life. But they can play a huge role in bringing peace and order once IS has been pushed back.

Ahmed Mahmood of the al-Hadidi tribe, one of the largest Sunni tribes in Iraq's Nineveh province, met in May 2016 with 25 leaders from other tribes to discuss their role in the liberation of the city of Mosul from IS militants. "We ask the president of Kurdistan region, Masoud Barzani, to support us in forming a tribal mobilization force to participate in the liberation of Mosul," said Mahmood, referring to the Iraqi Kurdish leader who has often called for preserving the rights of Sunni tribes.




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Page last modified: 19-12-2016 19:49:02 ZULU