Much of the commentary about Iraq is driven by U.S. experiences, which are not always the reality in Iraq. When the sectarian war took off in 2006 for example, much of the writing about the country was focused upon the Sunni-Shiite divide. A common argument was that these two interpretations of Islam had always been in conflict, and could not coexist in Iraq. Later, when the U.S. began working with the tribes in Anbar, which became known as the Awakening, a new line of thinking opened up claiming that Iraq was at heart a tribal society. This ignored the fact that many of the country’s largest tribes were a mix of Sunnis and Shiites. If the first argument held true, than the sectarian fighting should’ve destroyed many of Iraq’s tribes. Neither was completely true nor false. A quick review of Iraq’s tribal history shows that they are but one form of social organization and identity within the country amongst others. Their influence is usually directly related to the power of the state.
Many of Iraq’s tribes migrated there from the Arabian peninsula. Iraq’s tribes are divided into sub-tribes, clans, and their most basic unit, the extended family. Sheikhs are leaders within these communities. They control local economies, settle disputes, etc. The problem is there are so many it’s hard to determine which ones have real standing. About 75% of Iraq’s 26 million people belong to a tribe. There were originally nine tribes in Iraq, the Mutafiz, Zubayd, Dulaym, Ubayd, Khazal, Bani Lam, Al Bu Muhammad, Rabia, and Kab. By the 1800s there were several new groups included the Shammar, Anaza, Bani Tamim, and Zafire. Many of these groups have divided over the years leading to about 150 different tribes in the country, and around 2,000 clans today. The larger tribes are usually a mix of Sunnis and Shiites.
The power and role of Iraq’s tribes have gone up and down depending upon the rulers of the country. When the Ottomans originally ruled Iraq they had very loose control over the area, so the tribes held the real authority. By the mid-19th Century however, the Ottomans began encouraging people to give up their semi-nomadic lifestyle by settling in towns and cities, and instituted land reform, both of which diluted the standing of the tribes. That changed when the British took over and created Iraq in the wake of World War I. They turned to sheikhs as local partners to institute a form of indirect rule in the country. Many tribes became connected to specific villages at this time based upon extended families. Beginning in the 1920s when the monarchy tried to establish itself that again withered the power of the tribes. In 1968 when the Baathists took power they had a mixed policy towards the tribes. On the one hand the party wanted to modernize the state, and banned tribal names, encouraged migration from rural areas to the cities, again instituted land reform, which broke up the traditional structures many tribes relied upon, and emphasized Iraqi nationalism over other identities. At the same time, top Baathist leaders privileged their own personal kinsmen and gave them top positions in the new government.
Saddam ended up turning to the country’s tribes in the 1980s because of the wars and uprisings he faced, which eventually came back on him. First he looked to the tribes to organize soldiers to fight in the Iran-Iraq war. It was during this time that the Dulaym tribe in Anbar for example, gained privileged status from the government. After the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam relied even more upon the tribes to control the country after the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings. He gave tribes more autonomy and services, and in return, they agreed to provide security in their areas. He also played the tribal leaders off against each other, and created new tribes in a divide and rule policy. The sheikhs’ authority then was dependent upon the amount of support they received from the state. At the same time, their growing power was a sign that the Iraqi state was crumbling from the wars and sanctions. By the 1990s in fact, there were at least two tribal coup attempts against Saddam.
Immediately after the invasion in 2003, the U.S. had a contradictory attitude towards Iraq’s tribes. On the one hand, Paul Bremer wanted to get rid of the old order, which included the tribes. At the same time, in an attempt to create a sectarian and ethnically balanced Iraqi Governing Council and interim Iraqi government the Coalition Provisional Authority selected a few sheikhs to represent the Sunnis. Ghazi Ajil al-Taware of the Shammar tribe for example, was appointed Iraq’s interim president in 2004. The U.S. military also reached out to selected tribes to provide security, but many of those efforts proved futile. Many of the leaders the U.S. worked with proved largely powerless, unpopular, or were playing both sides in the conflict.
In the provinces, the overthrow of Saddam not only led to resistance, but the collapse of the Iraqi state. The situation was made worse when the Sunnis decided to boycott the January 2005 elections. Only 2% of Anbar for example, participated. The Iraqi Islamic Party came to power despite lacking any mandate or legitimacy. The provincial government only operated where U.S. forces could protect them, which was few and far between. Into this vacuum stepped in the insurgency and Al Qaeda in Iraq. Playing upon a sense of loss by the Sunni community, Iraqi nationalism, anti-Americanism, and cash, the militants recruited many young men to fight.
At first the tribes of Anbar aligned themselves with the insurgents, but then came to see Al Qaeda in Iraq as a threat. At first both had a common enemy in the Americans, but then a few tribes felt that the Islamists were attempting to take control of Anbar for themselves. This eventually led to the Anbar Awakening, which aligned itself with the United States. The Americans in turn gave them jobs in the local security forces, and directed reconstruction money to them. This gave rise to a new generation of sheikhs who replaced the old ones. The U.S. in fact, became the new patrons of the tribal leaders, playing a similar role to what Saddam did.
In the south, many tribes were co-opted by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and of Shiite parties. When the U.S. tried to replicate the Awakening with Shiite tribes during the Surge they met stiff resistance by the Supreme Council who controlled many of the provincial governments in the region, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both considered the tribes their constituents. Maliki began winning over many from the Supreme Council in 2008 with his Tribal Support Councils. Like Saddam and the Americans, the Prime Minister created a patronage system to keep these tribes under his control.
The majority of Iraqis claim membership in tribes, but that is not their only identity. Urbanism, Islam, and Iraqi nationalism are other factors that shape Iraqis. Throughout the country’s history the tribes have risen and fallen in relation to the power of the central authorities. During the early Ottoman period, British rule, and after the U.S. invasion, the government was weak and the tribes were strong, while in the other periods their power was diluted. Today, the tribes have found a new space in Iraq, but it appears still conditional. In Anbar the Awakening tribes are trying to form themselves into a new political force, but in southern Iraq many have been co-opted by Prime Minister Maliki. Again, it is the strength of the government that seems to determine the influence of the tribes.
Burns, John and Glanz, James, “Iraqi Shiites Win, but Margin Is less Than Projection,” New York Times, 2/14/05
Byman, Daniel, “An Autopsy of the Iraq Debacle: Policy Failure or Bridge Too Far?” Security Studies, October 2008
Eisenstadt, Lieutenant Colonel Michael, “Iraq Tribal engagement Lessons Learned,” Military Review, September-October 2007
Gordon, Michael, “The Last Battle,” New York Times, 8/3/08
Hassan, Hussein, “Iraq: Tribal Structure, Social, and Political Activities,” Congressional Research Service, 4/7/08
International Crisis Group, “Iraq After The Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape,” 4/30/08
Long, Austin, “The Anbar Awakening,” Survival, April 2008
McCary, John, “The Anbar Awakening: An Alliance of Incentives,” Washington Quarterly, January 2009
Otterman, Sharon, “IRAQ: The Role of Tribes,” Council on Foreign Relations, 11/14/03
Smith, Major Neil and MacFarland, Colonel Sean, “Anbar Awakens: The Tipping Point,” Military Review, March-April 2008
1980 Iraq attacked Iran’s air force starting Iran-Iraq War Attacked 10 air bases but did little damage and only destr...
Dr. Michael Izady of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs recently gave an interview to the Swiss-based International Relat...
(Iraqi News) The Islamic State appeared to enter into a new phase of its rebuilding in October 2018. First, during the winter of 2017 t...
How U.S. Tried And Largely Failed At Reforming Iraq’s Government Interview With Univ of VA Prof SavageUS Provincial Reconstruction Team in Basra 2010 (Alamy) James Savage is a Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. He wrote...