Much of the discussion about the origins of Iraq’s insurgency deals with the marginalization of Sunnis by the Americans, their desire to return to power, and the entry of foreign Islamists to the country. The role of Saddam Hussein, the war’s he led his country into, and Iraq’s tribes are usually only side notes. Tribes in Iraq faced a steady decline under modernization and urbanization, but when the Baath Party came to power in 1968 some found a new role as bastions of the regime. When wars and sanctions beset the nation they became even more prominent gaining patronage, their own weapons and sources of revenue. These groups went on to fill the vacuum left after the U.S. invasion, and then many of them turned towards armed struggle against the occupation. The organization and funding the tribes developed over the previous two decades would become important backbones of the insurgency.
Iraq used to be a tribal society, but modernization transformed them and then ate away at their standing. Tribes were based upon extended families that became tribal groups and confederations. The development of modern agriculture turned many sheikhs into landlords and their tribesmen into serfs. By the time Iraq was created after World War I many sheikhs had become part of the political elite, were integrated into the state, and received legislation to protect their interests. By 1958 80% of the country’s peasants were landless and 1.7% of the landlords owned 63% of the land. Migration to the cities and urbanization broke down many of traditional structures of the tribes as well. Starting with the 1958 coup up to the Baathist takeover in 1968 a number of laws were passed that eventually broke down the power of the landed elite. The draw of the cities further weakened the role of tribes as people were drawn into new associations such as their neighborhoods, their mosques, their jobs, etc. Iraq’s tribes started off as migrating groups, but they eventually settled down with many members becoming laborers with the sheikhs emerging as part of the country’s elite that helped maintain the state. That role started to wane, but the emergence of the Baath Party and the weakening of the government in the following years would lead to other transformations.
The Baath Party took power in 1968 claiming to be a modernizing force, but unofficially used kinship and tribes to solidify its hold over the government. The Baathists said that they were against tribalism, but reality was another matter. Three of the five members of the Revolutionary Command Council that was announced after the 1968 coup were from Tikrit including future president Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and Hammad Shihab who were cousins. Saddam Hussein was also kin to Bakr. Saddam went on to fill many of the secret police with men from the tribes around Tikrit. Eventually all the heads of the security agencies were from five different tribes and the extended family of Saddam. As Baath rule solidified it ended up destroying other social groups such as other political parties and unions, leaving tribes as one of the few networks left in the country. The party’s reliance upon tribes would only increase when Saddam assumed power and he took the country to war twice.
The weakening of the state due to the Iran-Iraq and Gulf Wars led Saddam Hussein to turn to tribes for support. When Iraq went to war with Iran, the government used tribes to recruit and organize men for the army. The Dulaim, Jabouri, and Ubaid became some of the privileged groups during this period along with three others and 18 clans. Later, as sections of the country rose up after the Gulf War, tribes were used to put down the revolts. As sanctions took their toll in the 1990s, Saddam began decentralizing power to trusted tribal groups. As part of this tribes were allowed to control parts of the informal sectors of the economy that grew tremendously during this period. By the 2002 it was estimated that 68% of Iraq’s labor force participated in the grey economy and made up to one third of Gross Domestic Product. Tribes were involved in smuggling of goods and oil and hijacking leading to the creation of organized crime rings. The Dulaim confederation in Anbar for example, grew rich off of smuggling oil and other goods to and from Syria. Sheikhs were also armed and given control of their own personal militias to help control sections of the nation. In 1996 a High Council of Tribal Chiefs was created that gave sheikhs legal, security, and taxation power. In 1998 during a confrontation with the U.S. certain tribes were deployed in and around Baghdad to put down any uprisings that might emerge. This gave them control of both the law and crime greatly enriching them during a period of austerity. These privileges were also doled out in a way so that the tribes could be controlled using a divide and conquer strategy. That didn’t mean there weren’t conflicts as well as elements within the Dulaim and Jabouri tribes attempted to overthrow or assassinate Saddam several times in the 1990s, and by 2000s there were several armed confrontations between the army and tribes in Anbar. Overall, this was a huge expansion of the Baathist tribal policy after it first took power. There was a direct relation as in previous periods of Iraqi history, that when the government weakened it turned to other organizations such as tribes to help strengthen its position. The Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and sanctions put so much pressure upon the state that it was forced to give semi-autonomy to some of its closest allies amongst the sheikhs to maintain order.
Many have argued that after the 2003 invasion the tribes suffered a loss of power that led them towards the insurgency, but some were actually able to expand in the vacuum left over from the collapse of the regime. The conventional wisdom is that the fall of Saddam was a major setback for the privileged tribes. They lost their patronage from the state, while others their smuggling businesses. Another take is that these groups actually expanded in the post-Saddam era. They took part in the looting after the government was overthrown, seized weapons left over from the war, and protected their communities when the Iraqi forces folded after the invasion, and then after the army was disbanded by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Many were also able to continue on with their illicit business, as there was no Coalition or Iraqi Security Forces present in many parts of the country, something that continues to the present day.
These networks became crucial when many Sunnis decided to fight the United States. Tribes became one of the main groups that those opposed to the occupation turned to. An erstwhile insurgent leader for instance, could have been a former soldier laid off by the CPA, a member of the Baath Party, gone to a specific mosque, taken part in an organized crime group, and been part of a tribe and extended family many of which might have overlapped. The tribes proved handy because they had a loose organization, weapons, and an independent means of funding. The kinship connections were also important in maintaining secrecy and were used for recruiting as well. This repeated Iraqi history where the strength of the tribes was often directly related to the weakness of the state. Post-03 Iraq presented a huge vacuum that the country is still struggling with today, and which some tribes moved to fill. The motivation and ideology of the insurgency would come from many sources, but the tribes proved to be a crucial network for forming armed groups and sustaining them.
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