Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Disputes Over Tribal Support Councils

Baghdad has been setting up tribal Support Councils across southern and central Iraq recently. The first such councils were actually created by the United States to help formalize the Sons of Iraq program in Sunni areas. Beginning in March 2008 however, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began creating his own councils during security operations in Basra and Maysan provinces. Later, he started spreading them throughout southern Iraq, and even just outside of Baghdad. Originally, these were a way to organize local tribes to support the government against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, but they were later used to counter the Sons of Iraq and expand Maliki’s political base.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took up the idea of the tribal Support Councils from the United States during his crackdowns on Sadr in southern Iraq. The first councils were originally set up by the United States in Anbar, Diyala, Ninewa, and Salahaddin to legitimize the Sons of Iraq units, give tribes a say in local governance, and create bottom up reconciliation. In March 2008, when Maliki launched Operation Knight’s Charge in Basra against the Mahdi Army he too reached out to local tribes for help with the crackdown. The Prime Minister offered them 10,000 positions in the security forces in return for their support, something tribes were all to willing to give him since there was high unemployment in the area. By early April, Maliki had gained the support of dozens of local sheikhs, who would form the basis of the first Support Council in the city with 2,500 fighters.

In June, Maliki sent forces to Maysan to again subdue the Sadrists that controlled the province. As in Basra, Baghdad turned to the tribes to counter the influence of the Sadr Trend. By the middle of the month the government announced the formation of 17 tribal councils in Maysan.

By the end of June, Maliki was even trying to create Support Councils in the Baghdad area. In Radwainiyah, just outside of the capitol, the government was courting a local Sunni sheikh to form a Support Council. This time, however, instead of responding to a perceived security threat like the Sadrists, the government was attempting to split the local Sunni tribes from the U.S.-funded Sons of Iraq that were operating in the area. That same month, Maliki met with representatives of the powerful Jabouri tribe about setting up a national council of tribes to support the government. Again, the Jabouri had been instrumental in working with the United States to create tribal Sons of Iraq, and now Baghdad was trying to win them over to their side.

From September to October the government attempted to create Support Councils across the rest of the south, but to the ire of the SIIC, governors, and the provincial councils. In September one was created in Babil. The governor, who was a member of the SIIC, was opposed to the idea because he said it did not include 1200 sheikhs. The SIIC controlled provincial government in Wasit was against a Support Council being created there as well, saying that it was not needed. The provincial council stated that there was already cooperation between the local government and the tribes, so a Support Council would be redundant. The Dawa governor of Karbala and the SIIC governor of Dhi Qar both voiced similar complaints. The Karbala governor claimed that the provincial council was trying to unseat him because he was against the Support Councils there, while the Dhi Qar governor questioned why Baghdad was creating 20 Support Councils in his province, without any coordination with the local government. The head of the security and defense committee in parliament and the SIIC itself have also questioned Maliki’s moves. The security and defense committee chairman said that the councils were unconstitutional. One SIIC member asked whether the tribal councils were a means to create a Dawa militia, while another said it was political maneuvering by Maliki before the provincial elections.

In 2008, the status quo changed in Iraq, and Maliki attempted to benefit from it through the creation of tribal Support Councils. First, Maliki’s main political and military rival, Moqtada al-Sadr had his militia scattered by security operations in Basra, Sadr City, and Maysan. Reaching out to tribes in Basra and Maysan was a way to protect against the Sadrists’ return, and to gain new supporters in areas where Maliki was weak before. The tribal council in Radwainiyah, was a shrewd move to undercut the local Sons of Iraq, which Maliki has never liked, and which he wishes to disband. Finally, the new councils in Babil, Wasit and Dhi Qar are direct challenges to the SIIC that rules those provinces. There is little coordination between the central and provincial governments, so even Dawa officials in those three areas felt that Malii was trying to usurp their power by creating independent tribal councils that answered to him rather than the local authorities. The 2009 provincial elections are the main backdrop for these movies. Dawa has always been the weakest of the three main Shiite parties. It was also the only one that lacked an armed militia. The Support Councils address both those issues by setting up a new Maliki dependent patronage system, and organizing armed tribesmen on his behalf. As 2008 ends, Maliki finds himself in a much stronger military and political situation, and the Support Councils have helped him with that.


Ahmed, Farook and Cochrane, Marisa, “Recent Operations against Special Groups and JAM in Central and Southern Iraq,” Institute for the Study of War, 4/7/08

Alsumaria, “Rows growing between two major Iraqi parties,” 9/18/08

Cochrane, Marisa, “The Battle for Basra,” Institute for the Study of War, 5/31/08

Cordesman, Anthony, “The Shi’ite Gamble: Rolling the Dice for Iraq’s Future,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 4/21/08

Dagher, Sam, “Basra strike against Shiite militias also about oil,” Christian Science Monitor, 4/9/08

- “U.S., Iraqi forces meet no Sadr resistance in Amara,” Christian Science Monitor, 6/23/08

Farrell, Stephen and Glanz, James, “More Than 1,000 in Iraq’s Forces Quit Basra Fight,” New York Times, 4/4/08

Hendawi, Hamza, “Program in Iraq against al-Qaida faces uncertainty,” Associated Press, 6/29/08

Iraqi News, “Three Support Councils established in Diala,” 1/24/08

McCallister, William, “Sons of Iraq: A Study in Irregular Warfare,” Small Wars Journal, 9/8/08

Missing Links Blog, “What’s up with Maliki’s latest tribal-council proposal,” 7/1/08

Multi-National Corps – Iraq, “Diyala leaders meet to establish tribal support councils (Diyala),” 3/21/08

Parker, Sam, “ISCI/Da’wa alliance showing strain,” Abu Muqawama Blog, 9/17/08

Raghavan, Sudarsan, “Basra’s Wary Rebirth,” Washington Post, 5/31/08

Scarborough, Rowan, “Tribe helps al-Maliki win control of south,” Washington Times, 5/23/08

Voices of Iraq, “Government is the only authority and no negotiations with ‘the gangs’ – PM,” 3/28/08
- “Karbala governor says no-confidence vote proposal is political pressure tool,” 10/1/08
- “PM announces formation of 17 tribal councils in Missan,” 6/23/08
- “Sunni, Shiite figures hold reconciliation conference in Diala,” 3/21/08
- “Thi-Qar governor slams govt’s plan of installing support councils,” 10/3/08
- “Tribal chieftain announces opening 20 Supports Councils offices in Thi-Qar,” 10/1/08
- “Wassit clans agree to back security agencies,” 4/6/08
- “Wassit province refuses to establish support councils,” 9/24/08


Anonymous said...

In the Dec 2005 elections the UIA got 76% of the vote in Babil, 80.7%in Wasit and 86.7% in Dhi Qar.

It is highly unlikely therefore the establishment shiite parties will fail to get a clear majority in the provincial elections, with or without the tribal support?

All the direct reporting coming out of Basra and Sadr City indicate the Sadrists are finished.

Maliki (not to my surprise)is consolidating the stability of the government by drawing in the tribes. Whether he is doing this for evil moustache twirling Persian lackey reasons as western anti war pundits love to imagine, remains to be seen.

But one clear motive he DOES have -by drawing in the tribes and marginalising the Mahdis and the SOI, he minimises the chances of an anti shia, anti government, anti constitution insurgency ever starting up again.

Joel Wing said...

1st, the United Iraqi Alliance really doesn't exist anymore. The Sadrists pulled out, and Dawa is going to run against the SIIC probably. The SIIC runs 8 provinces, and will probably add Basra as well. Who knows what will happen in Maysan where the Sadrists are still in power. I think the Tribal Support Councils, especially the recent ones in places like Babil, Wasit, etc. are a sign of the inter-Shiite rivalary, because they're a direct challenge to the SIIC by Maliki, hence all the negative remarks by SIIC members recently.

Anonymous said...

Could I recommend Rory Stewart's account of his year as governorate co-ordinator in Maysan in 2003-04"Occupational Hazards"?

Stewart was sent by the Brit FO. When he arrived the Brit military stationed there was backing a powerful shia tribal sheikh known as the "Prince of the Marshes" who had famously conducted an "insurgency" against Saddam from the southern marshlands.

The POM’s tribesmen lined up to warn Rory about the "turbans" - the Badrists and Sadrists who had appeared with Iranian-trained militias after the invasion.

Rory's brief from the CPA however was not to over promote the secular tribes against the others, but to establish a representative provisional council as preparation for a modern democracy. He did so, against the warnings of the Brit military commander there and the tribes.

Interestingly, both the secular tribes and the Badrists were united against the Sadrists at that stage, but Rory felt he had to try to bring them on board.

He worked very hard to do this, but the Sadrists first act was to assassinate the POM's tribal police chief after having invited him to Friday prayers at their mosque.

The provisional council elected one of the POM’s relatives to be the governor, but almost straight away the Sadrists stormed the governor’s office and trashed it. The Brit troops raised not a finger to stop them. (It was reminiscent to me of the US military sitting on its hands and allowing the looting and destruction straight after the invasion). The CPA was trying to nurture a representative democracy but the Brit military allowed the extremists to trash it.

Unsurprisingly, the Sadrists grew from strength to strength.

The POM and his relative (read the tribes) ended up doing a deal with them for their own preservation. The Badrists were the one's who were marginlised then!

Rory was moved to the neighbouring province of Dhi Khar and the Sadrists did the same thing there.

Rory (who was very popular with all sides, including the Sadrists) went back to Amara for the Jan 05 elections. The Sadrists had taken over the provincial council and the POM’s relative had been chucked out and the secular tribes completely out of it. Rory’s assumption based on his experience was that the Sadrists had intimidated the people into voting for them. Similar stuff happened in Dhi Kar, Basra etc.

In that context, the news that 17 Tribal Support Councils have been formed in Maysan is very significant. It means that the tribes are confident that the Iraqi government forces now have the power and they are safe to support the legitimate, elected government without fear of assassination from the mahdi army.

It also appears there has been an old story – ie the Sadrists abused their power and lost the support of the people. Everywhere they took control they imposed sharia law and religious courts – exactly what Alqi did in the Sunni areas.

I have not read of any instances where the UIA has imposed sharia law in the many shia provinces they control? In fact their agreement to the ban on use of religious images in election campaigning indicates that the routing of the Sadrists has allowed the shia govt parties to move away from sectarianism?

Joel Wing said...

"In fact their agreement to the ban on use of religious images in election campaigning indicates that the routing of the Sadrists has allowed the shia govt parties to move away from sectarianism?"

I think most people interpreted the no religious images clause in the provincial election as an anti-SIIC move, rather than anti-Sadrist one. The SIIC plastered Ayatollah Sistani's face all over their election material in the 2005 elecions, and other parties didn't want them to have that advantage in 2009, so I'm not so sure it was a move away from sectarianism, rather than power politics.

On the Sadrists, I would agree that they have lost support. According to the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams, Maysan, the only province the Sadrists ruled in, remains one of the poorest in the country. They of course, also carried out a tit for tat war with the SIIC and anyone else that stood in their way. I've also written two pieces about Sadr's leadership, which during the early 2008 crackdowns seemed to alienate and upset many of his followers as well. Maliki has also been able to undermine some of Sadr's anti-Americanism by demanding a U.S. withdrawal timetable in the SOFA agreements. The Sadrists are definitely in rebuilding mode right now.

One important factor however, is that I haven't seen anyone really court and gain the Sadrists' followers support. It was there for the taking by Maliki, but in Sadr City and Maysan he hasn't done anything to really improve the conditions there through services other than very small, cosmetic job programs like garbage pick-ups. In Basra, the city had enough independent wealth to recover economically without the central government, and the SIIC could end up unseating the Fadhila party there, rather than Maliki's Dawa.

Right now, it appears that Maliki is only able to use the hammer when it comes to his opposition. I'm not sure the government even has the capabilities to do real reconstruction if it wanted to at this time, despite Maliki's promises of hundreds of millions for each area he's cleared out in the recent security ops.

It's definitely an interesting period in Iraqi history, and also shows the major changes, because while there is still violence (a Sadrist MP just got assassinate today), many of the struggles are now in the political rather than military field.

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