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Iraq Crisis Report
July 27, 2005

Sunnis Rejoin Constitutional Process
Lawmakers are back on board despite intimidation and many Sunnis seem to be following in their footsteps. By Mohammed Fawzi in Baghdad.

Shias Make Case for Federalism
As constitutional talks continue, some in southern Iraq are pressing hard for autonomy. By Daud Salman in southern Iraq and Zaineb Naji in Baghdad.

Kurds Soft-Pedal on Oil Share
Winning a fair share of oil revenues is important to the Kurds, but not so crucial that they will risk derailing the bigger goal of federal status. By Duraed Salman in Baghdad.

Bad Food Flooding In
Expired products are making people sick and some are blaming the Americans. By Yaseen Omer and Hemin Baqir in Sulaimaninyah.

Family Breakdowns Soar
Divorce courts are registering record numbers of cases, amid concerns that women are losing out. By Sahire Rasheed Jabir in Baghdad.

Sex Trade Blights the North
Prostitutes and their customers are flocking to Sulaimaniyah from across Iraq. By Frman Abdul-Rahman in Sulaimaniyah.

Presented in partnership with the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. Please support professional development of local Iraqi journalists and encourage more cultural reporting. Click here and give generously to IWPR.




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Looting Patterns in Northern Dhi Qar


Map and legend courtesy Zeyad A., www.healingiraq.com     

Iraq's Tribal Society: A State Within A State
by Zeyad A.*


Understanding the tribal aspect of Iraqi society is essential for any outsider seriously interested in Iraqi and Middle Eastern affairs.

Not much attention has been devoted to this subject in the Western media, and all the related articles published on the web are shallow and do not reflect the true picture nor the importance of the historical role of tribalism in Iraqi (and Arab in general) society.

First you have to take in consideration the unique geographic location of Iraq, in that it is surrounded and enclosed by mountains in the north and east, while from the west and south it lies on the northern edge of the largest source of Bedouinism, the Arabian Desert.

The land that is today called Iraq has been exposed for millennia to waves of Bedouin migration from the south for purposes of either military conquest (such as the Arab Muslim invasion during the 7th century), searching for water and pasturage to graze their flocks, raiding and looting (such as the Wahhabi raids on Shi'ite holy cities during the 18th century), or settlement.

Iraq was also known to be the cradle of civilisation, and the spread of tribal social values brought by the successive Bedouin waves contributed much to the decline and destruction of this civilisation at different times in history. Whenever the tribal influence diminishes over a few centuries and civilisation slowly flourishes again, a new wave of fresh desert tribes moves to the area and disrupts the process all over again.

Iraqis therefore have been conditioned (for centuries) by this ongoing 'clash of cultures' to follow two different (and often antithetical) sets of social values; urban values derived from their own ways of life and history as the cradle of civilisation, and tribal values imposed upon them by the Bedouin influence.

Urban Iraqis cannot remain totally unaffected by the spread of tribal values and eventually they have to pick up from them in order to defend themselves and adapt to their new environment. The newly settled tribes on the other hand cannot indefinitely retain their Bedouin culture which was only suitable for desert life and have to reshape it in order to coexist with the original inhabitants.

This has resulted in a form of duality or 'cultural ambivalence' in the Iraqi personality which is easily recognised by Westerners and they may therefore incorrectly describe Iraqis as being 'two-faced', when in fact Iraqis are unaware of their inconsistent behaviour and have had no choice in it. This duality is also evident on different scales in other Arab countries such as Syria, Palestine, Libya, Algeria, and to a lesser extent in Egypt.

Tribalism originated in the Arabian peninsula in order for the inhabitants to survive the harsh desert nature.

No individual can survive on his own in the desert. This realisation led to the formation of primitive forms of clan society. A group of nomad families sharing a common ancestry is more likely to deal with the challenges of the desert. All for one and one for all. Blood kinship is important in clan societies, it is the bond that unites all clan individuals and which also defines the relationships with other clans.

A tribe is composed of several clans also sharing the same lineage. Tribal groups or confederations are also made of several different tribes which trace back their origins to one forefather.

Arab tribes before the advent of Islam fell into two larger groups, Adnaniya or northern Arabs who trace back their ancestry to Ishmael son of Abraham, and Qahtaniya or southern Arabs inhabiting Yemen. To this day Arab tribes follow this classification although they have later intermingled with different cultures and ethnic groups throughout the Arab world.

Clan members had two main methods of survival, grazing their herds and raiding of neighbouring (usually weaker) clans.

Later they served other functions such as the protection of trade caravans passing from Yemen to Iraq and Syria at the behest of the Roman Byzantine and Persian Sassanid empires. During dry seasons they would roam the desert in search for grazing areas (often clashing with competitive clans in the process) or migrate further to the fertile north.

Land ownership was nonexistent in the Arabian desert. Instead there was collective control over the oases, pastures, and wells, and mostly the stronger clans controlled the best territories.

Clan societies were lead by Sheikhs. The term Sheikh in Arabic means a 'male elder' and is not necessarily restricted to tribal leaders. The Sheikh, usually elected by the clansmen, acts as judge to the clan or family, decides on matters of war and peace, assigns duties to clansmen, and mediates during disputes between the clan and other clans.

Each smaller family and clan has its own leader or Sheikh, and consequently each tribe and tribal confederation has its own Sheikh. Some of these leaders of large tribal groups were regarded as kings before Islam and even fought wars against the surrounding empires.

Within each tribe there is a Council of Sheikhs of different clans who would assist and advise the leader and at certain occasions replace him with another Sheikh when he fails his duties, is unworthy of leadership, or when his actions threaten the welfare of the tribe.

So tribal Sheikhs were not exactly tyrants, and were easily replaceable by force of sword if necessary. The supreme Sheikhdom of each tribe is traditionally confined to one family, usually the elder male descendants of the distant forefather.

With time as families grew into clans and clans grew into separate tribes with their own independent leaderships, a sense of superiority among the different tribes was established. Certain Sheikhs were superior to other Sheikhs (either because of their heritage or personal glories), certain clans superior to other clans, and certain tribes and tribal groups superior to others. This eventually led the Arabs to believe that they were superior to all other people living in the region.

The Bedouin still to this day look down at any other people even urban Arabs, considering them 'impure'. This also explains the absolute obsession of Arabs with genealogy. Individuals or clans in the desert who were unaware of their lineage were outcasts. They would have to ally with another known tribe and later on would be 'adopted' by the tribe and assume its lineage.

Almost every Sheikh today can proudly show you his family tree which would include thousands of names and would go up and up to Adam sometimes. My own family tree goes back to Qahtan, the forefather of southern Yemeni Arabs who is supposed to have lived around 2000 B.C.

This preoccupation with lineage and blood ties was also a source of hostility between different tribes as the famous saying put it 'Me and my brother against my cousin, and me and my cousin against the stranger'.

Therefore it is not uncommon for clans of the same tribe to be at war with each other, and then suddenly unite against an outside aggression or a common enemy, after which they would be back to fight each other.

One would be shocked when taking a look at tribal wars throughout history for their absurd reasons. For example the famous Bessus war before Islam which lasted forty years was because a leader of one tribe killed a camel belonging to another tribe when he noticed it was grazing with his flock. The Dahis wa alghabraa war was over cheating during a horse race. And the tribal tensions between Adnaniya and Qahtaniya continued for centuries in all Arab countries, up to the 18th century.

Tribal values can be summed up in three groups or complexes: loyalty (to one's tribe), militancy, and honour.

Firstly, the tribe expects absolute loyalty from its individuals in return for its protection. No matter whether the tribe is right or wrong, tribesmen should rush to its support. Just as each tribesman expects the whole tribe to protect him and guarantee his rights at time of need, the tribe also expects unequivocal support from each tribesman. It's a symbiotic relationship. This complex also includes values such as Sheikhdom, tribal superiority, blood feuds, etc.

Secondly, the individual tribesman in order to achieve a higher status and personal glory among his peers is expected to demonstrate great courage and valiance in battles, should be a gallant chivalrous warrior, and the larger the booty he gains from battle the greater he is respected within the tribe. Tribal society despises the cowardly and weak. They also despise craftsmen because they don't live by the sword.

Last we have the honour complex which includes generosity, hospitality, self-esteem, honesty, integrity, safeguarding of women, protection of the weak and the refugee, etc. Some of these values may seem contradictory to outsiders at first glance.

For example a Sheikh may wholeheartedly offer a whole lamb to a guest for dinner, but at the same time he may argue ridiculously with a grocer over a few Dinars.

To understand that you should know that it is not the money that the Sheikh is upset about. He argues because he feels he is being cheated and that is humiliating to him. He wants to be the cheater not the cheated.

If the grocer later asks the Sheikh for an incredible sum of money the Sheikh would without any hesitation give it to him out of generosity because it would bring pride and a sense of dominance to him. You can also attribute that to the sense of superiority. The Sheikh wants to be dominant. He enjoys being asked for anything, yet he hates with all his heart to ask anyone for anything even for directions, as that would be a sign of weakness.

That also explains the tendency of most Arabs to bargain over almost everything.

Tribal News


Although there is mention of Bedouin raids in ancient Assyrian and Persian tablets in which the Bedouin were described as Areebi, the most significant historical Bedouin conquest of Iraq was that of early Islam during the 7th century.

Muhammed had succeeded in uniting the Bedouin tribes of Arabia, ridding them of their pagan ways, and utilising their traditions of raiding and looting into political conquest.

Following the death of Muhammed there was no real design on invading the stronger Byzantine and Sassanid empires up north, it was rather spontaneous.

During the reign of Abu Bakr, the first Caliph after Muhammed, most of the Bedouin tribes reverted to their old ways of intertribal warfare, and Abu Bakr had to wage war against them in order to return them to the flock. This was known as the redda wars (wars of apostasy).

After shortly succeeding in subduing the insurgency the reconverted tribes started raiding southern Iraqi cities which were under the control of the Sassanids.

Many of these incursions brought great material gains for the tribal warriors, and since these cities were inhabited by older tribes (such as the Manadhira) which had settled earlier in Iraq, the warriors were met with little resistance, which encouraged them to raid and conquer more land up north along the Euphrates until they had besieged Damascus.

During the reign of Omar, the second Caliph, the Arab tribes had already beaten the two major empires in the region and occupied Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Persia. This Jihad was less motivated by religious fervour than by ancient Bedouin traditions of raiding and warfare.

Westerners often assume that Islamic conversion was forced by the sword, however the invading Arab tribes didn't care less if the conquered populations converted or not, they were just doing what they were good at.

Bedouin tribes started pouring into the Fertile Crescent during the 7th century searching for new opportunities while the invading tribes moved forward to conquer further land west in north Africa, and east into Khorassan.

During the rule of the first 3 Caliphs there were no proper regular armies, the invaders consisted of tribal warriors organised according to their respective clans, they even had their own separate flags and banners, and would often turn against each other over land and booty disputes. Later on under the rule of the aristocratic Ummayids (Ummawiyeen), the army was regulated and selected from loyal tribesmen inhabiting the greater Syria region which was the stronghold of Ummayids.

The early Caliphs at Medina realised that the perfect way to distract the tribes from revolting against the Caliphate was by continuous invasion of new land. The tribal warriors and their leaders were granted carte blanche over the new occupied territories by the Caliph. They would divide the land among themselves and treat the natives as they saw fit.

Ibn Khaldoun describes the behaviour of the Bedouin when they first occupied Iraq.

First they systematically pillaged the country. They thought camphor was salt and used it in their cooking. They took out the bricks from buildings and used them to put their large cooking pots on, wooden rods were used to erect their tents with.

Shortly later they started building their own cities on the edge of the desert. Kufa and Basrah were the main two cities and many tribal Sheikhs settled in these. Each clan had its own neighbourhood and leader, and the blocks were designed so that tribesmen can still graze their flocks in the nearby desert.

The natives, most of whom were Persians, Arameans, Jews, and older settled Arabs welcomed the Bedouin 'liberation'. They had after all suffered from the oppressive Byzantine and Sassanid empires for decades. Their Muslim occupiers promised religious tolerance but they had to pay taxes (jizya) in return for protection. Most of the natives chose to convert and they continued to tend their land on behalf of their new Arab landlords.

The natives were called Mawali (allies) because they had to ally with tribes. Generations later the Mawali became an undistinguished part of the tribes and were 'Arabised'. They were also nicknamed hummr (reds) for their fair skins, or ulooj (non-Arabs).

Under Othman, the third Caliph who belonged to the aristocratic Ummayid branch of Mohammed's tribe Quraysh, the conquests ceased briefly. Othman attempted to properly administrate the new Islamic empire, and he assigned powerful family members from his clan to the provinces.

The Ummayids (who were Muhammed's arch-enemies before they converted) seized this opportunity and started consolidating their power throughout the Islamic empire getting even wealthier in the process. This did not appeal to other clans and tribes since the new administrators started pressuring them and exercising strict rule and scrutiny.

Tribal leaders felt that their authority was waning especially since they were unfamiliar with governmental control back in Arabia. Some dissident tribesmen besieged Medina and assassinated Othman, after which they elected Ali Bin Abi Talib (Muhammed's cousin and son-in-law) as Caliph.

Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria and a cousin of Othman, held Ali fully responsible for Othman's murder and he refused to recognise Ali's caliphate unless Ali turned in the murderers to him (Mu'awiya was head of the Ummayid family and Othman's next of kin and according to tribal customs had to avenge his murder). Ali of course declined causing other senior companions of Muhammed to turn against him as well and challenge his caliphate (most of those desired the caliphate for themselves).

This marked the first Muslim civil war 37 years after Islam, also the start of the deep schism which divided Muslims into Sunnis and Shia.

Ali had to move to Iraq and wage controversial wars against several adversaries and in the end against Mu'awiya for a couple of years which turned into a stalemate. His followers, who came to be known later as Shia, also turned against him eventually because they were sick of wars. Ali was widely criticised by Muslim elders and tribal leaders for fighting other Muslims and dividing them.

A mixed group of tribes who called themselves Khawarij (Kharijites) deserted Ali and plotted to assassinate him, together with Mu'awiya and his top army commander. They succeeded only in murdering Ali at Kufa.

The Kharijites can be technically regarded as the first true Islamic fundamentalists. They scorned this earthly conflict over the caliphate, and called for Muslims to revert to the original Islam. 'There is no rule but that of Allah'. They regarded any Muslim who didn't agree with their interpretation of Islam as Kafir and therefore should be killed. History books provide many examples of their atrocities carried out in the name of Islam.

Mu'awiya having deposed of Ali announced himself as Caliph and moved the capital of Islam to Damascus where he was surrounded by loyal tribes.

He resumed the conquests of North Africa to expand his empire, introduced civil laws and government control, bought off most tribal leaders by bribery and intimidation, and started preparing his son Yazid as his successor thus restoring the traditional Bedouin blood ties and ending the brief democratic era that Arab Muslims enjoyed for about 40 years. All in all he was the first official Arab dictator.

The Ummayid Caliphs had to subjugate several revolts most of which started in Iraq and the Arabian peninsula which was losing its importance as the birthplace of Islam.

Yazid sent an army to Medina which ruthlessly slaughtered hundreds, and the next year he sent another army to fight Hussein bin Ali at Karbala (who also like his father was lured to Iraq only to be abandoned by the Arab Shia tribes).

Abdul Malik bin Marwan had to lay siege to Mecca and bomb it with stone throwers when Abdullah bin Al-Zubair (one of the last surviving companions of Muhammed) rebelled with the backing of several Bedouin tribes. He also sent his strongman Hajjaj Bin Yusuf to control the disorder among Iraqi tribes. Hajjaj massacred thousands of people and forced military conscription.

Iraqis to this day tell tales of his violent rule, and Saddam Hussein was always compared to Hajjaj in his ruthlessness.

Hajjaj called Iraqis ahl alshiqaq wal nifaq or 'the people of disunity and hypocrisy'. One famous story was that during a curfew on Kufa, his guards brought him an old Bedouin who had entered the town unaware of the curfew. He implored Hajjaj that he did not know about the curfew and that he just came here from the desert. 'I know you are innocent' Hajjaj replied, 'But killing you is for the best interests of the umma. Hang him on the city walls, guards!'

A later Ummayid Caliph, Walid Bin Yazid had to send an army to Khorassan to fight Zaid Bin Ali Bin Al-Hussein (another of Ali's rebelling descendants). All this internal turmoil and the weakening grip of the less experienced Ummayid Caliphs on the expanding empire (which now extended from the borders of China to southern France) led to their fall one century after they assumed power.

The Abbassids (descendants of Al-Abbas, an uncle of Muhammed) came to rule the Islamic empire after a short rebellion against the Ummayids which started from Persia. The Persians constituted the bulk of their army and its military leaders. No more would Arab tribes have the upper hand in the Islamic empire.

The Abbassid caliphate also marked the golden age of Islamic culture and sciences. Baghdad was built and the Middle East became the center of civilisation back then together with Constantinople.

Tribalism now only existed where it belonged, in the desert.

Three centuries later however, the Abbassid empire started weakening under the threat of different tribes, this time, Buwayhid Persians and later Seljuk and Mamluk Turks. The Berbers in North Africa separated from the Abbassid empire, and the Fatimids (descendants of Ali and the ancestors of Ismaelis or Shi'ite Seveners) in Egypt appointed their own caliphs.

Crusaders invaded greater Syria, and the Abbassid caliphate after receiving several blows was now restricted to a small area around Baghdad, with tribal emirates controlling the rest of the country and Arabia.

Although all Muslims recognised the Abbassid caliph as a spiritual figure, he no longer held any political control over anything. Caliphs were even put under house arrest and were sometimes replaced by whoever controlled Iraq.

Tribalism returned with a vengeance since the state was extremely weak, and later the Mongols under Hulagu finally ended the Abbassid dynasty and plundered Baghdad in 1258.

During the following century Baghdad was controlled by Mongol Sultans from the Jala'iri and Ilkhan tribes, while the rest of the country was practically run by Arab tribes which revolted against the Mongol administrators when they attempted to impose taxes on the tribes.

One of the most powerful Arab tribes in southern Iraq was Tai' (which exists to this day around Mosul). Their leaders from the Al Fadhl clan established a tribal emirate called 'Emarat Al-Arab' which extended south as far as Bahrain. They also collected taxes from other tribes and often raided Mongolian trade caravans.

The Mongols also employed systematic looting in order to compensate for the stagnation of their economy. In 1401, Baghdad was plundered again, this time by Tamerlane, driving the country into further chaos.

During the fifteenth century, Mosul and Baghdad were ruled by two rival Turkomen tribes (Qara Quweynlu and Alaq Quweynlu), and southern Iraq was divided between four or five main tribal confederations, the Al Fadhl and Rubai'a clans from the Tai' tribes, Bani Assad, Jash'am, Al-Muntafiq, and Bani Lam.

These were the earliest Bedouin tribes that had settled in Iraq during the late Abbassid caliphate through a second wave of Bedouin migration. All still exist today and are considered as the oldest known Iraqi tribes.

More Tribal News


The earliest Bedouin tribal confederation to appear in southern Iraq in the 15th century was that of Qash'am (the tribe exists today as Jash'am).

The Mamluks in Egypt and Greater Syria were concerned about the alarming growth of the Al Fadhl 'Emarat Al-Arab' tribal emirate on their eastern borders, which prompted the Mamluk Sultan in Cairo Al-Dhahir Barquq to write to Thamir the Sheikh of Qash'am instigating him to take over the emirate from the Al Fadhl clan.

Thamir raided and plundered Basrah and started to collect taxes from the weaker tribes. All the new migrating tribes from the desert had to ally with Qash'am until the confederation controlled most of the southern Iraqi desert west of the Euphrates from Basrah to Fallujah.

By the 17th century the confederation was undermined by attacks from new migrating tribes such as the Shammar and Anniza from the south, and pressure from older tribal groups such as the growing Al-Muntafiq tribal confederation from the east and the Al-Khaza'il from the north. Allied tribes left the confederation to join other rising ones, and in the end the Qash'am tribe itself was forced to join the Al-Muntafiq.

Meanwhile, north and east of Iraq, two young states were being formed, both of which had a significant role in shaping Iraqi society, the Ottoman and the Safawid empires.

In 1501 Shah Ishmael had succeeded in uniting Iran for the first time since the Muslim invasion. Shah Ishmael embraced Shia Islam and established it as the state religion although the Safawids were originally Sufi in their beliefs. He then commenced to forcefully convert the largely Sunni population of Iran into Shi'ism.

Ishmael Shah captured Baghdad in 1508 and destroyed the Abu Hanifa shrine in Adhamiya to the horror of the Sunni Ottoman Turks who were then busy with their Jihad wars in the Balkans.

Sultan Selim declared a holy war on the Shi'ite Safawids with the help of fatwas from Muslim clerics. His successor Suleiman was able to capture Baghdad in 1534 and it was under Sultan Suleiman that the Islamic world had reached its zenith. If it were not for the rival Safawids in his back he might have been able to conquer most of Europe.

For the next 150 years war continued between the two empires with Iraq as the main war field. Iraqis themselves were divided between the two. Sunnis supported the Ottoman empire while Shia were with the Safawids, never minding that both were actually foreign occupying powers. Iraqi tribes were not that big on religious matters so they supported whoever was stronger at the time and raided and looted the armies of the weaker empire.

In about the mid 17th century the large Bedouin Shammar tribe started migrating from its traditional territory north of the Arab peninsula to the large desert area between Iraq and Syria. It soon clashed with the Al-Mawali tribe which had settled earlier in the region and succeeded in driving it west to Syria.

Another Bedouin wave brought the large Anniza tribe to the area shortly afterwards. It had to fight for territories with the Shammar and the Shammar were pushed north across the Euphrates where they finally settled also in the process driving older tribes such as Al-Jubur and Al-Ubayd eastward across the Tigris.

This movement led many scholars to believe that the tribes that inhabit southern Iraq east of the Tigris are the oldest settled tribes in Iraq, and there is much evidence to prove this since Bedouin traditions are the weakest among these tribes.

It was not uncommon for the Ottoman governor (or wali as he was called) of Baghdad to clash with insurgent tribes.

Usually, the Baghdad wali would grant leaders of large tribal confederations such as the Muntafiq or the Khaza'il some degree of autonomy in return for an annual payment of taxes and royalties to his treasury. By the same token the Ottoman Sultan at Istanbul did not have much central control over Iraq due to communication difficulties at the time and as long as he also regularly received his annual share of taxes he left the governor to his own devices.

Needless to say this policy over four centuries contributed to much of the chaos and spread of tribal values in Iraq.

Travellers and pilgrims had to pay royalties to each tribe when passing through their territory. Merchants had to seek protection from local tribes to avoid being raided. Every now and then tribes would refuse to pay the governor and he would have to move armies to control them.

One governor, Hassan Pasha, was in constant war with tribes. Once he subjugated a tribe, another would immediately rebel against him. After he brutally repressed the Shammar and Bani Lam tribes in 1708, an alliance of several powerful Iraqi tribes including Shammar, Zubayd, Al-Khaza'il, and Al-Mayyah rebelled against him under the leadership of the Al-Muntafiq tribal confederation. A fierce battle was fought near Basrah in which cannons were used against the tribesmen killing thousands.

The Qajar dynasty took over Iran following a brief rule of Afghans who had overthrown the Safawid family. Nadir Shah shortly invaded Iraq in 1733 and besieged Baghdad plunging the country into even more chaos. Many tribes assisted Nadir in his campaign against the Ottomans especially the Shammar and at the same time ravaged most of the country.

After Nadir's army was defeated the new Ottoman governor Ahmed Pasha started another huge campaign to punish the defected tribes. He fought the Shammar, Zubayd, Bani Lam, and Qash'am. However when he was transferred by the Sultan to another province the mentioned tribes returned to their old ways. And in 1738 there was another rebellion in the south by Sa'dun, the Sheikh of Al-Muntafiq which lasted four years.

During the following decades there were several revolts by Iraqi tribes such as the Ubayd, Al-Khaza'il, and Al-Muntafiq, one which even succeeded in attaining brief independence from the Ottomans.

The Ottoman governors had realised by now that military campaigns alone were not successful in oppressing the tribes, therefore they resorted to the old 'divide and conquer' methods. They started appointing rival Sheikhs from other clans to the tribal confederations, starting with the Al-Khaza'il and Al-Muntafiq.

They also employed a 'stick and carrot' policy when dealing with tribal leaders. Obedient Sheikhs would have a handsome share of taxes and land privileges over neighbouring tribes in return for maintain order in their territories. Insurgent Sheikhs on the other hand would have to pay huge fines and in addition their land would be confiscated and handed to rival tribes.

At this point many of these tribes settled down, slowly started dropping their old Bedouin traditions and became 'ruralised'. The governors also introduced military conscription especially after the Ottomans had ended the domination of Jannissaries over the army. This was primarily to face the increasing threat of Wahhabi raids in southern Iraq.

In 1797 an army of Iraqi tribes armed with cannons and firearms led by Sheikh Thuwayni of Al-Muntafiq moved south against the Wahhabis after news of the fall of the Ahsa region in the hands of Abdul Aziz Bin Mohammed Bin Saud. Sheikh Thuwayni was assassinated by a slave who sympathised with the Wahhabis. He stabbed him in the chest with a dagger while shouting 'Allahu Akbar!'

As soon as the news spread among the Iraqi tribes they fled in panic and the Wahhabis looted the army. Another larger campaign followed the next year which was also met with failure, and the Baghdad governor was forced to sign a truce with Ibn Saud.

The truce didn't last long. A caravan of Wahhabis was passing by Najaf and they witnessed a Sheikh from Al-Khaza'il kissing the gates of the shrine of Imam Ali. This enraged the fundamental Wahhabis so they attacked and killed the Sheikh. After that Wahhabis continued to raid southern Iraqi villages slaughtering their inhabitants including the women and children.

During the Ghadeer day festivities in 1802 they attacked Karbala and plundered the shrines of Imam Hussein and Abbas, killing 5 thousand Iraqis. Four years later they tried to attack Najaf but it was defended by the tribes.

Wahhabi raids against the Iraqi south continued to be a problem for over a century until after the British occupation, when British aircraft started bombing the raiding tribes.

One interesting observation when studying the history of Iraqi tribes is that with the exception of a few tribes in the Ahsa region, almost all of the migrating Bedouin tribes to Iraq are Sunni. In the north all remain to be Sunni but when we start to move south to older tribes we notice mixed Sunni-Shia tribes such as the Janabiyeen, Tamim, Jubur, Azza, Ubayd, and Zubayd.

Further south into the mid-Euphrates area around Najaf and Diwaniyah and we find the tribes exclusively Shia. As we move a bit eastward to the Iranian border we find the tribes almost fanatical in their Shi'ism. A little more south to Basrah and we find some pockets of Sunni tribes until we reach close to the Kuwaiti borders where we find all are Sunni again.

A 19th century Iraqi Sunni cleric describes the widespread conversion of Iraqi tribes to Shi'ism and gives specific dates for the conversion of each.

According to him the Al-Khaza'il converted in the early 18th century, followed by Rubai'a, Zubayd, Tamim, and then the others. He attributes this to the 'propaganda of the insinuating satanic clerics' and 'the ignorance of Arab tribes in religious matters'. However, this also meant that Shia clerics and Sayyids throughout the rural south would also have power and influence over the tribes together with the traditional tribal Sheikhs.

We would witness later how the Shia clerics would implement this influence in the early 20th century against the British and the Iraqi monarchy.

Under the rule of powerful Ottoman governors such as Dawud Pasha and Midhat Pasha during the 19th century much of the power of Iraqi tribes had diminished due to the successful tribal policy of the governors. More and more tribes settled down and turned to agriculture instead of grazing.

Some tribal Sheikhs were educated in Istanbul and granted honorary titles such as Farhan Pasha, supreme Sheikh of Shammar, and Mansur Pasha Sheikh of Al-Muntafiq. Midhat Pasha introduced some reforms to the country and started some limited community services.

Most of the southern Iraqi cities were built in the second half of the 19th century such as Kut, Nasiriya, Ammara, Aziziya, and Nu'maniya.

The historical antagonism between state and tribes did not disappear though. Tribes still regarded the state with suspicion. For them the state was always a symbol of taxation, imprisonment, and conscription. Civil law was absent in the country except inside provincial centers such as Baghdad, Mosul, and Basrah. The rest of Iraq was ruled by tribal law or to be exact 'law of the jungle'.

Iraqis scorned people who turned to the government to guarantee their rights. An old Iraqi proverb says 'take your rights by the sword, only the weak need witnesses'.

The story was that two people had a dispute over a piece of land. One of them brought his tribesmen and took it over. This led the other to ask witnesses to testify against the aggressor, who mentioned the above proverb.

Iraqis therefore, regardless of their background, had to resort to tribal values in order to survive the chaotic situation. Towns were regarded as tribes, therefore when someone from Najaf killed a tribesman, the tribe would avenge the murdered by murdering another Najafi.

Different neighbourhoods in the same town would treat each other as tribes, and the same when dealing with other towns.

This introduced several layers of allegiance among Iraqis -- allegiance to one's tribe or clan, to one's sect or religion, to one's neighbourhood, and to one's town. 'Me and my brother against my cousin...' defines it all.

The same is true today among a large section of Iraqis. A unified sense of Iraqi nationality only emerged after WWI, but it has not succeeded in completely uniting the population, and remnants of the old allegiances still control the divided Iraqis.

Another important observation is that the population of Iraq at the start of the 20th century was less than 1.5 million. Only 25% of those were urban dwellers, the remaining 75% was composed of Bedouin and rural tribes. (Today, the urban population is about 60% of the 25 million Iraqis but with a large portion of it retaining its tribal identity.)

Plus the cities were constantly plagued with epidemics, famine, and floods, which had two main consequences: tribes moving into the cities to replace the perished population, and the spread of tribal values among the survivors due to raids from the opportunistic neighbouring tribes.

Several neighbourhoods today in Baghdad are named after tribes such as Al-Fadhl, Al-Mahdiya, Al-Shiyukh, Al-Ji'aiffer, Hay Al-Tikarta, Hay Al-Sawamra, Al-Duriyeen, and Al-Bu Shujaa'. The same applies to most Iraqi cities.

The tribes continued to wreak havoc throughout the country. Banditry and crime were considered to be very normal at that time. Outlaws were in fact respected and admired by most Iraqis. Some even used crime to achieve higher social status. For example it was not uncommon for outlaws to turn themselves in to the Ottoman gendarma since 'prison is for men' as the Iraqi proverb goes.

In a last attempt to cure this persistent disease, the Ottomans sent Nadhum Pasha in 1909 to govern all three provinces of Iraq (Mosul, Baghdad, and Basrah) granting him unprecedented authorities and funds to control the deteriorating security situation.

He started by ordering prominent clerics from both the Sunni and Shia sects to issue fatwas against ghazu (raiding) and inter-tribal violence stating that it was against Islam. He distributed strong military garrisons throughout the country. And he also invited tribal leaders from all over Iraq to a large military parade outside of Baghdad which seemed to have the desired effect on the Sheikhs.

For a couple of years there was stability in the country. Baghdadi families could now go out for walks at night, something which was regarded as foolish before. The mere mention of Nadhum's name was enough to instill fear in the heart of the most courageous of men.

When he was replaced with Jamal Pasha in 1911 however, the tribes returned to their fighting again.

Religious News


The Ottoman empire entered the war on the side of Germany in 1914 and as soon as the drums of war started beating in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities thousands of young men started leaving their daily jobs to hide away in the country and take refuge among Iraqi tribes.

Iraqis had experienced the brunt of Ottoman wars in the past, most notably in the 1877 Caucasus military campaigns against the Russians when ten thousand Iraqi conscripts died frozen and starved, and again in 1904 against Ibn Saud when thousands died lost in the desert. There was no reason to believe this war was any different.

Iraqi tribes sheltered thousands of refugees while attempting to mislead the government as much as they could. People who would assist the government in locating the deserters were regarded as 'spies' and 'government agents', and were scorned and often targeted. Protection of refugees (dakhala) is a sacred tradition for the tribal Sheikh. No matter what the position of the refugee (dakheel) he should be protected or disgrace would fall on the Sheikh.

For example, a tribesman once took refuge at the Sheikh of another tribe. He recognised the Sheikh as the father of his son's murderer so he decided to leave. When the Sheikh heard about this he rushed and killed his own son in order to avenge and satisfy his refugee so he would stay under his protection. The Sheikh lost a son but he preserved his 'honour'.

On many occasions, outlaws and individuals wanted by the government would take refuge at tribal Sheikhs and they would be safe. Since then, dakhilak (I'm your refugee) became a common expression used by Iraqis, when you plead a person for something you say dakhilak.

In 1915, the government started executing deserters publicly, and it arrested family members of others who were still in hiding until they turned themselves in. However, since corruption was widespread in Ottoman government offices, many escaped conscription by bribery. This habit would continue in the following decades especially during the 90's.

When Basrah was about to fall in the hands of the advancing British army, the government declared holy war on the infidels in a clever move to get the Shi'ite marji'iya to recruit Iraqi tribes to defend the country.

Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Kadhum Al-Yazdi, Najaf's most senior cleric at the time, issued fatwas calling Iraqis for Jihad. The Jihad movement was popular for a while and tens of thousands of tribesmen marched with clerics from all over the country to Basrah. Even Kurdish tribes and some from neighbouring Iran joined the movement.

The Turkish troops and the tribes scored limited victories at first, which appealed to the tribes and more undecided tribesmen joined the movement. Some British sources revealed that Indian Muslims who made the bulk of the British army refused to fight against the Arab tribes apparently affected by the Jihad movement.

The Sheikh of Bani Lam handed out rewards in gold to tribesmen in return for every head of a British or Indian soldier, which led the tribesmen to behead even the wounded soldiers for the gold.

The tribes remained dedicated to the Jihad cause until their defeat in the Shu'aiba battle outside of Basrah in which they sustained a heavy loss. They turned immediately against the Turks and started looting their camps and weapons. They went beyond that and robbed their own clerics to the astonishment of the British who could not understand this contradicting behaviour of Iraqi tribes.

The British advanced swiftly to Kut through Ammara and Nassiriya. Villages and tribes on the way raised white flags and banners. The tribes had abandoned the Jihad movement much to the dismay of the marji'iya in Najaf, while people spread ludicrous rumours about the incredible technology of the British and their advanced sciences and weaponry.

There was an insurrection against the Ottomans which was started by deserters in Najaf and Karbala and by the year 1916 the whole area of the mid-Euphrates was independent from the Turks. Government offices and army depots were ransacked, telegraph lines were sabotaged, revenge killings against Turkish officers skyrocketed, and tribal battles became part of everyday life.

Inside the cities clerics and neighbourhood leaders kept a relative degree of order but disputes over government property and clashes were still common and nobody dared leave their houses after dark. This anarchy which lasted well over 2 years resulted in tribalism strongly resurfacing again throughout the country, especially in the south.

The Turkish army retreated from Baghdad at night in March 10, 1917. Prisoners broke out from their jails and were the first to loot the markets. Baghdadis joined them and plundered government offices. The looting continued well through the night until 9 in the morning.

Never had Baghdad witnessed such a night probably since the plague in the early 19th century. Nothing was spared. Even bricks, windows, and wooden parts were taken out. Government buildings were all set to fire and documents were completely destroyed. It only ceased the next morning when the British marched into town and started shooting at the mob. Order only ensued after the British started hanging criminals and troublemakers in public squares.

The 1920 rebellion against the British started with two related events.

The borders between Iraq and Syria were not yet defined and the British had originally promised the Hashemite Sharif Hussein Bin Ali a united Arab state which included the whole Fertile Crescent and the Arabian peninsula in return for his support during WWI. Iraqi officers in the Turkish army joined the Sharif's movement and they were in Syria in 1920.

When an Arab state was formed in Syria headed by Prince Faisal (son of Sharif Hussein), one of the officers of the Arab army, Ramadan Shlash moved to Dayr Al-Zur and Al-Bu Kamal with the help of the Dulaym tribes and kicked out the small British force. Faisal was irritated by Ramadan's behaviour and replaced him with Mawlud Mukhlis (a Tikriti officer).

Mukhlis started spreading Arab nationalist independence ideas among the tribes and shortly later he was following the steps of his predecessor. The Dulaym tribes began raiding British convoys on the Baghdad-Mosul road encouraging other tribes to join the movement.

Jamil Al-Madfa'i (another Iraqi officer) took over Tala'far in the north with the help of Ajil Al-Yawar (Supreme Sheikh of Shammar and grandfather of Ghazi Al-Yawar) and the Juboor tribes. After that he started planning to retake Mosul from the British. The rebels were defeated outside of Mosul and the British chased them to the Turkish borders.

These limited victories had a significant effect on other tribes in the south and they realised that the British were not as omnipotent as they had believed.

The British arrested and exiled Sayyid Mohammed Ridha Al-Shirazi (son of the most senior Shi'ite cleric Grand Aytaollah Muhammed Taqi Al-Shirazi). Tensions were high and tribal Sheikhs were complaining from the strict rules enforced by the British.

Rising political parties in Baghdad introduced new terms unfamiliar to Iraqis such as 'independence, 'unity', 'Arabism. Anti-colonialist propaganda poured into Iraq from Syria, Turkey, and Iran. All the above led to the suitable conditions for the 1920 rebellion which lasted 4 months and united all Iraqis for the first time in history against the British.

The British modified their policy toward the Iraqi tribes after the rebellion. Before that they had assigned duties to several unpopular Sheikhs with no consideration to the traditional tribal leadership hierarchy. They also made it possible for small peasants to file complaints against their landlords most of whom were influential Sheikhs thus antagonising them.

At this point there was no true land ownership. The stronger Sheikhs controlled the best land and the tribesmen lived and worked on them. Ownership was communal and the land a tribe controlled today may be controlled by another the next day.

The new Iraqi government under King Faisal recognised the power of Iraqi tribes and came to realise that it could not function properly without co-opting them. "Regrettably, I can say there is no Iraqi people yet, but only deluded human groups void of any national idea," King Faisal wrote in a secret memo.

"Iraqis are not only disunited but evil-motivated, anarchy prone and always ready to prey on their government... The tribes have more power than the government, they own more than 100,000 rifles, while we own only 15,000..."

The 1924 Tribal Criminal Disputes Regulation granted Sheikhs increased authorities and it permitted independent tribal courts in rural parts of the country.

Another law in 1933 granted tribal Sheikhs huge estates and it legally bound the tribesmen to the land. This was the start of feudalism in Iraq. A new generation of wealthy and greedy Sheikhs replaced the old generous warriors, and many Sheikhs dropped their ancient traditions and began moving into cities.

The last major tribal rebellion against the government was in 1935-36 in the mid-Euphrates region south of Najaf. General Bakr Sidqi crushed the rebellion mercilessly and the tribes began to realise that the new Iraqi government was not the same as the Ottomans.

Inter-tribal clashes continued though. Ali Al-Wardi cites several of these during the last century.

In 1937 between the Izayrij and the Bazzun in Ammara over a land dispute, hundreds were killed on both sides and the government had to settle the dispute by a tribal court. They clashed again in 1946.

In 1941 between the Al-Bu Mohammed and the Al-Bu Ali over a few stolen buffalos and a dog that was killed by the other side. A hundred tribesmen were killed and 250 houses were looted and burnt.

In 1945 between Bani Assad and Al-Hassan in the marshes over a land dispute. In 1946 fierce fighting broke out between the Shammar and the Jihaish around Mosul. In 1952 between Al-Azza and the Ubayd and hostilities between the two tribes continue to this day.

In 1954 the Mayyah attacked and looted the town of Al-Hayy south of Kut because the town was expanding at the expense of the surrounding land which was owned by the tribe.

Hostilities between the Mi'dan Garamsha and Shaghamba tribes continue to this day and I recently witnessed one of their battles in Basrah a while ago.

Tribalism declined however during the monarchy (1921-1958), and with the exception of tribes in the southern and western deserts, most tribes were now well 'ruralised'. Sheikhs no longer held much power over their tribesmen because of feudalism and instead tribesmen started turning towards clerics.

'Cultural ambivalence' now prevailed among tribesmen. They were still proud of their old tribal traditions and attempted to act by them as much as possible, however the rule of law and the changing circumstances made it difficult.

The Bedouin tribesman scorns peasantry and instead lives on grazing and ghazu. This was no longer possible for the rural tribesman and his customs had to change as well. The Bedouin tribesman regards the government as his enemy and attempts to harm it whenever he can.

The rural tribesman acted the same at first but then under the pressure of government taxation and military conscription he had to act friendly and submissive to it.

A Bedouin might prefer death than submit to the government, however whenever the rural tribesman perceives weakness in the government he is the first to attack it thus acting by his inherited traditions. When faced with a strict government he starts to complain and whine showing a different aspect of his personality.

The 1958 republican regime delivered several blows to tribal Sheikhs starting with the abolishment of the aforementioned regulations and introducing land reforms. This resulted in an exodus of impoverished peasants from the country to the cities.

Tribes weakened and the cities became a melting pot for people from different tribal backgrounds. Large slums were created on the outskirts of Baghdad and several other cities (Al-Thawra or Sadr city is one example in Baghdad, and Hayyania in Basrah).

The immigrants brought their tribal customs with them. Political demonstrations were popular during the 50's and on many occasions these would serve as a pretext for anarchy and looting. Political parties acted as tribes and would often engage in revenge killings in the name of 'defending the nation' or 'fighting colonialist spies and enemies of the revolution'.

The Ba'ath party came to power in 1968 and it regarded tribalism as a major obstacle to reforms and modernisation. Radical agrarian reforms were introduced to the country. Estates owned by tribal Sheikhs were confiscated and limited.

Peasant associations were formed to reduce the influence of tribal Sheikhs and to undermine their historical position as intermediaries between the government and their tribesmen.

It was under Saddam Hussein however that tribalism resurfaced again starting from the mid-80's.

About 120 distinct tribes exist in Iraq today, and a total of about 2000 clans.

The smallest tribal unit is the bayt (house or family). Several houses make up a fukhth (clan). And a number of clans make the 'asheera (tribe). A tribal confederation or the qabeela consists of a number of tribes sharing a common ancestor.

Most tribes in Iraq are related to each other, and several fukhths have grown into separate tribes with their own leaderships.

A number of tribes have both Sunni and Shi'ite branches and extend over different parts of the country.

Over 80% of Iraqis can trace back their tribal origins although many of them may not be properly associated with their tribes.

For example, my family has lived in Baghdad for over 200 years with no contact whatsoever with our tribe, but during the 90's when tribal affiliation became important again due to the resurgence of tribalism we reestablished contact with our supreme Sheikh and pledged allegiance to him in return for his protection and my uncle was assigned as head of our clan.

The largest tribal confederations in Iraq are: Shammar, Al-Dulaym, Al-Muntafiq, Anniza, Al-Azza, Al-Juboor, Al-Ubayd, Al-Zubayd, Al-Bu Lam, Al-Bu Mohammed, Rubai'a, Ka'ab, and Al-Khaza'il.

Some tribal groups associate themselves with the area they live in such as: Al-Tikarta, Al-Duriyeen, Al-Suwamra, Al-Fallujiyeen, and the tribes that live in Rawa, Aana, Al-Qaim, and Haditha.

Bedouin tribes that continue to live in the desert are: Anniza, Al-Dhufair, Shammar, Al-Hassan, Al-Ghalal, and Al-Umtayr.

*About me

My name is Zeyad. I was born from Sunni Muslim parents in Baghdad, Iraq 1979. Shortly after which my parents left for the UK to pursue their Masters studies. I was raised in Colchester, Essex and also lived in both London and Bournemouth. We all returned to Iraq in 1987. I was privileged to study at the Baghdad College high school which was originally built by American Jesuits in 1931 and is still to this day considered the best in Iraq. I originally intended to major in computer engineering, my parents wanted me to study medicine, but I settled on dentistry. I graduated from Dentistry College at Baghdad University recently, and I'm presently in the second year of my postgraduate residency period after which I'm planning to study for a M.Sc. degree in the UK, US, or Canada if I have a chance to do so. My hobbies include reading, PC and console gaming, watching movies, and most recently blogging!

I got interested in weblogs a couple of months before the war when I accidently stumbled on Where is Raed by Salam Pax. I was impressed, then I discovered other blogs and got hooked to this new medium of interaction with the world. After the war other Iraqis joined the scene such as Riverbend which had quite an impact on me. I had become frustrated with the negative media coverage from Iraq so I decided to start a blog myself to present the positive side which was not getting enough attention. I wrote to Salam and Jeff Jarvis and they offered encouragement, support, and advice. And thats how I basically started. I was the first Iraqi blogger to open a comments section on the blog thus facilitating and encouraging communication and exchange of ideas. I also took it upon myself to get other Iraqis to blog in which I succeeded to some degree. And it has been quite a pleasure to watch those other bloggers become well known names in the blogosphere. Our collective voice and efforts are reaching wider audiences day by day exposing them to the situation on the ground by people whose lives are involved and directly affected by it. We are intent on healing iraq from decades of abuse and to make it through these difficult times into a new phase of democracy, freedom, and prosperity.

Visit Zeyad's blog at www.healingiraq.com.


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