The tribal system is Iraq’s key asset in the fight against ISIL
In early October, ISIL militants tried to storm the Iraqi town of Dhuluiya, about 80 kilometres north of Baghdad. They were repelled by an unusual coalition: Sunni fighters from the Jubouri tribe working with Iraqi security forces and Shiite tribal fighters from the nearby town of Balad. In western Iraq, Sunni tribes recently fought alongside government troops in Haditha to protect a strategic dam on the Euphrates.
After a decade of sectarian animosity, tribal leaders in most Sunni areas of Iraq are reluctant to trust the central Shiite-led government in Baghdad. These Iraqis have bitter memories of the Sunni Awakening, a tribal movement recruited by US troops in 2006-07 to fight against Al Qaeda, who were later arrested by Nouri Al Maliki’s government.
But the alliances that have emerged in recent weeks are the best hope for a revival of a Sunni tribal coalition to counter ISIL. American-led airstrikes and Iraqi military operations will not be enough to dislodge militants. The Iraqi government must convince Sunni tribes to turn against ISIL.
After meeting Iraqi leaders earlier this month, retired US Gen John R Allen, the special envoy to the coalition fighting ISIL, emphasised the importance of outreach to the tribes. “The Iraqis are taking stock,” he said, “of the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces on the ground, how they can marry up with the tribes, and how they can create opportunities for cooperation.”
Iraq’s tribes have a far deeper history than their role during the Sunni Awakening. The tribes predate the nation-state by centuries. They range in size from the larger confederations to units of several clans.
Politically, the tribe is a form of identity that cuts across lines of sect, ethnicity, geography and class: many of the larger tribes in Iraq have Sunni and Shiite branches. By some estimates, about three-quarters of Iraq’s population since the US invasion either belonged to a tribe or were affiliated to one by kinship ties. This made the tribes an important form of social organisation that existed parallel to sectarian identity.
To understand the role of tribes in Iraq, it helps to look at wider Arab history. The 14th century North African scholar Ibn Khaldun is often referred to as the father of modern social science. In his groundbreaking work, The Muqaddimah, he described human civilisation as divided between two camps: nomadic and sedentary. He argued that most civilisations begin as nomads. But eventually, humans succumb to the temptations of sedentary life, until finally a new band of nomads invades the settlements and destroys them. And the cycle begins once again. Ibn Khaldun particularly admired the Bedouin tribes of Arabia for their central value of asabiyah, a sense of solidarity, which gives them an edge over their sedentary brethren.
In the 1960s, the prominent Iraqi sociologist Ali Al Wardi updated Ibn Khaldun’s central thesis and used it to examine modern Iraq. Wardi believed that Iraqi society was defined by the struggle between two opposing tendencies: hadarah or sedentary civilisation, and badawah, or nomadism. But instead of existing within different camps, Wardi argued that this struggle was internalised within the Iraqi character, as a form of schizophrenia, or psychological struggle.
Hanna Batatu, an eminent historian of modern Iraq, argued that during times of peace and stability, the tribes receded in importance. Civic institutions and urban social networks increased in strength. But in times of war and dissolution, the tribes assumed a greater role.
When Saddam Hussein first rose to power in 1970, he viewed the tribal sheikhs as a threat. But during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, he began to appreciate their usefulness. Soldiers who deserted the army would often return to their tribal areas to hide among their kinsmen. Saddam co-opted the tribal sheikhs by paying them lavishly to turn in deserters and provide conscripts for the war. He jailed and replaced those who refused.
Under the Baathist regime, the tribes began a resurgence. As the country’s justice system deteriorated and rule of law disappeared, Iraqis returned to tribal law instead of the increasingly corrupt state structures whenever they had a dispute.
After the 2003 US invasion, the increasing lawlessness of the country forced even more Iraqis to turn to tribal leaders and law. Today, the tribes are the best hope for saving Iraq from ISIL and another round of sectarian violence.
Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday
On Twitter: @BazziNYU
Updated: October 15, 2014 04:00 AM