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Can Iraq curb tribal disputes?

Tribal conflicts in Iraq are complicating the struggle against the Islamic State, threatening to thin the central government's security capacities.

BABIL, Iraq — Tribal struggles are weakening Iraq's efforts to battle the Islamic State, which has occupied large parts of the country since June 2014.

It seems Iraqis, who often complained that former President Saddam Hussein’s regime involved them in absurd wars, are now fighting each other while still engaged in complex and costly battles against IS. The disputes are widespread and deadly. Some examples from 2015 alone include:

  • In February, a financial dispute between the Batbout and al-Hamadaneh tribes triggered a conflict in Basra that left one citizen dead and two injured.
  • In March, battles between the tribes of al-Fartous and al-Bu Ali in southern Iraq killed nine people and wounded 30 others, including women and children. This bloody conflict was fueled by disputes over financial issues and land.
  • In September, four people were killed or injured in armed tribal clashes in Abu Saida in Diyala province.
  • In October, an armed clash between the Dabbat and Miryan tribes took place in eastern Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar province, killing or wounding four people, including a woman.
  • A December tribal conflict erupted in Sayyed Dakhil in Dhi Qar province in southern Iraq over honor killings.

Tribal clashes in Iraqi society are nothing new. They posed a significant problem during the Ottoman Empire, the British colonial period and the kingdom of Iraq created in 1921. With time, the state grew stronger than the tribal system and subdued its internal conflicts. The leaders of the 1958 revolution adopted strategies designed to promote civil society in the country and limit the role of tribes in the state. The modern Iraqi state involved the tribes in political decision-making.

Yet when the state's power began to weaken under Saddam's regime, he turned to the tribes, arming them to strengthen his rule in an example of how Iraqi rulers’ interest in the tribes has allowed the tribes to also develop political influence.

Qahtan Hussein Taher, an academic researcher at the Mustaqbal Center for Strategic Studies, published a study Dec. 24 examining the role of Iraqi tribes in building a modern state. He wrote, “The Iraqi state has invested in the tribes in a pragmatic way, which has weakened [the role of] government institutions.”

Tribal influence grows stronger when the state is weak. Social researcher Qasim Mohammed told Al-Monitor, “This influence increased [even more] following 2003, when the Saddam regime fell, and the tribes have managed many government departments by virtue of the ties that government officials running these departments have with the tribes.”

He added, “The tribes were also involved in corrupt deals, and some have interfered to resolve political disputes and protect officials suspected of unlawful activities by helping to halt legal proceedings against them through tribal settlements and the payment of compensation and blood money.”

Tribal communities have their own laws derived from their customs. These tribes developed into social authorities and are effective in resolving many of their internal conflicts. But conflicts between tribes are particularly dangerous these days, while security forces are busy battling IS.

In an attempt to limit tribal conflicts, Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi visited Basra on June 8, calling for tribes to be disarmed. He said, "These conflicts deliver negative messages that serve the enemies, at a time when Iraq is engaged in a war against terrorism.”

As Ammar al-Hakim, leader of Iraq's Shiite Muslim Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, said in March, “He who points his weapon at his brother is supporting terrorism and IS."

However, Mohammed Sayhood, a member of the parliament's Tribal Affairs Committee, told Al-Monitor, “The calls for disarmament have never succeeded as the tribes have never responded, since they view arms as a guarantee they will be able to defend themselves in the event of any armed clashes.”

Sayhood added, “The acquisition of weapons is not new. Rather, it is a part of ancient social customs and traditions in which the tribe brags about the many and diverse arms its members have.”

The failure to disarm the tribes has prompted parliament member Ahmed al-Badri of the National Alliance to call on influential religious authorities "to take part in defusing tribal battles and to persuade them to give up their weapons."

Badri told Al-Monitor, “Civil society organizations should launch voluntary awareness campaigns to educate against tribal violence and internal conflicts.”

Regarding this suggestion, Majid Alklipy, a leader from the al-Klipy tribe in Babil, told Al-Monitor, “Some tribes have laid the foundations for serious attempts to stop the conflicts by adopting codes of conduct in which the tribes are committed to using dialogue instead of fighting, and to resort to the judiciary and state institutions to resolve their differences.”

But Abdul-Hussein al-Khafaji, a tribal sheikh in Babil province, pointed out, “All of those agreements and codes that Alklipy was talking about will be in vain once a tribal conflict is ignited.”

Given that the tribal problem is correlated to today's political and security situation, many experts advise that the only way to curb tribal and zonal conflicts is for parliament members, state officials and other politicians to put aside their tribal and sectarian affiliations, promote social awareness of a national identity instead of tribal and sectarian identities and abide by the law.

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