The tribes' role in Iraq

Juan Cole discusses an article in Al Hayat which reports that Grand Ayatollah Sistani has reached out to tribal leaders in his bid for direct elections in Iraq:
...Sistani held a meeting in Najaf at which he encouraged visiting clan ("tribal") leaders of Rumaitha and Samawah (az-Zaman adds other middle Euphrates areas) to insist on general elections as a means of achieving a new, sovereign Iraqi government. He promised the sheikhs of that region that they would exercise power, not "those who came from abroad."
This is very interesting. The US and Britain have been doing the same thing for a while now:
US authorities are reaching out to Iraqi tribal leaders after a critical internal study that blames American tactics for alienating thousands of potential supporters.

In response, occupation authorities have started a "reconciliation strategy" aimed at courting leaders of Sunni tribes through money and political favours, according to US military and civilian officials.

Some of the study's other recommendations are still under consideration, including establishing a tribal affairs office, posting liaison officers with major tribes, and recruiting new Iraqi civil defence units along tribal lines.
- The Age, 16 Jan. 2004;

While the unloved Iraqi provisional governing council is still haggling over ministerial positions, the country's tribal sheikhs are once again in the background pulling the strings.

Up until 1958, Iraq's royal house knew to never to underestimate tribal leaders. When Saddam Hussein became president, he humbled the sheikhs only to later throw money at them to win their loyalty.

The US military too has learned how useful sheikhs can be in keeping law and order. They could fill a power vacuum created by the situation in which the Iraqi army has been disbanded but where there are not enough US troops or new Iraqi security forces.
- DPA, 30 Aug. 2003;

In overcoming the resistance of Iraqi paramilitary forces and in locating their positions in cities, the U.S. war planners say they have benefited from the cooperation of tribal leaders.

The tribal leaders are also likely to exercise considerable influence in shaping the post-war order in Iraq. In ensuring the safety and security of Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. forces need to hold on to their support even as it manages the many contradictions among the tribes.
- The Hindu, 4 Apr. 2003;

No one dares to challenge the threat to the emerging institutions of Iraq. Instead, the power of the tribes is being reinforced and legitimised. On this day, a handful of important visitors make their way to Mr Ghazi's tent: two British representatives from the provisional administration, and Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a physician who returned from London to become a member of the Iraqi governing council. "The centre has no influence, not compared to the previous regime, so we are trying to give them that sense that there is a government," Mr Rubaie says. "What I came here for first is to show that the IGC cares."

What he came for second was to formalise a tribal role in the police force, or at least extract a promise from the tribes to obey the law. Mr Ghazi is unimpressed. "We, we will keep order and security in our region," he says, and dismisses the IGC. "We have no need for them. They have need for us."

"It will not be a society of institutions because the Americans are allowing tribalism and religious extremists to take part in this society, so of course it will affect the future," he says. "If the forces of modernity retreat in the face of tribalism, it will create another dictator, another Saddam."
- The Guardian, 4 Oct. 2003
So: We now have a situation in which Sistani, apparently at odds with the US over elections for a national government, is reaching out to potential allies which the US has been cultivating since the war began. I'm not sure that the US will be very happy to see Sistani horning in on its action (or to see him invoke revolutionary images in doing so). The game, as Dr. Cole noted, is certainly afoot.

A welding together of religious law at the national level (which seems to be the way things are going, if the new discriminatory laws against women are any indication) with tribal politics should not make one confident about the future of democracy in Iraq. Progressive types, largely based in the cities, will be squeezed out by urban-based fundamentalists, on the one hand, and rural-based tribal politics, on the other. I have pointed out several times already the dangers of the US encouraging tribalism in Iraq. The US can't ignore the tribes, but the more it works with and hands over responsibilities to them, the more difficult it will be to prevent them from dominating whatever political system is set up (as is the case in neighboring Jordan).

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