Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Iraq's tribal society: A state within a state (part three)

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 much 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, and 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 attaing 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 maintaing 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 over it, 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 it 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.

to be continued...


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