Friday, June 18, 2004

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

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 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. But that subject will be discussed in a further post of its own since it has so many parallels with the current situation.

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 authorites 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 on 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, and 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. That will be the subject of the next and final installment.

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 seperate 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.

I searched for an accurate map of Iraqi tribes on the web but I couldn't find any good ones, so I compiled a basic colour-coded map with a legend which should give a general idea on the locations of these tribes.