When anti-government protests turned deadly in the southern city of Nassiriya in Iraq where the security forces had shot dead some two dozen protesters last month, local tribes stepped in to try to stop what could have turned into carnage.
Local tribal sheikhs were quick to move to calm and secure Nassiriya and prevent the sprawling city falling into chaos. Tribal fighters were also sent to secure a prison that hosts thousands of Islamic State (IS) inmates amid the chaos in southern Iraq.
The brutal crackdown by the security forces against unarmed protesters in Nassiriya stirred a wider backlash and prompted more people to join them as they blockaded main streets and bridges, virtually bringing the city to a standstill.
The tribal intervention in Nassiriya was largely due to the excessive force used by troops sent by the government in Baghdad, who used live ammunition and sound bombs to quell the protests. Videos on social networks showed horrific scenes as the security forces resorted to lethal force to disperse the peaceful protesters.
In Basra, Najaf, Karbala and other cities in southern Iraq, tribal leaders interfered to separate protesters and security forces and worked hard to stop similar bloodshed.
While the tribal chieftains condemned unruly acts by the protesters such as arson, they also demanded that the security forces and militia leaders responsible for the killings of the protesters be held accountable.
The tribal intervention has added a new dimension to the standoff, which now looms as the most serious Iraq has faced in the post-US invasion era. Most Iraqis are either members or close associates of one of the country’s tribes, which wield considerable influence and power.
In recent years, tribal leaders in Iraq have grabbed significant powers from the central government and local authorities in important domains such as policing and arbitration in the face of the deterioration in security and increasing political and sectarian conflicts.
As the authorities lose their grip on society, local tribes, sub-tribes and clans have been gaining the upper hand, especially in the country’s rural areas and sometimes engaging in clashes with government security forces.
In July, two family members of the director of the Iraqi civil defence, Kadhum Salman Buhan, were killed in tribal clashes in Fudhaliyah, a suburb southeast of Baghdad.
Iraqi media reported that Buhan’s son Qais and his nephew Omar Ali Salman had been killed by members of a rival tribe who had attacked their house with machine guns and mortars.
Clashes between the two tribes in the last two years over personal matters have left many people dead or injured.
In Simawa, southern Iraqi tribe members took a soldier from an elite police unit hostage in August after the force tried to stop the tribe from firing in the air at a funeral.
A video of the arrest showed stunning scenes of humiliation.
All over southern and central Iraq anecdotes of tribes struggling to find a place in the national hierarchy abound. They usually wrestle the militia groups over power and influence at local levels.
Even before the current protests started in October, skirmishes, friction and even clashes between tribes and Shia militias were routine. In many cases, the tribes were fighting back against militias accused of engaging in criminal activities in their neighbourhoods or targeting tribal members.
Since the uprising began, some of these tribes have been showing support for the protests with members sometimes playing a key role in shaping the uprising’s discourse, tactics and logistics.
Historically, the tribes in Iraq are regional power-holders, and tribal chiefs are often respected members of local communities. They continue to represent a major component of the social structure and at times even appear stronger than the state.
The US-led invasion in 2003 and the ouster of the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein provided fertile ground for the growth of tribalism and aggravated contests for control of the country and its political organisations.
On community levels in major cities including the capital Baghdad the tribes have been building vast power bases through exercising an increasing role in resolving neighbourhood and communal problems.
Tribal arbitration sessions are now the norm in dealing with criminal, family and commercial disputes. Tribal tribunals are resolving cases such as marital problems, personal disputes, car accidents, children’s brawls and doctors’ medical mistakes.
The tribunals usually impose huge financial penalties, but in some cases the victims are rewarded with women in line with some tribal codes. The settlements are usually guaranteed by tribal conflict-resolution traditions and a powerful governance system.
Such tribal practices in Iraq are becoming so common that people now often turn to tribal courts even to solve small problems, severely undermining the state legal system and police and court work.
For example, teachers may face tribal courts for failing students in school exams. Iraqi doctors are reportedly leaving their jobs or seeking exile abroad because they have been sought by tribes for making medical mistakes.
Many communities and neighbourhoods have fallen entirely under the tribes’ control, with clansmen imposing their own rules under the noses of the local authorities.
Government institutions and the security forces have been infiltrated by tribal traditions as members of state authorities resort to tribal courts to resolve disputes instead of by-laws and disciplinary tribunals.
It is believed that a weakened state and lax laws in the post-Saddam era have contributed to such tribal behaviour, undermining the government’s control and state re-building and development efforts in Iraq.
Putting the phenomenon into a broader perspective, Iraq’s tribes have assumed a bigger role in societal and political issues since the US-led invasion in 2003, including by filling the security void and complementing state institutions.
In its efforts to buy support from local communities and quench resistance, the US Occupation Authority in Iraq resorted to bribery through funnelling money and government contracts to companies tied to tribal leaders.
In many cases, the US Authority collaborated with tribal leaders by building a corrupt patronage network that allowed the tribes to supervise recruitment to the civil service, police and armed forces, all of which were reconstructed after the invasion.
The main Shia political parties empowered by the US occupation also used the Shia tribes in southern and central Iraq by courting their leaders as potential allies and seeking to control blocks of votes by invoking tribal loyalties.
One of the consequences of the invasion was to transform the Iraqi tribes from local communities brought under the government’s control by the Saddam regime into well-oiled political machines that have free rein within their territories.
But while the Sunni tribes remain largely preoccupied with their community’s political and defence initiatives to ensure equal participation and partnership, the Shia tribes remain focused on winning more patronage and seeking more power within the complex governance system in Iraq.
Today, the Shia tribes in southern and central Iraq remain a human reservoir for the government bureaucracy, the ruling political groups, the armed forces and the powerful militias that form the backbone of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF).
As was demonstrated by their role in the protests in many southern provinces, the Shia tribes are expected to entrench themselves further in the country’s political system and to seek to build power and influence in order to stay as a wild card in the country’s politics.
In essence, the Shia tribes envision a role for themselves that is bigger than being merely one institution within Iraq’s civil society or a non-state actor in conflict resolution and instead becoming partners in government and beyond.
But as Iraq’s future remains uncertain as the protests continue in the streets, the resurgence of tribalism and the efforts by the larger tribes to secure more autonomy from the state could lead to further chaos in Iraq’s fragile political system.
While such tribal intervention looks on the surface to be an attempt to help Iraq through this period of turmoil, there are increasing fears that it could provide the tribal sheikhs with an opportunity to trade the protesters’ demands for political influence.
One of the main concerns about the rise of the clans and the strengthening of their informal role in Iraq’s politics is the disruption of the state apparatus that it will lead to and the increasing tribalisation of Iraqi society.
Contrary to the major goal of the ongoing uprising, which is to revive Iraqi nationalism and fight sectarianism, this would weaken common citizenship and encourage identity politics and thus threaten national unity.
The risk of further undermining the state could potentially be avoided if the uprising succeeds in achieving its other key goal of ousting the post-Saddam order and replacing it with a civic state based on equal citizenship, however.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.