Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Tribalism in Iraqi Politics: Between Nationalism and the Sect

Tribalism in Iraqi Politics serves as a social control mechanism, ensuring its members' internal security and still maintains Iraq as a nation.

Tribalism in Iraqi Politics
Iraqi tribal leaders attend an electoral rally in the capital Baghdad, on June 26, 2021. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/ AFP

Hussein Ali Alzoubi

Tribalism has played a crucial role in shaping Iraq’s political landscape for centuries. Despite criticism, tribal dynamics have played a significant role in maintaining Iraq as a nation, regardless of the different views on nationalism that come with a diversity of sects and ethnicities.

According to Hudhaifa al-Mashhadani, a researcher in Iraqi affairs, tribalism has been governing Iraq and continues to do so.

In his interview with Fanack, al-Mashhadani referred to the current government’s composition in Iraq and emphasised that the country’s political landscape is predominantly tribal.

For example, he pointed out the prominent role of the al-Dulaim tribe, found in significant numbers in the western governorates. Muhammad al-Halbousi al-Dulaimi, the president of parliament, and three ministers in Iraq’s current government belong to this tribe. Additionally, several other administrative positions, including the governor of Anbar, deputy ministers and general directors, are filled by its members.

Al-Mashhadani also mentioned the Jabbour tribe, which has considerable influence in Iraq. It has numerous members in parliament and governors in key regions such as Mosul, Kirkuk and Salah al-Din. The Jabbour tribe is also well-represented in ministerial positions, with two ministers currently serving in the government.

In the areas north of Baghdad, the competition for parliamentary representation is typically limited to two main tribes, the al-Dulaim and the al-Mashahda tribes. Both usually secure two parliamentary seats. On the other hand, about 20 per cent of the votes go to independent candidates in the region.

Al-Mashhadani’s observations apply not only to the Sunni regions but also encompass the tribes in the central and southern areas of Iraq, which are predominantly Shiite. He believes that despite the prominence of parties in politics, true power lies within the tribes. Tribal sheikhs and dignitaries typically play a pivotal role in guiding voters’ decisions.

What is a tribe?

A commonly used definition of a tribe is a “group of people united by actual or perceived kinship and descent.” Even when the exact lineage is unknown, tribal members gather around the founding member or first ancestor. Kinship ties may also be symbolic, using a common ancestor as a symbol of unity.

Some definitions describe the tribe as a form of social contract, determining rights and duties, akin to an agreement between the ruler and the ruled or the government and the people. In the case of a tribe, the social contract is more coercive. People do not have the choice to belong to a particular tribe; rather, they are born into a specific family that belongs to a tribe and bear its name involuntarily.

In his book Ethnology: A Study of Primitive Societies, researcher Mohamed al-Khateeb argues that the tribe is a social unit seen as an extension of the family. He highlights that the tribe is characterised by a distinct kinship hierarchy corresponding to a specific residential system, making it a spatial unit.

Members of the same tribe believe in a common ancestor who founded the tribe, sometimes depicted as a legendary figure. Al-Khateeb believes that the tribe is a social unit marked by cohesion and social cooperation, leading to an intense feeling of security and stability for its members. The sense of solidarity is stronger than within a single family because the tribe is larger and more powerful.

Tribalism in Iraq

The current Iraqi constitution directly addresses tribes. The second paragraph of Article 45 of the Constitution states, “The State shall seek the advancement of the Iraqi clans and tribes, shall tend to their affairs in a manner that is consistent with religion and the law, and shall uphold their noble human values in a way that contributes to the development of society. The State shall prohibit the tribal traditions that are incompatible with human rights.”

The tribes’ relations with authorities date back to the late Ottoman era and the rule of Midhat Pasha as governor of Iraq. He granted the tribal sheikhs a distinguished economic status by granting them large fiefdoms called Emiri lands. This decision strengthened the influence of tribal sheikhs and made tribal members their serfs. Midhat Pasha’s aimed to gain the support of tribal sheikhs so they, in turn, would provide him with troops for his military campaigns against regions such as al-Ahsa and other areas now constituting the Gulf states.

In 1916, the British enacted the tribal disputes regulation, which aimed to regulate disputes between tribes according to their customs and traditions. It allowed sheikhs to settle civil and criminal cases between tribal members.

Under Mindhat Pasha, changes in Ottoman policy, such as the imposition of taxes on tribes, began and led to disturbances in the relationship with the Ottoman Empire. The British followed a similar path, which contributed to the outbreak of the 1920 revolution.

During the formation of the Iraqi nation, the state tried to strengthen the official and legal administration, according to the writer Jassim al-Shammari. The fledgling state abandoned official titles, as it believed these to be incompatible with the concepts of citizenship and national identity and might, therefore, lead to a social rift.

The Tribe, the State, and the Sect

According to writer Ghani Nasir al-Quraishi’s book Social Control, the tribe serves as a social control mechanism, ensuring its members’ internal security. This is achieved through the tribe sheikh and his aides, who oversee the enforcement of traditional laws and customs and punish those in violation.

Ideally, the state and its legal bodies should provide what the tribe provides for its members for all citizens through the fair enforcement of laws applicable to all in society. However, as state institutions, especially the judiciary, weaken, the tribe’s role tends to increase and become more influential. Consequently, some consider the tribe a primitive structure that hinders the full realisation of citizenship.

Al-Mashhadani concurs with this idea without attributing solely negative aspects to the tribe. He views the tribe as a system that safeguards society during times of state institutions’ collapse. He emphasises, “The vast majority of Iraq’s population belongs to various tribes, including Arab, Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish and Turkmen.”

He adds, “The tribes played a crucial role in forming the Iraqi state, bringing King Faisal I to power; laying the foundations of the state; forming the Senate, primarily composed of tribal sheikhs and clerics; and establishing the Iraqi army.”

Despite the apparent sectarian divisions in Iraq, al-Mashhadani stresses that Iraqi society is closely tied to the tribal system. He points out that most of the tribes in Iraq comprise both Shiites and Sunnis. He also believes that the sectarian conflict in the country was fueled by “Iranian intelligence efforts.”

Al-Mashhadani referred to the resistance against US troops in Najaf and Fallujah, in which Sunni, Shiite and Christian people fought together.

“In 2004, when Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces were besieged in Najaf, he sought help from the Shiite Marja’ Grand Ayatollah Sistani, but it was not provided. Instead, fighters from the Iraqi army stationed in the Sunni city of Fallujah responded. These fighters represented various components of Iraqi society. When al-Sadr got injured in these clashes, he was taken to the Sunni city of Jurf al-Sakhar for treatment.”

According to al-Mashhadani, the situation persisted until the bombing of the al-Askari Shrine in Samarra in 2006: “This event marked a significant turning point in the Iraqi landscape and led to a division in Iraqi society.”

Al-Mashhadani believes that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Iranian Quds Force, were responsible for instigating sectarian violence by providing support to the Shiite militias led by Qais al-Khazali and Ahmed Al-Khafaji. This support continued until 2010 when public awareness concerning the severity of sectarian division grew.

The efforts of Iraqi patriots, tribal reconciliation and the impact of social media in raising awareness and knowledge all played significant roles in this process. The outreach exercise positively impacted that year’s legislative elections. The Iraqi National Coalition, comprising Sunni and Shiite representatives, won most seats and surpassed other coalitions with sectarian agendas.

The state of awareness persisted until the rise of the Islamic State, which reignited sectarian tensions. However, the Iraqi people were able to overcome the divide during the October Revolution in 2019, led by the youth, which aimed to transcend sectarianism in the country.

Al-Mashhadani concludes, “The Iraqi people’s inability to achieve a true state lies not with the tribes, as they were instrumental in the state’s establishment. The real problem lies with militias that impose de facto authority through force and follow orders from external sources. These militias prioritise religious loyalty over national loyalty, and their sectarian ideology opposes the concept of a unified homeland.”

Fanack Water Palestine