There has been extensive speculation among government analysts and academics over the role and relevance of tribalism in modern Iraqi politics and decision-making. Little information is available on who the prominent tribal leaders are and how they view Saddam and prospects for political succession in Iraq. Many Iraqi military officers and intelligence and security service officials are recruited from prominent tribes because of their links to President Saddam Hussein's family, clan and tribe. Their selection also presumes their adherence to traditional values of loyalty, honor and courage - characteristics of the "tribe" historically and of high value to Saddam personally. This essay does not predict whether an opponent to Saddam will emerge from the shadows of the "tribe." It raises the questions: Can an opponent rise from its ranks, and what kind of factors might shape his thinking?
As in most Arab countries of the Middle East created by the mandates of World War I, Iraq's people have long been defined by their asabiya, their loyalties to tribe, clan and family.1 These loyalties continue, in many instances, to supersede those created by the nationalisms of the twentieth century, even those created by Saddam Hussein. Saddam tried to erase tribal culture and influence and bind all of Iraq's diverse groups into one new culture by creating a new Iraqi identity- an identity shaped by Iraq's 6,000-year-old culture and traditions, a loyalty that owes all status, benefits and achievement to Saddam alone.2 Tribal ties, however, brought Saddam to power: he was a cousin of President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr as well as the chief enforcer of the Baath party's security force. For Saddam, tribal values and loyalties as well as Baathist ideology and Arab nationalism were intended to enforce pride in his and the country's uniqueness. More important, they gave the Iraqi leader tools to reinforce his own power and control.
IN THE BEGINNING
Iraq has long been controlled by powerful tribal confederations. In the early twentieth century, when the Turks ruled the three provinces that became modern Iraq (Mosul, Baghdad and Basra), large confederations and extended families dominated the region. Unlike Palestinian and Lebanese Arabs when dispossessed of their patriarchal homes, Iraq's tribes lacked links to the land and settled villages until modern times. More important than fealty to land and village were loyalties to family, clan and tribe. Devotion to personal honor, factionalism and intense individualism - characteristics of the tribe and of those who resist central authority - are described by one prominent historian of ancient and modern Iraq as legacies of tribalism.3
Ibn Khaldun, the thirteenth-century Arab historian, defined a tribe as a self-contained and autonomous organization having social, economic, cultural, protective and political functions. Tribes existed separate from cities and civilization, while cities absorbed and conquered the tribes. Through the long period of Turkish rule, tribes in Iraq were mobile mini-states, headed by a patriarch, with their own military force and codes of justice and retribution. The tribe derived its livelihood from herding animals, trade, raiding and collecting tribute. The tribe's existence depended on intertribal wars, government campaigns to control them, and the mercy of nature. The Ottomans (who ruled Iraq's three provinces from the fifteenth century to 1914) and the British (who ruled Iraq as a colonial power 1914-20, then as a mandate power until World War II and as a colonial influence until the 1958 revolution) tried to break the power of the tribal warlords but failed.
• The Ottoman Turks and the British tried to introduce central administration and communications, as well as land-tenure reform. Tribes were encouraged to settle in towns, and the large confederations lost some of their identity as military alliances. They became involved in squabbles over land and water rights. Tribal chiefs became tax farmers and agents of the state, not the tribe.
• Tribes as self-contained social units disappeared except at the local or community level, where tribalism survived, based on intermarriage, common lineage, collective economic interests, social support structures and/or common residence. While most tribal units claim to trace their roots to a common ancestor or family, a modern Iraqi sociologist and specialist on Iraqi tribalism, Faleh Abu Jabar, claims that tribes in contemporary Iraq are also formed by disparate urban groups of individuals sharing common needs.4 Abu Jabar defines three types of modern tribes:
• Statist tribes: Tribal lineages, symbols and culture are integrated into the state to enhance the status, legitimacy and power of the ruling elite. In Iraq, this has focused on prehistoric myths and on the Arab and Sunni clans and tribes related to Saddam.
• Social tribes: The state, which has lost power to govern a modern urban society, gives over a degree of power and authority to local tribes. The tribes resume their tribute collecting and judicial powers. The tribes become an extension of the state itself. Saddam's tribal policy of the 1990s fits this category.
• Military-ideological tribalism: Kurdish and Shia tribal groups mobilized in the 1990s to confront an external threat, in this case Baghdad. Before that, ethnic and tribal loyalties were important to Iraq's Shia Arab tribes; they fought fierce battles against the Iranians in Qurna and the marshes 1982-85. The Kurds have long honored tribal and family ties. Military tribalism pervades their sense of loyalty, in particular the Barzani Kurds, and Baghdad has for many years hired the services of mercenary Kurds (the }ash or donkeys) as border guards in the north against Iran and occasionally against other Kurdish factions. According to interviews by Abu Jabar, Baghdad valued these ethnic and tribal ties, which separated Persian Shia from Iraqi Arab Shia and Kurd from Kurd. Party circulars during the Iran-Iraq War praised the tribes for their cultural values, stressing valor, honor, manhood, courage and military prowess.5
SADDAM: REPUBLICAN SHAYKH AND TRIBAL GODFATHER
Saddam, the product of a dysfunctional family in a small village and society dominated by tribalism and a patriarchal culture, has always reflected tribal loyalty to family, clan and tribe. He used these qualities to build loyalty to himself as the republican shaykh, the father of his people, the essential Iraqi. But he also uses these tribal characteristics to rule as tribal godfather, the dispenser of wisdom, justice, wealth and punishment.
• Saddam's own history is tied up in tribal values. He was born in a small village near Tikrit. Some Iraqi scholars speculate that the story of his father's dying before he was born was intended to protect his unmarried mother from family retribution. In some ways a social outcast as a young child, Saddam was first reared by his mother and a stepfather who refused to send him to school. In a culture strictly ruled by patriarchy and ancient codes of honor and justice, an uncle, Khairallah Talfah, then raised the fatherless Saddam. Talfah was a staunch anti-British Arab nationalist whose singular contributions to Iraq's history were his role in a 1941 coup attempt; a book entitled Three Things God Should Not Have Made: Persians, Flies and Jews; and a venality so excessive that Saddam had to remove him as mayor of Baghdad.
• Saddam invented the institution of the Baath party and reinstated kinship networks to rule Iraq. He oversaw the expansion of the party from a membership of several hundred in the 1960s to nearly two million within eight years of his rule. At the same time, he mobilized clan and family networks into the military and security services, giving them control of the institutions of coercion, violence and terror. Members of Saddam's local clan and tribe, the Bayjat, were given preference in joining the sensitive security units - as bodyguards to the inner circle of the regime and to Saddam, his family and protectors of special sites and programs (such as those for development of weapons of mass destruction). These units include the Republican Guards, the Special Republican Guards, the bodyguard units, intelligence and security units in the military and the party, the Baghdad Garrison, and the Defense Ministry on occasion. His half-brother Barzan was intelligence minister and chief security thug for several years after the revolution, a position later held by his other half-brothers Sibawi and Watban; cousins Adnan Khayrallah Talfah and Ali Hassan al-Majid both served as defense minister. Saddam's second son, Qusay, now controls the intelligence and security forces, including the Special Republican Guards.
In the decade between the 1958 revolution, which ended the monarchy, and the July 30, 1968, coup, which brought the Baath party to power, Iraq experienced four successful coups and a dozen abortive ones. To Saddam and others in the new regime, the lessons of the previous ten years showed that power based solely on the military, party bureaucrats or government civil servants would not succeed. In the 1960s the party represented, in theory, the new Iraq. It was supposed to appeal to all Iraqis - Sunni, Shia and Christian; Arab and Kurd. The party was to provide all with special and equal status; membership brought privileges not available to non-party members and accorded Arab and Kurd, Sunni, Christian and Shia in the party with the same access to position, education and whatever else determined status in the new society. In the early years, party functionaries held high positions in the government and security services.
Bakr, Saddam and the new Baathist elite that controlled the party after the 1963 coup came almost entirely from provincial, semi-bedouin small towns and villages, where tribal and family loyalties were and still are strongest. They would soon replace the non-Tikritis, the non-Baathist military leaders and party ideologues with tribal loyalists, including Saddam's Ibrahim half-brothers- Barzan, Sibawi and Watban - in the 1970s and his Talfah and al-Majid cousins in the early 1980s. By the mid to late 1980s, members of Saddam's family and tribe would dominate all areas critical to Saddam's power. His family- especially cousins Hussein and Saddam Kamil and Ali Hassan al-Majid - would run the first circle of protection around Saddam, including intelligence, security and the all-important Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization (MIMI), which was responsible for developing programs for weapons of mass destruction.
- Bakr, Saddam and their close allies, including Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri and Taha Yasin Ramadhan, oversaw the military bureau of the party, which was in charge of selecting and indoctrinating military cadets. Ramadhan, a Mosuli, was later removed because of his appointment of Mosuli friends and kin to the military academy.6 Saddam also oversaw selection of the members of the security bureau (Maktabat al-Alaqat al-Amm or Bureau of Public Relations) and established a Committee of the Tribes to work in the Sunni Arab region. He is thus the patriarch, the dispenser of power and the source of all influence in the party, the tribe and the state.
- In 1976, the government ordered Iraqis to drop their tribal/family names. No longer would they be identified as at-Tikriti, al-Mosuli or ad-Duri. The change was intended primarily to mask how many Tikritis, Dulaymis and others close to Saddam's clan were in key positions. Israeli scholar Amatzia Baram believes this "loss" of identity succeeded to the extent that many Iraqis, especially those who were urbanized and in the military or government, did not know their tribal roots.7 While this may be true of a small group of urbanized, well-educated Sunni Arabs, it is not true of the majority of Iraqis, for whom family, clan and tribal identification has always remained strong.
- By the early 1990s, Saddam's family policy had brought in sons Qusay and Uday. The reports of coup plotting after the war, however, revealed to outsiders the extent to which certain powerful tribal federations and extended families had been recruited into the security and intelligence services as well as key military units in the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard. These included the Jabburi, the Dulaymi and the Ubaydi.
SADDAM AS SHAYKH MASHAYIKH
The totalitarian nature of Baathist rule, the war against Iran, and the impact of sanctions after the occupation of Kuwait had unintended consequences for official tribal policy in Iraq. The one-party state destroyed or absorbed virtually all aspects of civil society: unions, professional organizations, the press, chambers of commerce and any other independent forms of association. The state had tried to weaken and displace traditional patterns of community leadership such as the sayyids (learned men) and the shaykhs (tribal notables). Religious institutions, both Sunni and Shia, were controlled by the state as well. Beginning in the early 1980s, war and sanctions weakened the economy and severely reduced the ability of the state to provide for or shelter many of those who depended on its safety net. The toll was especially heavy on rural Iraqi society, according to Abu Jabar. Economic hardships coupled with heavy combat losses reinforced traditional patterns of leadership, and tribalism enjoyed a revival. The state controlled media reinforced this trend by playing popular forms of tribal war poetry and stressing tribal concepts of manly valor, military prowess, courage, revenge and hon or.8
The sanctions imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 strengthened this trend toward a resurgent tribalism. The state lost many of its economic and military capabilities. With no oil revenues, the state withdrew social services and was no longer able or willing to provide the subsidies and salaries the middle and lower classes depended on. Government policies fed inflation, which, coupled with low salaries, the downsizing of the military and the disintegration of the party, virtually eliminated a large percentage of Iraq's middle class in both city and countryside. In this vacuum, tribalism, based on cultural need as well as family lineage and connections, grew.
After the war, when Saddam felt threatened by the weakening of law and order and the potential threat to his regime, he resurrected tribal rule. He rewarded the loyalty of tribal leaders by allowing tribal law to prevail in many areas and bestowing on them guns, cars and privileges. In return, they acknowledged his leadership. On March 29, 1991, at the end of the Gulf War and after the suppression of the rebellions, Saddam received a major delegation of tribal chiefs. It was not the first time he had done so, but it was a significant meeting. The chiefs vowed allegiance (bayaa, an Islamic oath of loyalty to the ruler) or a covenant (ahd, signifying tribal honor) to support and obey the ruler, Saddam. Saddam had become shaykh mashayikh or chief of chiefs.
Abu Jabar describes the significance of the ceremony:
The symbolic action in this ceremony is of paramount importance. . . . It was performed by the shaykhs and their entourage at the presidential palace. The performance symbolized a hierarchy in which the shaykhs placed themselves at a lower position by elevating the president to the highest - shaykh mashayikh or the chief of chieftains. Another aspect is the lowering of the Igal. This tribal headwear is a thick, black cord woven in the shape of two rings and fixed overhead. When one's Igal is forcibly removed, it is an act of dishonor and one has to shed blood in order to remove shame. If it is done voluntarily, the situation implies a challenge to humiliation, and, again, blood is to be shed to retrieve honor. By this act, they signified their readiness to shed their honor before the president and for his own sake. This is to signify that while lowering their headwear, they gained rather than lost greater honor.9
Baghdad through the 1990s encouraged the reconstruction of clans and tribal extended families where they existed. In other areas, the government allowed the manufacture of new "tribal" groups based on economic ties or greed. Where the initiative was weak, Baghdad apparently encouraged prominent citizens to take the initiative or permitted non-leading families to manufacture an entity in order to gain power and wealth. These artificially constructed tribes are referred to scornfully in Iraq as "chieftains made in Taiwan," apparently a reference to the fact that wealthy, favored chiefs receive Japanese cars and electronics while the rest have to be satisfied with cheaper products made in Taiwan. Fake or real, the newly reconstructed and empowered tribes have little in common with the traditional tribe. Instead of common lineage, territory and a more agrarian livelihood and a rural guesthouse (mudhij), the new tribes are led by educated, middle-class professionals and civil servants who rent apartments in the city. The new tribe maintains local law and order, provides protection, settles disputes and imposes penalties or determines the settlement of blood money. In May 1996, state-tribe relations were codified in a draft law that created a high council of tribal chiefs with direct access to the president. The shaykhs were obliged to give absolute allegiance to the president, ensure security and stability in their districts (50 were designated), settle disputes and collect taxes and penalties on behalf of the government. In return, the shaykhs were to receive light arms and ammunition, electronic communication devices, vehicles, tracts of land, special government rations, diplomatic passports and exemption from military service.
Some of the new tribal shaykhs were also given national security responsibilities. For example, during Operation Desert Fox in November-December 1998, armed tribal units in civilian clothes were deployed in Baghdad and other cities to assist special security forces. These kinds of duties were once the preserve of the Baath party Popular Army. Tribal elements were assigned to the Ministry of interior, the presidential palace and the national security bureau headed by Qusay.
The renewed alliances between state and tribe have strengthened the state, but they have also created new tensions in Iraqi society and polity. Reconstructed tribes are now as much an urban as a provincial and rural phenomenon. They encroach on the preserve of the nontribalized, especially in the cities, and exacerbate tensions between tribes. Some operate as bandits, raiding truck and car convoys crossing the western desert to Jordan or smuggling narcotics across the Saudi border, according to press sources. Lest the tribes think they were the equal of Baghdad in authority, the Revolutionary Command Council in 1997 issued a new law prohibiting the tribes from challenging, suing or taking any action against central authority; state law took precedence over tribal authority. The normal frictions and jealousies between larger, wealthier, more powerful tribal groups and those lacking in size, patronage, status, wealth and influence are probably held in check to some extent by fear of Baghdad and of plunging Iraq into chaos in the face of external threat.
The extent and success of Saddam's new tribalism policies are uncertain. No one knows the size of the tribalized or nontribalized segments or who leads them. To all appearances, Saddam has continued his policy of wooing support from tribal leaders, and they, in turn, send him public telegrams of support and fealty on important occasions. This has created a new symbiosis: the state advances the favored tribes and the favored tribes protect the state. The state benefits from its absorption of the tribes and the tribes use the state to enrich themselves. These networks extend the narrow base of the ruling elite, provide manpower to help it control the state and society, and bring a semblance of stability to the power structure. Tribal solidarity and values are a source of cohesion, loyalty and discipline. Most important, they provide Saddam with a sense of trust in a normally conspiratorial environment where power struggles are the norm.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR U.S. ASPIRATIONS AND ACTIVITIES?
Tribes and tribalism were important factors in Iraqi history, culture and politics long before Saddam came to power and will be long after he is gone. A successor regime will probably have to make similar accommodations to prominent tribal leaders in order to gain powerful allies, consolidate its rule and stabilize large parts of Iraq. Its leader will have to accommodate their anachronistic demands and visions of power sharing with the needs of a modern and potentially wealthy state. He will have to ensure they do not challenge the growth of civil society and associational politics for those Iraqis not tribal, not rural, not dependent on these extra-legal groupings for their well-being and survival.
All of this poses a dilemma for those outside Iraq looking for those inside Iraq willing to try to overthrow Saddam. Any Iraqi willing to try to unseat Saddam would demand proof of support and loyalty if he succeeds. The risk is great; the reward should be unquestioned. Backing elements as roguish as Saddam will make no difference to neighbors and governments looking for anyone but Saddam to rule Iraq. If tribalism remains a factor defining Iraqi political and social behavior, then a successful challenger should bring with him, at a minimum, the loyalties of the Sunni Arab center and possibly Shia elements as well. Many families, including Saddam's, have Sunni and Shia branches in their extended family tree. To successfully challenge Saddam, an Iraqi would need to have popular recognition, supporters in military and/or party bureaucracy, and a network of family and tribal supporters. Saddam has let few Iraqis with these qualifications survive. But if one were to succeed, few would question his legitimacy. The United States will not have much time to consider its options. If the new leader had promises or had received assistance beforehand, then he would assume continued support. If not, Iraq's neighbors as well as most European and Asian governments will not hesitate to recognize the new leader.
Quick recognition might help assure regime stability and limit post-regime blood feuds. It should also accord corresponding influence to those governments quick to respond favorably and willing to live with the consequences of their decision.
1 The word connotes tribal solidarity, clannishness, tribalism and race as well as national consciousness.
2 The creation of a new nationalism, which harks back to ancient and historical glories from the mists of time, is similar to Mussolini's glorification of ancient Rome, Hitler's pride in the folk culture of pre-Christian Germanic tribes, Ataturk's vision of Hittite culture, and Reza Shah's vision of the new Aryan nation at Persepolis. Saddam frequently invokes Hammurabi, Salah al-Din, Abraham of Ur and other hoary figures as well as Islam's pantheon of Muhammad, Hussein and other saints to embellish his own persona as well as Iraq's pride in its history and culture.
3 See Phebe Marr. The Modern History of Iraq (Westview, 1985).
4 See Fahh Abu Jabar, "The Reconstruction and Deconstruction of Iraq's Tribes: Tribalism under Patrimonial Totalitarianism, 1968-1998," unpublished paper, October 14, 1999.
5 Ibid., p. 17.
6 Ibid., p. 9.
7 Amatzia Baram, "Neo-Tribalism in Iraq: Saddam Hussein's Tribal Policies 1991-96," International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 29, No. I. February 1997, pp. 1-31.
8 Ibid., p. 15.
9 Ibid., p. 18.