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Iraq: Structure Of Society Poses Great Challenges To Postwar Transition

  • Antoine Blua

Following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the most important challenge in Iraq now becomes how to build a stable, pluralistic, and democratic society. The international community's task will be to navigate among the forces in Iraqi society until a process can be set up to give voice to the people. RFE/RL looks at these competing forces, including ethnicity, tribal structures, and religion.

Prague, 18 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi society is complex, made up of an array of ethnic, religious, tribal, and social networks. The success of the postwar transition in Iraq will depend on how accurately this reality is understood and translated into a form of government accepted as legitimate by core Iraqi constituencies.

Broadly, three main ethnic and religious groups make up the Iraqi population -- the Arab Shi'ites in the south, representing up to 65 percent of the population; the overwhelmingly Sunni Kurds in the north, representing 20 percent; and Arab Sunnis in the center of the country, representing about 15 percent.

Meanwhile, tribalism, which according to some estimates involves up to 25 percent of the Iraqi population, was revived and used by the Ba'ath regime, despite antitribal rhetoric. In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, tribal chieftains reemerged as sources of social authority, helping to fill the void created by the state's diminished ability to maintain law and order and administer justice.

Neil Partrick is a Middle East analyst for the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit. He noted that tribalism represents a key source of power in Iraq and played a part in the initial resistance to the U.S.-led military campaign that was seen in the south.

"Clans tend to be made up of key alliances between a number of families. And family networks themselves can range fairly broadly," Partrick told RFE/RL. "Tribal associations are associations of key clans, which tend to be fixated around certain geographical points. But also tribes can vary enormously in terms of their number, and the extent to which they represent a unified whole. A good example of this is the Albu Nasir, the tribal network Saddam Hussein was a member of, and which he used to manipulate in terms of the basis of his rule in Iraq."

Iraq's traditional social forces also include the religious establishment. Iraqi Shi'ism is diffuse and decentralized, although Shi'ites view their clergy as the supreme source of religious authority. Shi'ite clerics such as Sayyids have retained a degree of influence, particularly in the south, where they are embedded throughout the tribal structures.

Patrick Clawson is the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He told RFE/RL: "Within the Shi'a community, what we find is that some of these so-called religious leaders have very little religious standing and are more like traditional tribal leaders. In the [holy] city of Najaf, one of the most important political figures at the moment is a young man who's only in his 20s, but he comes from a famous family. And while he may be trying to present himself as a religious leader, he has very slight religious credentials."

Clawson is referring to 22-year-old Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr. He is the son of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, a prominent religious scholar believed to have been killed by Hussein's regime in 1999.

Sunni religious leaders do not have the hierarchical structure or degree of independence that characterized the Shi'ite clergy. The Sufi mystical orders, concentrated in the Kurdish areas, are neither dominated by the official religious establishment nor influenced by Islamist parties.

Nadje al-Ali is a social anthropologist at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in Britain. Speaking to RFE/RL, he said: "I don't think that the Sufi orders play such a significant role. They are sort of more a spiritual nature. And they're not that important within Iraq politically. But certainly, religious leaders, the ulema -- particularly the Shi'a leaders in [the holy cities of] Karbala and Najaf -- play a very important role."

But Clawson noted that after 30 years of totalitarianism, it is unclear how Iraqi society is going to organize itself, how much weight will be given to different viewpoints, and what the principal divisions of society will be.

"There are a lot of urban, quite secularized, Shi'a who may feel that they have much more in common with urban, secularized Sunni than either of those two groups feel they have in common with traditional leaders such as the Shi'a ayatollahs and the Sunni Arab tribal leaders. We may find that the urban, secularized professionals feel much more identification with political platforms like Iraqi nationalism or pan-Arabism or the Iraqi Communist Party, which was quite an important party before the Ba'ath [Party], than they do with these traditional communal leaders," Clawson said.

A survey conducted last year by the International Crisis Group -- an organization based in Brussels that works in more than 30 crisis-affected countries -- suggests that Kurds between the ages of 18 and 30 are primarily attracted to the nationalist movement led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, while their elders remain loyal to more traditional tribal leaders.

Al-Ali stressed that social classes cut across ethnic and religious groups: "What has happened during the past [12] years during [UN] economic sanctions is that the whole class system has been inversed. The middle classes have been impoverished. The poor people stayed poor and became even poorer. But what has emerged is a new class of 'nouveau riche,' people who made money from the black market. These people, again, cut through the different ethnic and religious groups and also the middle class. Many people would say that a Sunni middle-class person in Baghdad would be more similar to a Shi'a middle-class person in Baghdad than a Sunni in the countryside."

As for tribal allegiances, al-Ali said they do not cut across ethnic or religious groups. He said anyone belonging to one specific tribe has the same religion or the same ethnicity. Alliances rely, however, on a pragmatic assessment of political interests, possibly leading to internal schisms and tribal or clan conflicts.

"That has been very obvious among the Kurds who have been fighting each other. Now it's obvious among the Shi'a, as well, [between for instance] some who are backed by Iran [and] others [who] are not," al-Ali said. "So there are not only sort of tribal differences within the different ethnic and religious groups, but there are also different political factions."

The recent infighting among Shi'a factions may be a worrying sign of the difficulties ahead. Senior Iraqi Shi'ite leader Abd al-Majid al-Khoi was killed last week in Najaf, days after his return from exile in Britain. The house of another leading cleric -- Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- was at one point surrounded in Najaf by armed men demanding that he leave Iraq.

Near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, clashes broke out on 16 April between club-wielding members of Hussein's clan and its rivals.