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Iraq: Tribal Influence Still Strong, But Some Say Its Power Is Waning

Al-Yawir is the first tribal leader to be Iraqi head of state Iraqi tribes are strong players in the country's postwar political game. Local analysts say the stability of the country will in large part depend on the new interim government's ability to strike deals with influential tribal leaders.

Baghdad, 16 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- During the power vacuum that followed the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, influential Iraqi tribes made a strong political comeback, and may continue to play a major role in the country for some time to come.

Saad Iskander is a graduate of the London School of Economics who currently lives in Baghdad, where he is active in Iraqi cultural matters. He told RFE/RL that tribal leaders gained considerable power during the extended absence of a strong central government. And now, he said, they cannot easily be pushed to the side.

"Now traditional tribes have resurfaced and their leaders have assumed greater power than before -- much, much more influence than before, because we have a vacuum, a political vacuum, a security vacuum, even a cultural vacuum. When we have a vacuum, people turn to traditional figures like tribal leaders, like clergymen," Iskander said.

Saddam Hussein cooperated to a degree with Iraqi tribes during his rule. But they have not been serious political players since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958. Now, Iskander said, several centers of power have resurfaced in Iraq -- and the tribes are one of the most influential. "At the moment we have different sources of power, different authorities. [We have] modern authority, which is the state and its institutions -- ministries and so on," he said. "We have traditional, nonofficial authorities -- the tribes and clergymen."
Iskander said Al-Fallujah is one place where tribal leaders have clearly demonstrated their political influence, and were closely engaged with occupation troops in seeking a resolution to the continued violence there.

During the past year of U.S.-led occupation, Iraqis had few alternatives but to turn for help to tribal leaders, who maintain their own militias and economic and social systems. In many ways, Iskander said, Iraq is still a tribal culture.

Dr. Saad al-Hasani from Baghdad University said that particularly in times of chaos, Iraqis seek assurance and comfort by returning to their traditional values and culture. "I can see that there are so many people -- I can see them in downtown [Baghdad] -- who are very proud of belonging to certain tribes," he said. "At this time, in the absence of political rule in Baghdad and the other governorates, I find that the ordinary citizen finds a refuge in his own tribe."

Al-Hasani said a tribe can provide its members with many social benefits and protections that the state cannot. Tribal leaders, for example, were active in negotiating the release of many female prisoners from Abu Ghurayb prison.

Tribal power and influence, though evident, is not equally felt in all the country, and is stronger in the rural areas than among the educated and secular elite. A person is likely to be tried according to tribal laws in Al-Fallujah or Al-Najaf, but elsewhere, Iskander said, the secular middle class will look to the state for protection.

"If [a person] lives in the countryside, I think, he will be tried according to the tribal laws. But if he lives in a city, maybe by both. It depends on his social background. If he feels he is a member of a tribe, he will turn to tribal laws," Iskander said.

Occupation authorities acknowledge that tribes play a powerful role in Iraq's current political development. Tribes, in fact, have been a significant political force in the past. Al-Hasani said in the beginning of the 20th century, Iraq's British administrators found that manipulating the local tribes was the best way to manage the country as a whole.

The British continue this practice today, al-Hasani said. He said it explains why the areas under British occupation are generally calmer than those in central Iraq occupied by U.S. troops. But the Americans appear to be learning. Al-Hasani said the recent appointment of Sunni tribal leader Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir to the presidency illustrates the trend is taking hold.

"The Americans only lately realized that the British lesson was a very clear lesson and that they have to make use of it. And probably they decided to a give a push to Yawir or to give a push to some tribal figures just to assume certain roles, though these roles up to this moment are rather limited," al-Hasani said.

Al-Hasani said al-Yawir is a very well-known tribal personality. He leads a tribe that is influential throughout Iraq and respected in neighboring Arab countries as well. Al-Hasani added that al-Yawir is the first tribal leader to become the head of the Iraqi state -- something that may help the interim government as it works to negotiate peace deals with leaders in tribal areas like Al-Fallujah.

Iskander said Al-Fallujah is one place where tribal leaders have clearly demonstrated their political influence, and were closely engaged with occupation troops in seeking a resolution to the continued violence there. At the same time, he said, their influence has been weakened by the presence of foreign fighters in Al-Fallujah.

Iskander said with time, occupation troops and foreign fighters will leave the country, leaving only tribes and the state. Eventually, he added, the influence of the modern, democratic state will increase and the power of traditional tribal groups will weaken. "Iraqis worship the state," he said. "And this shortcoming can become an advantage in dealing with tribes."