Victory in Iraq, One Tribe at a Time

Amatzia Baram (New York Times) Some of the latest bombings across Iraq were the work of forces loyal to Saddam Hussein from the so-called Sunni Triangle northwest of Baghdad, who retain a stubborn fealty to the former dictator - a loyalty rooted in part in centuries-old tribal kinship and religious identity. Only by understanding these ties and then using them to its advantage will the coalition authority reduce the resistance. The coalition is eminently capable of winning over many tribes. An old saying in Iraq has it that you cannot buy a tribe, but you can certainly hire one. The nation's Sunni minority, who make up only 15% of the population, have now been deprived of their long-standing political hegemony, losing their prestigious and well-paying jobs in the armed forces and internal security apparatus and largely frozen out of the Governing Council and the senior bureaucracy. Coalition leaders must bear in mind that the violence is not unstoppable - in large part, we are dealing with people who are open to persuasion. Attacks on coalition troops should be viewed through the prism of tribal warfare. This is a world defined in large measure by avenging the blood of a relative (al-tha'r); demonstrating one's manly courage in battle (al-muruwwah); generally upholding one's manly honor (al-sharaf). For some of these young men, killing American soldiers is a political act, but it is also not unlike what hunting lions was to British colonial officers in 19th-century Africa: it involves a certain risk, but the reward is great. Specifically, the Governing Council and its American supporters must come up with a coherent tribal policy. Hesitation to give power to tribal leaders has been understandable: cultivating the tribes and the sheiks might be seen as a contradiction of the new leaders' stated goal of forming a democratic Iraqi civil society in a modern way. But to avoid increasing violence in the Sunni Triangle, there is a need to rethink that approach. There are about 10 large tribal federations in central Iraq and hundreds of subgroups, each with its own sheik. New efforts ought to be made to persuade the sheiks to assert their influence and help keep the peace. The easiest would simply be to hire the sheiks and their tribesmen - putting them on salaries and allowing them to spread the wealth among their people. In addition, sheiks in areas where coalition soldiers and oil pipelines are coming under frequent attacks should be told that the only way their tribes can receive luxuries - extra government services, construction aid, easy access to senior officials in Baghdad - is by making sure that there are no attacks against coalition soldiers in their domain. In the Middle East, more often than not, tribes have been willing to give up a great degree of their autonomy in exchange for government services, and Iraq is no exception. The risk is worth taking.

2003-10-28 00:00:00

Full Article


Visit the Daily Alert Archive