Global Policy Forum

Tribal Leaders Say They Need Role in Iraq


By Lee Keath

Associated Press
March 10, 2004

Sheik Salal Aziz al-Ati doesn't see any Iraqi politician or policeman who can do what he can. The head of a tribe of 13,000 people, he describes how he stopped a potentially deadly clan feud.

A man from the al-Zalba clan killed two members of the al-Balha clan in a dispute over crops in January, which could have led to a string of revenge killings according to tribal tradition. Instead, Sheik Salal said he stepped in and forced a month-long truce, while he conducted extensive negotiations, finally persuading the al-Zalba to let him turn the murderer into the police rather than see more killings, he said Tuesday.

Asked if the killer will be tried, the sheik said with a straight face, "Sure, when there's a government," then broke into derisive laughter. He said he doesn't think the police will do much of anything. Tribes have historically been centers of power in Iraq, styling themselves as the defenders of stability and tradition. Central governments based in Baghdad - including Saddam Hussein's regime - have courted tribes for support or tried to crush them.

Some tribal leaders complain they're now being sidelined as Iraqi politicians try to put together a new system of government. They see little legitimacy in the current U.S.-picked administration and say a new government based on the interim constitution signed Monday in Baghdad won't be any more effective unless tribes have a role.

"Without the tribes keeping calm, there would be chaos in the streets," said Sheik Salal, head of the Al Bu Badr tribe centered around the southern Shiite city of Kut. "But no one is supporting us."

Shiite tribal leaders in Kut said the only person looking out for the tribes' interests is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric. Al-Sistani repeatedly has intervened in U.S. plans for handing over power to the Iraqis and criticized the new constitution.

"His eminence al-Sistani does no wrong, and we are gathered tightly around him," said Sheik Majed Ahmad al-Ta'ee, president of the Council of Tribal Sheiks in Wasit province, where Kut is located, about 120 miles south of Baghdad.

But the tribesmen insist the clerics' role is only in inspiration, while the tribes hold the reins. "Tribal sheiks are the ones who ensure people live by religion. The clergy are not rulers," Sheik Salal said as he walked though the village that bears his family name, Aziz al-Ati, across the Tigris River from Kut - a collection of mud houses amid groves of date palms.

Tribal heritage literally fills encyclopedias that map out the complex ranking of families, clans and branches and their connections that can stretch from the north of the country to the south. Saddam's regime gave prominence to Sunni tribes in and around his hometown of Tikrit, north of Baghdad, while Shiite tribes in the south were largely repressed.

When not using direct force, Saddam undermined tribes by backing upstarts to challenge the traditional sheik, a position handed down from father to son. The Baathist government seized thousands of acres of land to hand out to supporters, weakening the farming that was the basis of some tribes' wealth.

"We want our lands back. We need money to help rebuild our agriculture," said Sheik Jassem Nafi, a prominent figure in the al-Qureishi tribe.

Al-Sistani has been pushing for national elections as soon as possible - which would likely result in a government dominated by Iraq's Shiite majority. A ballot also would bring tribal representatives into whatever parliament is created. Sheik Majed said the tribes want a more formal structure as well. "Tribes are not even mentioned in the new constitution," he said. "There needs to be a law giving us a say, on the national level and the provincial level."

Sheik Salal insisted no government would be effective without backing from the sheiks, who he said were being ignored by the factions - many of them led by longtime exiles - that have come to the fore under Iraq's Governing Council.

"Who are all these parties? Nobody knows them," he said.

He predicted Iraq would see nothing but instability unless the government draws support of tribal leaders.

"Iraqis don't understand democracy. They need a strong hand," Sheik Salal said. "We are the source of Iraq's manhood and honor. We are the ones who can provide for the people."

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