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Think Globally, Act Tribally

If Hussein is forced to admit inspectors, Iraq's clans may desert him -- toppling the dictator without a U.S. attack.

October 20, 2002|Sandra Mackey | Sandra Mackey is the author of "The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein."

ATLANTA -- In its headlong rush into war, the Bush administration is evaluating the power of Saddam Hussein only by its well-known elements -- the Republican Guard, the internal security system and the stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Its conclusion is that Hussein is so entrenched that only U.S. military power can remove him. But the administration is ignoring another pillar of Hussein's power: an intricate set of alliances with Iraqi tribal leaders. These are allies who can be rented but not bought. The president and his hawkish advisors need to understand that the tribes could bring about the collapse of Hussein without America having to fire a shot.

The nature of Hussein's regime is rooted in the nature of Iraq. In the aftermath of World War I, the British jammed Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and non-Arab Kurds, along with a cluster of other ethnic and sectarian groups, into a contrived state called Iraq. Most of the pieces composing this human mosaic contained powerful tribal elements. Although there were also strong urban traditions within each of these ethnic and sectarian groups, particularly among the Sunnis, Iraq was essentially a tribal society.

In 1921, the British created a monarchy to rule over what was technically a mandate assigned to London by the League of Nations. The search for a king by the British Colonial Office placed Faisal I, a Hashemite from Mecca, on a hastily contrived throne. From the day of his crowning, the king in Baghdad was defied by powerful tribal confederations that claimed their own law and leadership. During his 12-year reign, Faisal I spent an enormous amount of energy on tedious negotiations to keep the tribes loyal. His successors in the monarchy and every government that followed the 1958 revolution faced the same challenge -- control of the tribes.

Yet the urban tradition present since the days of the Ottoman Empire counterbalanced the tribalism in the countryside. Through the 1950s and the 1960s, one regime after another appealed to the increasing numbers of urbanites to give Baghdad the support that would move Iraq from a state to a nation. In the 1970s, the Baath government, of which Hussein was a part, used the riches that resulted from the explosion of oil prices in 1973 to woo every Iraqi to the authority of Baghdad. The party achieved a level of success as most ethnic, sectarian and tribal groups benefited from government largess that provided health care, education, housing and a vastly improved and expanded infrastructure.

The Baathists even dreamed up a new identity for Iraqis that was designed to cross the barriers of group, sect and tribe. Ignoring the historical truth -- that most Iraqis are either of mixed heritage born of centuries of conquest or are immigrants who arrived as late as the early years of the 20th century -- the Baath government declared all Iraqis direct descendants of ancient Mesopotamia.

In pursuit of this ideology, the Baath government poured millions of dollars into archeology. The walls of Nineveh, the Assyrians' ancient capital, rose again out of the plain near the current city of Mosul. And Babylon, the seat of Nebuchadnezzar, was pulled out of the salt and mud of southern Iraq. Tying these symbols of ancient history to a socialist economic system, the rulers in Baghdad sold the idea that ethnic, sectarian and tribal rivalries should give way to Iraqi nationalism.

Even so, the forces of tribalism continued to challenge the Iraqi state. The Sunni Arab tribes west of Baghdad continued to hold sway over parts of the desert. The Arab Shiites of the south still gave their first allegiance to their tribal leaders, not to the central government. And the Kurds of the north staged one of their periodic rebellions against Baghdad from 1970 to 1975. Although the overarching cause was Kurdish demands for autonomy or independence from the Iraqi state, internal tribal politics infected the uprising. In cities where rural migrants pursued economic promise, tribalism was well established. Members of some tribes transplanted themselves from their villages to urban neighborhoods, where they replicated their tribal structure and pledged allegiance to traditional tribal leaders.

In the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, Hussein, by then the sole political authority in Baghdad, sacrificed the idea of Mesopotamia as the unifying theme of the Iraqi state. Instead of acknowledging the war for what it really was -- a contest between the two commanding personalities of Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini -- Baghdad turned the battlefield into a stage on which the epic struggle between Arabs and Persians was played out. The Kurds were not part of the equation that was to save the Iraqi state from the hated Persians. But neither was it a great national cause, only a bloodbath in which government conscription and tribal leaders sent Iraqis into the trenches to die.

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