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Iraq's tribes: divisive or decisive?

U.S. sees a grass-roots network that can bypass the stalled regime, but others fear empowering narrow, fickle groups.

June 23, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — When the Sunni Muslim sheik sent his representatives into the heaving Baghdad slum where a Shiite Muslim militia holds sway, many thought he was courting disaster. Sunnis mutter darkly that the only members of their sect who enter Sadr City are the ones stuffed into the trunk of a car.

But on this occasion, the head of a Shiite family stood up and recited a poem calling Abdul Sattar Rishawi "the honest, the decent, the good sheik, who would not bow his head in humiliation." The sheik's representatives were so pleased, they asked him to read it again.

This kind of bold move has persuaded the U.S. command to champion tribal leaders such as Rishawi as a way around the government stalemate in Baghdad. Rishawi has formed an alliance of Sunni Arab tribes that are fighting Al Qaeda-linked insurgents in Al Anbar province. Military leaders, who have provided weapons and other material to some tribal groups there, hope that Rishawi's effort can be replicated in other provinces.

But some Western officials question the wisdom of encouraging tribalism in Iraq, when such loyalties have helped to cripple development and stir conflict in other parts of the world. Iraq's Shiite-led government also is uneasy over the alliances, which Prime Minister Nouri Maliki warns could end up creating even more militias if weapons fall into the wrong hands.

On Friday, Maliki said intelligence officials had information that "enemies are attempting to infiltrate this process in order to serve their own interests." In a statement, he announced that he had formed a committee to oversee the arming of tribes, saying, "All such activity should be overseen by the government."

Although tribes can offer effective leadership at the grass-roots level, their shifting loyalties and frequent clashes among them present risks on a national stage.

"You've always got to be careful when using tribal leaders -- they're available to the highest bidder," said one diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Although the tribes have proved a potent force against Al Qaeda in Iraq, others worry that any power and weapons given to them now will not be easily taken away when that threat is gone. If too much authority devolves to them, some in government fear, the country may begin to look uncomfortably like Afghanistan or northwest Pakistan.

"Tribes mean informal laws, which are against the principles of


An alternative to Baghdad

But frustration is building in Washington with Maliki's government, which has failed to push through the legislative reforms that U.S. officials believe will help win over the disaffected Sunni minority that has felt powerless since Saddam Hussein's ouster and is now driving the insurgency. They include jobs for former members of Hussein's Baath Party, and a fair distribution of Iraq's oil wealth.

The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, told reporters recently that he was encouraging commanders to strike deals with tribes, religious leaders and local insurgent groups that could help build reconciliation from the bottom up.

"Engaging with the tribal entities and others has made a huge difference," he said. With their encouragement, recruitment into the Al Anbar security forces has shot up to more than 12,000 so far this year, compared with 1,000 in all of 2006, he said. And attacks in what was once the most dangerous region outside Baghdad have dropped to just over 400 last month, from 811 in May 2006.

Odierno acknowledged that the success in Al Anbar, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab, may not be easily replicable in other regions where there are volatile mixes of Sunnis, Shiites and ethnic Kurds. But U.S. officers say tribal leaders possess unrivaled knowledge of what goes on in their areas, and can be an effective force to secure them. They can also be an initial conduit for development aid.

Maliki's plan to put the government in charge of the arming process could, in effect, stall the grass-roots deals that the military is pursuing and that tribal leaders say should have been made long ago.

"In all countries, you can't do anything without the people, and the people of Iraq are tribal," said Faleh Dulaimi, media advisor to Rishawi, who heads the Abu Risha tribe.

Analysts estimate that at least three-quarters of the Iraqi people are members of one of the country's roughly 30 tribal confederations that group hundreds of tribes, clans and extended families. Through the centuries, this complex network has provided the basis on which Iraq's largely feudal society was organized.

Hussein's Baath Party officially rejected the system as backward, banning the use of tribal names on official documents, and promoting Arab nationalism. But key positions were filled by members of Hussein's clan, which dominated the elite. Later, Hussein openly encouraged tribalism during his disastrous 1980s war with Iran and the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

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