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Enmity and animosity among Iraqi tribes, clans, and individuals


Part 1

The enmity and animosity among various Iraqi tribes cannot be underestimated:

The many-to-many relationships of interacting clans is much more useful to understanding [Iraq] than is the concept of a nation-state. Indeed, Saddam Hussein acted much like Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia in restraining this web of conflicting relations that US forces released at the fall of Saddam.

Despite the fact that journalists inquiring after sectarian interests and concerns at the time of the January 2005 national election were often reproved with the comment to the effect that 'We are all Iraqis' (normally it is Sunnis that speak of themselves as 'Iraqis), the reality is closer to the Bedouin saying:

"My full brother and I against my half-brother, my brother and I against my father, my father's household against my uncle's household, our two households (my uncle's and mine) against the rest of the immediate kin, the immediate kin against non-immediate members of my clan, my clan against other clans, and, finally, my nation and I against the world."

As one is not, or should not be, entitled to an informed opinion on Iraq without a sound understanding of tribes, I refer readers to Zeyad's excellent Iraq's tribal society: A state within a state, parts 1, 2, 3 and 4, 10-18 June, 2004. (At least look at the tribal map and the accompanying legend - but you should really read the series as Zeyad notes, "Not much attention has been devoted to this subject in the Western media, and all the related articles published on the web are shallow and do not reflect the true picture nor the importance of the historical role of tribalism in Iraqi (and Arab in general) society." I put Healing Iraq up with Riverbend and Where is Raed.)

Just the barest snippets from part one:

The land that is today called Iraq has been exposed for millenia to waves of Bedouin migration from the south for purposes of either military conquest… searching for water and pasturage to graze their flocks, raiding and looting… or settlement.

Iraqis therefore have been conditioned (for centuries) by this ongoing 'clash of cultures' to follow two different (and often antithetical) sets of social values; urban values derived from their own ways of life and history as the cradle of civilisation, and tribal values imposed upon them by the Bedouin influence.

This has resulted in a form of duality or 'cultural ambivalence' in the Iraqi personality which is easily recognised by Westerners and they may therefore incorrectly describe Iraqis as being 'two-faced', when in fact Iraqis are unaware of their inconsistent behaviour and have had no choice in it.

Tribalism originated in the Arabian peninsula in order for the inhabitants to survive the harsh desert nature… Blood kinship is important in clan societies, it is the bond that unites all clan individuals and which also defines the relationships with other clans. A tribe is composed of several clans also sharing the same lineage, tribal groups or confederations are also made of several different tribes which trace back their origins to one forefather.

Clan societies were lead by Sheikhs, the term Sheikh in Arabic means a 'male elder' and is not neccessarily restricted to tribal leaders. The Sheikh, usually elected by the clansmen, acts as judge to the clan or family, decides on matters of war and peace, assigns duties to clansmen, and mediates during disputes between the clan and other clans. Each smaller family and clan has its own leader or Sheikh, and consequently each tribe and tribal confederation has its own Sheikh.

Within each tribe there is a Council of Sheikhs of different clans who would assist and advise the leader and at certain occasions replace him with another Sheikh when he fails his duties, is unworthy of leadership, or when his actions threaten the welfare of the tribe. So tribal Sheikhs were not exactly tyrants, and were easily replaceable by force of sword if neccessary.

This preoccupation with lineage and blood ties [Zeyad notes that his "own family tree goes back to Qahtan, the forefather of southern Yemeni Arabs who is supposed to have lived around 2000 B.C."] was also a source of hostility between different tribes [thus] it is not uncommon for clans of the same tribe to be at war with each other, and then suddenly unite against an outside aggression or a common enemy, after which they would be back to fight each other. One would be shocked when taking a look at tribal wars throughout history for their absurd reasons.

Tribal values can be summed up in three groups or complexes: loyalty [of the individual to the tribe and the tribe to the individual], militancy [where courage and victory in battle brings booty and respect], and honour [from generosity to hospitality to protection of the weak and the refugee].

In the understatement of the quarter century, Zeyad notes that, "Some of these values may seem contradictory to outsiders at first glance," but then the Arab shield is a land of contradictions, or as one Arab told the reporter and director of "Death of a Princess," Antony Thomas, 'To be an Arab is to be a schizophrenic.' (Also worth reading is the interview with Thomas for some powerful contradictions in other areas of Arabia.)

Tribal and religious impacts in Part 3.

Iraq's tribal society: A state within a state (part one), 10 June, 2004
Iraq's tribal society: A state within a state (
part two), 12 June, 2005
Iraq's tribal society: A state within a state (
part three), 15 June, 2004
Iraq's tribal society: A state within a state (
part four), 18 June, 2004
Healing Iraq

Iraqi tribal Genealogy
Major Tribes and Clans in Iraq
Distribution of Major Ethno-religious Groups in Iraq
Distribution of religious groups in the Baghdad area
Zeyad, Healing Iraq

Gordon Housworth

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