The U.S. Bungled by Not Taking Account of the Tribes in Falluja

Roundup: Historians' Take

Sandra Mackey, author of The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein, in the NYT (April 29, 2004):

The United States is in a no-win situation in Falluja. Yesterday, fighting increased in and around the city of 300,000, the place where four civilian contractors were burned to death last month. Even if American forces storm and subdue the town, it is unlikely that there will be peace there anytime soon.

It didn't have to be this way. Had the United States taken more time to understand the city — a place where even Saddam Hussein ventured cautiously — it might have been able to avoid the current showdown. Part of the misunderstanding can be seen in the way the Pentagon talks about the situation in Falluja, describing those holed up there as either die-hards of Saddam Hussein's regime or foreigners promoting the ideology of Al Qaeda. What the Pentagon is neglecting is a third group, one that could prove more deadly to the occupation: the tribes of central Iraq. They are a tough lot with a long history of resistance to any outside authority.

Those tribes grew out of necessity. For hundreds of years, the people of the high desert north and west of Baghdad survived waves of conquerors by joining with their kin for defense. When the Ottomans arrived in the 16th century, Istanbul co-opted the tribes of Falluja and the Sunni Triangle rather than conquer them. They were left alone to herd their flocks, till their land and govern their own affairs within an empire glued together by orthodox Islam. When the British became the masters of Iraq at the end of World War I, the tribes revolted rather than submit to non-Muslim foreign rule. The British quelled the uprising but never gained control of the tribes. The monarchy that ruled from 1921 to 1958 spent much of its time and energy working to keep the tribes in check with grants of land and other financial incentives. But Baghdad succeeded only in renting the tribes around Falluja, not buying them.

That changed briefly, from 1963 to 1966, when Gen. Abdul Salam Arif literally governed Iraq through his own praetorian guard within the military. Its members protected him not because of any political program but simply because, like them, he belonged to the Jumaila tribe, which has its roots in the area around Falluja. As Arif's town, Falluja was tied to the leader, not the state.

When he took over Iraq, Saddam Hussein, a member of the Bu Nasir tribe, replicated Arif's model in his own tribal homeland, Tikrit. But the Jumaila were outside his bounds of kinship, and he never trusted the tribesmen of Falluja as he did his own kin. The Bu Nasir and those closely allied with them made up Mr. Hussein's elite Republican Guard and security services. Most of Falluja's tribesmen went into the regular armed forces, and no one from Falluja was part of Mr. Hussein's inner circle.

But because Mr. Hussein harbored a prudent fear of Falluja's tribesmen, he gave them perks. The government invested heavily in construction projects. Tribal leaders were paid off with allowances. The national police looked the other way as tribe members ran smuggling operations. But like his predecessors apart from Arif, Mr. Hussein never fully won their loyalty.

One of the great unanswered questions about the Bush administration's rush to war is whether the tribes on which Saddam Hussein was dependent but could not totally control might have been wooed away from him in the months leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is a question that can never be answered. Now it is the American occupation that the tribes of Falluja resist.

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