Victory in Iraq, One Tribe at a Time

Roundup: Historians' Take

Amatzia Baram, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa, writing in the NYT (Oct. 28, 2003):

A letter earlier this month signed by Saddam Hussein and addressed to the sheiks of the Arab tribes in the Sunni Triangle insisted that Iraq "has been a poison" to the American soldiers and that "victory is near." It was one more sign that the former dictator understands that the tribal values of Iraq are ripe for exploitation.

But what works for Saddam Hussein can also be made to work against him. The coalition is eminently capable of winning over many tribes. An old saying in Iraq has it that you cannot buy a tribe, but you can certainly hire one.

And the nation's Sunni minority is open to offers. With Saddam Hussein's downfall, Sunnis, who make up only 15 percent of the population, were deprived of their long-standing political hegemony. The Sunnis from the triangle lost their prestigious and well-paying jobs in the armed forces and internal security apparatus. They were humiliated in the conflict and have had their homes and communities searched in its aftermath. Last but not least: they have been largely frozen out of the Governing Council and the senior bureacracy.

The Sunni network was held together by a web of patronage, perks and favors that filtered down from the presidential palace to the tribal sheik to the "tribesman in the field." Of course, retribution played a role, too. Tribes were severely punished for transgressions (like refusing to abide by the whims of Baathist officials or allowing illicit traffic across borders without the dictator's permission), with the sheiks occasionally deposed and sometimes executed. In the south, whole villages were razed. But much more often the tribes were handsomely rewarded for cooperation — with money, weapons, state lands or even the property of rival clans.

While this network has been fractured, many of the older tenets of tribal life linger, and help to fuel the pattern of violence in the triangle today. Attacks on coalition troops should be viewed through the prism of tribal warfare. This is a world defined in large measure by avenging the blood of a relative (al-tha'r); demonstrating one's manly courage in battle (al-muruwwah); generally upholding one's manly honor (al-sharaf). For some of these young men, killing American soldiers is a political act, but it is also not unlike what hunting lions was to British colonial officers in 19th-century Africa: it involves a certain risk, but the reward is great.

Yes, religious fanaticism may also serve as a motivation, but in Iraq the rural tribes have generally been less inclined toward religious fanaticism than the city dwellers. The problem for the coalition is that religious fanaticism and tribal values are now working in the same direction. The coalition leaders must bear in mind that while the violence is endemic, it is not unstoppable — in large part, we are dealing with people who are open to persuasion.

Specifically, the Governing Council and its American supporters must come up with a coherent tribal policy. Certainly they can be excused for not having one — they've racked up many other achievements while focusing on more pressing problems. Moreover, the hesitation to give power to tribal leaders has been understandable: cultivating the tribes and the sheiks might be seen as a contradiction of the new leaders' stated goal of forming a democratic Iraqi civil society in a modern way. But to avoid increasing violence in the Sunni Triangle, there is a need to rethink that approach.

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