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As violence drops, Iraqi tribes begin to make amends

Tribal elders are reviving a traditional process to heal the deep animosities resulting from sectarian bloodshed between Shiites and Sunnis.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 9, 2008

The Negotiator: Sheikh Fayek Hassan al-Taiee, left, an Iraqi Shiite and elder in the Al Sahwa tribe, leads reconciliation talks with a Sunni tribe over a sectarian killing in 2006.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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Baghdad

Tears rarely roll down Iraqi farmer Hassan Mohammed Hamoud's proud, sun-creased face.

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But as this Shiite father describes his losses to war, the impact overwhelms him: a brother, two sons, two nephews, all killed by Sunni militant neighbors during the peak of sectarian violence in 2006.

Instead of seeking revenge, though, Mr. Hamoud is trying to forgive. He wants to end this feud and restore peace using a traditional process that is revitalizing the role of tribes in halting the cycle of violence.

"If reconciliation goes well and [the Sunni families] swear on the Koran, I think fighting will end after that," he says.

The effort is one example of how Sunni and Shiite tribes are meeting to accept responsibility for atrocities committed against each other during the war – in face-to-face talks between tribal elders – that involve mediators and often the paying of blood money by the guilty party.

In this case, which only relates to the killing of one of Hamoud's nephews, the Sunni tribe may pay Hamoud's tribe at least $40,000, though the initial request will be 10 times that amount.

"All the leaders of the big tribes are working for reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis – we need to solve this problem for our people," says Sheikh Fayeq Hassan al-Taiee, a Shiite peacemaker who wears three rings of the type favored by Shiites, one with a polished white stone the size of a stuffed olive.

"They don't want to return back to killing," says Sheikh Taiee, who is representing Hamoud's family in the blood feud negotiation. "Revenge means killing again, so we decided to seek peaceful ways."

The tribal talks are the result of a nationwide call from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and senior religious leaders earlier this year to bridge differences between tribes to prevent future bloodshed.

This push has been enabled by improved security and a dramatic fall in violent attacks over the past year due to several factors: the US military surge, the decision by Sunni militants to join the US in fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and a stand down of the Mahdi Army, the main anti-American Shiite militia.

"When we start this tribal reconciliation, it should be the seed of reconciliation for all of Iraq," says Taiee, who began his efforts five months ago. "The Shiite and the Sunni people, each one stole the rights of the others, and now must solve that in a peaceful way. They should return to their senses; they found that killing is not a good way."

That dynamic has been noted far beyond Iraq's mixed areas, where sectarian killings surged after the bombing of the Shiite Askari shrine in Samarra in February 2006. Shiite militia death squads rampaged through mixed Baghdad neighborhoods, forcing out and killing Sunnis.

Likewise, Sunni militants imposed a reign of terror in rural areas and urban districts where they had the advantage, forcing Shiites completely from areas like Hamoud's family farm in Tarmiyeh, north of Baghdad. Sheikhs from Tarmiyeh have compiled a list of 190 Shiites killed from that one district.

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