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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.

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The result was a peak of more than 3,000 dead in Iraq each month and a violent separation of mixed communities that had often been bound by marriage and proximity for decades. Three of Hamoud's sons were married to women of the three local Sunni tribes, for example, but that did not prevent a bitter tribal war for months, that finally saw Hamoud's family abandon their farm after a mortar attack. They haven't moved back.

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"The people realize more and more that they do not want to return to the ethnosectarian violence that had their country on the brink of civil war," the former US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said in Washington Tuesday of the national trend. "With each passing day there is a little bit less of that fragility as progress takes on a slightly more enduring nature."

It was only the deployment of the Iraqi Army and US-backed Sons of Iraq militia across Taji Province, that includes Tarmiyeh, that has enabled any chance of reconciliation.

"There was no Iraqi Army, only Al Qaeda in Iraq controlled everything," says Taiee. "When Taji was liberated by the Army, people could start looking for the killers of their sons."

But it takes more than this to make peace, according to a report this week on Iraqi reconciliation strategies by the US Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington.

"Moving toward reconciliation in the context of severe and widespread violence requires [breaking] the pattern of revenge and transform[ing] relationships," notes USIP. "These steps include mourning, confronting fears, identifying needs, acknowledging responsibility, envisioning restorative and operational justice, and choosing to forgive."

Finding that combination among the date-palmed farms north of Baghdad has not been easy.

The example of the Taiee tribe, to which Hamoud and his family belong, illustrates the challenges facing all would-be peacemakers in Iraq. They are tentatively coming to terms with the vicious nature of the killing, at the hands, in the case of Hamoud, of people they have lived among for the 37 years.

Hamoud ran his 500-hectare farm with the help of his six sons and four daughters. But in early 2005 they received a letter from AQI – Hamoud still carries the leaflet, worn through at the folds – that warned "Shiite infidels living in Tarmiyeh" to flee or risk death.

Their troubles deepened in the spring of 2006. Hamoud's brother was killed in his home. One son was kidnapped and killed after taking his pregnant sister to the hospital. Another son was killed while shopping; the death certificate describes "several shots to the head."

Two nephews were kidnapped, one was killed, another released after the family paid a $50,000 ransom. Hamoud still keeps images on his phone of the results of constant beating of the man with cables.

Also on his phone is the confession video of the man who killed yet another nephew. The insurgent confessed to killing Hamoud's nephew during a spate of six attacks he carried out as part of the Islamic Army, an AQI-affiliated group.

The insurgent remains in custody, and at first in reconciliation talks, his family denied their son was responsible. Now they have agreed to pay, though will haggle over the price before a final meeting is held in a few days in which 150 to 200 people will gather to close the deal.

"The insurgents' fathers have woken and want to fix what their sons have been doing," says Hamoud. "We want the relationship [between Shiite and Sunni tribes] to come back like before."

The peacemaker hopes such a price will make potential killers think twice, before starting any new blood feuds.

"We need to work in a way that we do not lose the little people," says Taiee. "This has been an exceptional period. So many people lost so many things."