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.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
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.

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

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.

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.

"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."

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