Could Iraq's tribes provide the glue that keeps the country from falling apart?

Saddam Hussein tapped Iraq’s tribes, which cross geographic and ethnic lines, to bolster his regime. Now some tribesmen are offering to help fend off the self-declared Islamic State.

Shiite fighters from Saraya al-Salam, loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr take positions during a patrol in Abu Ghraib district, west of Baghdad, October 16, 2014.

In recent weeks, the self-styled Islamic State has inched toward Baghdad, putting Iraq’s army and government under increasing pressure and challenging their ability to preserve any semblance of a cohesive Iraqi state. 

Backed by Western airpower, the Shiite-dominated security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga are fighting back against the Sunni jihadists. 

But when it comes to reversing the dramatic IS victories in Sunni areas, some leaders of Iraq’s influential tribes say they could prove a vital counterforce, at least until a proposed Iraqi national guard becomes a reality. 

Sheikh Wasfi al-Asi, who heads a tribal council opposed to the IS, estimates that more than 20,000 tribesmen are now either in training or already fighting IS alongside Kurdish or government forces across Iraq.

“The number of volunteers is growing as a result of the negative conduct of IS in (their) areas,” he says. But he stresses that regiments need to receive arms, salaries, and supplies in order to carry on. 

Formed Aug. 6 and endorsed by the government in September, the tribal council groups some of the largest tribes of Iraq – including Al-Jubbur, which is scattered through central and northern Iraq and has Shiite members in the south. Mr. Asi belongs to the Al-Obaidi tribe, named after a noble family that traces its lineage to the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

So far, tribal regiments helped Iraqi forces retake several towns in Diyala Province in the east, where Al-Obeidi, Al-Jubbur, and Al-Azze tribes are engaged, and seize a strategic a border crossing to Syria. In Anbar Province, where IS has recruited among Sunni Arab tribes, four tribes are now fighting alongside Baghdad's forces. They have managed to protect the country’s second largest dam but lost an army base near Hit in fighting that sent 180,000 Iraqis fleeing, according to the UN. 

“They don’t have the upper hand but they (the tribes) can play a very important role if decision makers know how to play the tribal card to achieve reconciliation,” says Wathiq al-Hashimi, director of the Al-Nahrein Center for Strategic Studies in Baghdad.

The influence of Iraq's Arab tribal confederations has been waning for decades, particularly since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003. In the 1990s, Hussein cut deals with powerful tribes in restive provinces like Anbar to avoid possible threats to his rule. Iraqi analysts and sheikhs say he was skillful at tapping the power of the tribes. After the 2003 US invasion brought Shiite Islamist parties to power, they tried to reduce the influence of Sunni tribal leaders, viewing them as allies of the former dictator.

Iraq’s largest tribes stretch from north to south, and only a few are made up of a single sect or ethnic group. This diversity, tribal leaders insist, could be instrumental in bridging the country's crippling ethnic and sectarian divides, provided the government can harness their power. 

'Tribes can be counted on'

Shiite Sheikh Hussein al-Shaalan of the Al-Khaza’il tribal confederation says tribes that mix Sunnis and Shiites, as well as Arabs and Kurds, help cement the country together.

“The tribes are the true geographic link connecting Iraq,” he says. “You can leave them for decades to sow chaos, or you can make them part of the solution. Politically, they can support the process.”

Sunni Sheikh Hassan Shwerid, a leader of the Al-Hamdani tribe long active in Iraqi politics, is even more optimistic. He believes “the sectarian problem can be solved in a matter of days” due to tribal links that transcend sect and ethnicity.

“The problems were solved in 2006 and 2007 through the Sahwa [Awakening]. With the leadership of the tribes, Iraq was freed of terrorists and militias all in one go,” says Mr. Shwerid. “Today the tribes can again solve the security situation. When there is a strong army and the rule of law, the tribes can be counted on, they have the final word on the ground.”

The United States leaned heavily on Sunni tribes during the “surge” campaign of 2006-2007 in a bid to defeat Al Qaeda. However, Shiite politicians, led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, subsequently cut off payments and protection to tribesmen and jailed some of their leaders, setting the stage for the current Sunni insurgency. 

At a conference in Amman, Jordan, in July, Washington reached out to religious, tribal, and Baathist factions in a bid to revive old alliances and find a way out of the impasse in Iraq. The outcome was the removal of Mr. Maliki.

Today there are signs of cooperation budding across sectarian and ethnic lines in the face of a larger, common enemy – the Islamic State. A coalition of Sunni tribes and Shiite-dominated government forces successfully defended the Tigris River town of Dhuluiya, north of the capital. Sunni Shammar tribesmen helped Kurdish peshmerga boot IS militants from the strategic border crossing town of Rabia, next to Syria.

Maliki's replacement, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has pledged to give Sunnis and Kurds a larger share in the government. He recently ordered Iraqi Security Forces to stop bombing IS-controlled areas to avoid further inflaming Sunni anger.

On Oct. 11, IS claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that killed more than 43 Iraqis in the Shiite districts of Baghdad. The group has already infiltrated Sunni areas near the capital, like Abu Ghraib. And it remains firmly entrenched in its stronghold in Iraqi's second largest city, Mosul, and in much of Anbar. 

Tribes' power diminished under IS

Some point out that in areas under IS-control the tribes are powerless to intervene. Instead, the loudest tribal voices opposing IS are in Baghdad, Erbil, or Amman. And even if many tribal elders are opposed to IS, Sunni youth with limited socio-economic opportunities and negative experiences with Shiite-dominated security forces have been largely sold on the insurgents’ ideology.

“No tribal leader (inside Mosul) has dared to speak against IS,” notes Zoheir al-Chalebi, a Mosul native and member of the national reconciliation committee in Baghdad. “The issue is that most of the tribesmen joined IS. Most IS members are the sons of the tribes, they are not the sons of doctors, professors, engineers, intellectuals, or officers.”

A wildcard is Sunni Mufti Mehdi al-Sumaidai. The Baghdad-based cleric issued a fatwa last month calling for the creation of a separate force to protect Sunnis. Speaking at the well-guarded Umm Al-Taboul mosque on the outskirts of the capital, as walkie-talkies crackle in the background, Mr. Sumaidai claims to have the files of “130,000 volunteers” and an oath of allegiance from the tribes Janaba, Ghrer, Gharagul, Sumaidai, and Al-Qaysiyya.

Such a force is necessary, he says, so that Sunnis, rather than Shiites, take the fight to IS but also protect their own community from sectarian violence.

Those fears are not unfounded. Amnesty International on Tuesday released a report detailing sectarian attacks, arbitrary arrests and execution style-killings carried out by Shiite militias in Baghdad, Samarra, and Kirkuk in apparent retaliation against Sunni civilians for violence committed by the IS.

Warning of 'tribal feuds'

The cleric, who was arrested by coalition forces in 2004 after condemning the US-led military operation Fallujah, views renewed Western involvement in Iraq with skepticism. He warns of “tribal feuds and calls for revenge” in response to any Shiite militia attacks on Sunnis. And unlike Asi, he says he is consulting neither the new government nor coalition forces.

While Sumaidai’s claim to have tens of thousands of volunteers ready to go is being viewed by some as posturing, it has raised serious concerns among anti-IS tribesmen. “We are afraid of any religious, bearded cleric who claims to have large numbers loyal to them," says Asi. 

And while Asi would like to see each region of Iraq responsible for its own security, he argues against creating Sunni-only national guards, an argument he has relayed to the government and to Gen. (ret.) John Allen, the US envoy charged with building the anti-IS coalition. He recently visited Baghdad and met with tribal leaders there.

“If the national guards became a Sunni force comparable to the peshmerga and Shiite forces that are now present,” he says, “then this means we are pushing Iraqi society toward partition and civil war.”

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