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February 07, 2008 Edition 6

Tribal system promises much for a new Iraq
Jaber Aljaberi

In the history of Iraq, presidents and occupying powers alike have sought to minimize or eradicate the role of the tribes. None succeeded. Until 1958 when the monarchy was disbanded, tribal law ruled the land. The Republic may have officially cancelled tribal law in 1958, but 50 years later Iraq's tribal system is alive and well and has earned a seat in a regional democracy paradigm.

Articles in this edition
Securing their own street - Jonathan Steele
Developmental politics - Gabriel Rose
The answer to Iraq's problems? - Safa A. Hussein
Tribal system promises much for a new Iraq - Jaber Aljaberi
In 2003, Iraq was invaded on three fronts--an overt military occupation by coalition forces; a covert socio-political-economic infiltration by a regional power; and a ruthless insurgency that killed many more Iraqis than it did coalition troops. Few nations, if any, would be able to survive the magnitude of such an assault. Foreign agents set about sewing seeds of discontent with the purpose of dividing the country along sectarian lines. These foreign elements understood that Iraq's tribal system was the only impediment to the divide and conquer scheme, and as such, they systematically targeted the tribal system.

Through "Iraqi" agents, neighboring powers managed to convince the coalition that tribal leaders, Sunnis and Baathists were all synonymous. Thus, the tribes were politically and economically marginalized and prevented from securing their areas. As recently as 2007, tribal leaders and their guards could be arrested for carrying weapons, even in self-defense. This left them vulnerable; insurgents and militias-for-hire stepped in to seal the deal.

This scenario played out across Iraq, but not to the degree it reached in al-Anbar province. Cities were destroyed and the economy brought to a complete standstill; participation in the electoral process was reciprocated with assassination. The only two employers were the US military or al-Qaeda and if you worked with the former, the latter would levy a heavy price. Baghdad was off limits as the militias were hunting al-Anbarians in those days and few could afford to take refuge in Syria and Jordan, even if they managed to get a visa.

When the situation in al-Anbar reached unmanageable levels, it was the tribes that stepped up to restore security to the region. The courage and charisma of tribal folk turned the tide in this desert province. Soon, tribes were being allowed to take over the security of their tribal areas and within months, foreign insurgents retreated from al-Anbar.

One would have imagined that with the insurgency under control, peace would easily follow. But in this tribal region, nothing is easily forgotten. The families of victims called for retribution against locals who collaborated with the insurgency, even those minimally linked. Collaborators tended to be young men between the ages of 16 and 25. Without the opportunity for their reintegration into the community, these individuals may have no economic options but to rejoin insurgent groups.

Once again, tribal leaders are playing a critical role in resolving these disputes, deflating potential tribal conflict and finding ways of reintegrating these youths into the society.

We can attribute the success of the tribes to various factors.

When the Iraqi nation was bombed, pillaged and neglected, of the two social pillars able to maintain cohesion--religion and tribe--the tribal system proved to be the more effective. Rather than advocating harmony, tolerance and forgiveness, Iraq's religious apparatus became politicized, thereby fostering (but not fueling) sectarian tensions. Tribal leaders, on the other hand, were struggling even fighting to maintain a unified Iraq.

Because in the tribal system decisions are derived by consensus, they are more effective and last longer. Consensus-building is an Arab tradition that stems from tribal custom. The fact that in most households a physical space is dedicated for a diwaniyya or majlis (a place where one "holds court", hears concerns, complaints, and decisions are vetted with stakeholders) is a testament to the practical nature of the tribe.

The diwaniyya is an "alternative dispute resolution" technique--a concept fairly new to the western world, but a centuries old tradition in the Arab world. Sulha is another. In accordance with Islamic practice, sulha is a two-step process (a private, often mediated, negotiation of redress between the affected parties, followed by a public declaration of forgiveness and, usually, a festive meal).

Most importantly, as noted by Ada Pacos Melton in her essay on North American tribes, "Indigenous Justice Systems and Tribal Society", the tribal approach requires problems to be handled in their entirety.

"Conflicts are not fragmented, nor is the process compartmentalized into pre-adjudication, pretrial, adjudication and sentencing stages. These hinder the resolution process for victims and offenders and delay the restoration of relationships and communal harmony. All contributing factors are examined to address the underlying issues that precipitated the problem, and everyone affected by a problem participates in the process. This distributive aspect generalizes individual misconduct or criminal behavior to the offender's wider kin group, hence there is a wider sharing of blame and guilt. The offender, along with his or her kinsmen, are held accountable and responsible for correcting behavior and repairing relationships."

Every Iraqi government has tried and failed to disband the tribal system. Today, we have seen that the tribal mechanism (including tribal leaders, tribal law, and tribal judges) has demonstrated its effectiveness and has earned a place in a modern Iraq. It is a system that is based on hundreds of years of experience in resolving disputes and mediating conflict; it is practical, effective, secular and completely tuned in to stakeholder needs with full transparency and accountability. Furthermore, today many tribal leaders, historically uneducated but knowledgeable and wise, can tout degrees in law, engineering, mathematics and medicine. We may not see a Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq, but the tribal leaders of Iraq are poised to lead their nation toward an equitable system.

It is our hope that one of the lessons learned from the Iraqi experience since 2003 is that the tribal system is a vital component for a stable Iraq and Middle East. It is one area where the West can learn from the East and is the foundation for any sustainable Arab democracy.- Published 7/2/2008 bitterlemons-international.org

Jaber Aljaberi is president of the Iraq Future Foundation, which works on local reconciliation projects in Iraq.

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