Iraq’s Tribal Politics

By Omar al Jaffal for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Iraqi parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri issued a warning against involving the tribes in political disputes Aug. 14. His warning came a few days after the tribes affiliated with Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi and parliament member Mohammed al-Karbouli interfered in a political dispute as the two exchanged accusations of corruption during the Aug. 1 parliamentary session.

abouri seemed greatly concerned about the involvement of Iraq’s tribes in political conflicts. During a visit by a tribal delegation to the parliament, he told a number of Iraqi tribal leaders, “Preserving the independence of the tribes in Iraq is an important and essential safeguard. The ongoing attempts to drag the tribes into side conflicts are designed to undermine the building of Iraqi society and the Iraqi state.”

Iraq’s tribes are social institutions that have preserved many customs and traditions that run contrary to the laws of the state. The tribes manage their issues, even serious crimes such as murder, under a “blood money” system. A majority of Iraqi politicians seek to please them, as they represent large numbers of voters in local and parliamentary elections.

Athir al-Jassour, a political science professor at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, told Al-Monitor, “Since the Iraqi state was founded, there have been problems regarding the division of power, and customs and traditions have defined many of these problems, in determining both political and social approaches to them.” He added, “Among the various conflicts within Iraqi society, power was divided between religion, tribes and the rule of law, and the balance of power is tipped in favor of the one who can influence and protect.”

Iraqi politicians’ complex relationships with their tribes must be managed with a law regulating tribal affairs. The adoption of this law is an attempt by the Iraqi parliament to control growing tribal strength.

Jabouri and other politicians fear tribal involvement in political conflicts, as the tribes’ power threatens to undermine the authority of the state. The majority of the tribes are armed, and some even possess heavy weapons, which means that the outbreak of any tribal fighting could lead to divides no less dangerous than sectarian ones. Because of these tribal institutions’ complex relationships with each other, their involvement in politically motivated fighting may drag other tribes into armed conflict.

Obeidi and Karbouli’s is not the first political dispute to reach the tribal councils. What makes this time different and more dangerous is that the tribes have offered their absolute support to their affiliated politicians against other politicians. The defense minister made his appreciation clear by posting a video clip of his tribe meeting on YouTube.

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