Iraq: Tribal Structure, Social, and Political Activities Page: 3 of 6
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political leader, military general, chief educator, and manager of foreign affairs. These
tribes did not follow a sophisticated religious code. However, because of weak Ottoman
rule throughout the country, Iraq's loose tribal confederations prevailed, with each tribe
acting as a sort of mobile mini-state. Furthermore, in the absence of a strong central
authority, the tribal framework fulfilled the primary functions of conflict and resource
management. Some of the most important tribal confederations in Iraq include the
Shammar, Dulaym, Jiburi, Albu Nasir, Anizah, Zubayd, and Ubayd.
Around the mid-19th century, the Ottoman Empire increased its control over Iraqi
tribes through settlement policies and land reform measures. The result was an erosion
of the sheiks' traditional source of power and a disintegration of the traditional tribal
system. Following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British
decided to unite the three Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra into one
nation-state called Iraq (a name borrowed from the medieval history of the region),
despite the significant religious, linguistic, ethnic, and tribal divisions running through
Iraqi society. Britain took over in 1918 and restored power to the tribal sheiks, thereby
helping to preserve and reinforce Iraq's tribal structure. At the same time, the British
colonial state gradually appropriated former tribal functions like control of land, water
distribution, and law enforcement. Nomadic tribes settled in village communities based
on extended families or sub-clans. These communities often retained their tribal names,
but they were linked to the agricultural market, rather than to the subsistence economy.
Tribes continued to lose power under the modernizing monarchy and later under the
Tribal Role During the Ba'ath Period
Initially, when the Ba'ath Party came to power in 1968 with Saddam Hussein as the
second highest leader of the regime, the party viewed the tribal role as outdated and even
banned the use of tribal names.6 The regime enacted and began to implement agrarian
reform measures. At the same time, massive migration from rural areas to major cities
further diminished the remaining tribal units and ties. That, however, changed in the
1980s when Saddam's regime needed soldiers to fight Iran. The tribes were tapped to
contribute manpower to fight Iran. Saddam also rewarded the villages of loyal tribesmen
by providing roads, electricity, and water systems. He delegated more power and
autonomy to tribes after the Gulf War in 1991when he lost control of large sections of the
country. He reached out to tribal leaders, allocating specific sectors of the country for
them to supervise in exchange for more autonomy over tribal affairs. For instance, Sheikh
Talal, who was one of the strongest tribal leaders and claims to have about 100,000 armed
men all over Iraq, was allotted a 116-kilometer (72-mile) section of highway in southern
Iraq to protect at night.7
s Global Security, Military: "Tribal Structures" at [http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/
6 Neil MacFarquhar, "Unpredictable force awaits U.S. in Iraq Storied tribes of the Middle East
Devout, armed and nationalistic," International Herald Tribune, January 7, 2003, p. 2.
7 Neil MacFarquhar, "Tribes pose wild card if U.S. fights Saddam; America feeling out Iraq's
powerful clans," The New York Times, January 5, 2003, p. A1.
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Iraq: Tribal Structure, Social, and Political Activities, report, April 7, 2008; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc807312/m1/3/: accessed December 14, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.