Edition 6 Volume 6 - February 07, 2024

The "bottom-up" leadership process in Iraq

Tribal system promises much for a new Iraq -   Jaber Aljaberi

The tribal mechanism has demonstrated its effectiveness and has earned a place in a modern Iraq.

The answer to Iraq's problems? -   Safa A. Hussein

Many of the support councils quickly become gardens where local leaders grow.

Developmental politics -   Gabriel Rose

Anbar is quieter, not pacified, and the means employed are a distinctly mixed blessing.

Securing their own street -   Jonathan Steele

To treat Iraq's collapse into local politics as a success story is laughable.

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.

In 2024, 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 2024, 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 2024 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.

The answer to Iraq's problems?
 Safa A. Hussein

In recent months, many American politicians and officials have criticized the Iraqi government for acting too slowly--for not exploiting the limited time available for the political reforms and national reconciliation needed to turn recent tactical security gains into strategic gains. Indeed, the reform and reconciliation process is slow, but it is unfair to blame the government only. The real cause of the government's ineffectiveness is the current political system, which is fatally flawed.

The political process that the Coalition Provisional Authority administered and then the United Nations oversaw through elections created the conditions for Iraqis to identify with their sect/ethnicity rather than with the Iraqi nation through their respective provinces. The electoral process was based on closed national lists by means of which Iraqis naturally rallied to their sectarian/ethnic grouping. This system created a first generation of Iraqi politicians who played the sectarian/ethnic game to rally constituents. Politics became a destabilizing scramble for sectarian/ethnic power at the national level.

When the violence in Iraq was accelerating in 2024, it was not difficult to see that a major cause was the resistance of the Arab Sunnis to their loss of power and what they perceive as marginalization in the new political system. The neighboring countries and the US exerted pressure on the Iraqi Shi'ite government to fix the situation by making concessions on behalf of Sunnis. The very nature of this process hardens the sectarian divisions that are at the heart of the dysfunction in the Iraqi state. Again, when Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki was forming his government in 2024, the international community exerted heavy pressure to form the so-called government of national unity. It did not take long to realize that this is a crippled government that has further weakened the non-functioning political structure. By mid-2007 it was clear that the political process was in deadlock. Top-down politics is simply not working.

But mid-2007 also witnessed the emergence of a strategic opportunity that was created by another process: the shift of the Sunni community against al-Qaeda in Iraq. This manifested itself in different forms; the most famous is the so-called "tribal awakening movement"--a slogan for the tribal uprisings against AQI. The willingness of many Iraqi insurgent groups to dialogue with the Iraqi government and the cooperation of many of them with that government and with American forces against AQI is an additional major manifestation of this shift.

Another significant development that created a strategic opportunity was the freezing of Mahdi Army military activities by its leader Moqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi Army plays two roles: First, it protects the Shi'ite community against Sunni insurgent attacks (in the process fueling the cycle of sectarian violence). Second, al-Sadr followers compete, some times violently, with their Shi'ite rivals, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The freezing of al-Sadr's militia has quieted both struggles.

These opportunities have permitted reconciliation at the local level. Tens of tribal and notable "support councils" were established in volatile areas such as Baghdad, north and south of the capital (in what was previously known as the triangle of death), Diala, Salah al-Din, al-Anbar and recently Mosul. A typical support council is a civic organization established by influential locals, composed of all constituents of the area who are usually tribal leaders and other notables. The Iraqi government sponsors and supports these councils, which are given an important advisory role and in a few exceptional situations a security role. These councils play a valuable role in social and reconciliation activities, specifically in areas that have suffered sectarian violence. In many instances they are part of the tribal awakening movement. Many of these councils quickly become gardens where local leaders grow.

If these local reconciliation initiatives expand into national reconciliation and political reform projects and the local leaders turn into Iraq's second generation of national political leaders, then we may witness a major evolution in Iraqi politics in the form of some sort of a bottom-up political process. This may be the answer to Iraq's problems. It will encourage Iraqis to participate in politics through provincial identification, thus allowing them to cross ethnic and sectarian lines and facilitating national unity. Yet it may also bring new challenges, insofar as the speed and final outcome of this evolution are affected by the national election law, the provincial elections and the attitude of the existing political parties.

The previous national election law established voting on closed lists. This arrangement suited parties that use religion and ethnicity to collect votes throughout Iraq. By its nature it creates sectarian and ethnic leaders who become part of the political problem. If this law is not changed, there will be little chance for local leaders to become national politicians. There are calls for changing this election system and legislating a new law, but will the major parties in parliament allow this?

The timing of the next provincial elections is another issue. The major political blocs in parliament control the provincial councils and are not eager to set up elections that will give a chance to newcomers.

Existing Sunni political parties have been critical of the new local leaders. They see them as a threat to their position as sole representatives of the Sunnis and as competition for neighboring countries' support. Recent statements by senior Sunni politicians suggest that they want to contain these new local leaders. Thus the possibility of a deeper split that cripples the political process still exists.- Published 7/2/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. He served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force. Currently he works in the Iraqi National Security Council.

Developmental politics
 Gabriel Rose

The past six months have seen what appears to be a radical turn-around in al-Anbar, Iraq's western province. But the story is not as it appears at first glance. Al-Anbar is quieter, not pacified, and the means employed are a distinctly mixed blessing. The current comparative calm has come about through alliances with local tribal leaderships, forged with American aid to the "Sunni Awakening" movement as a concerted force to throw against the insurgency.

Prior to the Awakening, the surge had done little more than provide a more concentrated target for insurgents. But the direct cost of the turnaround is strengthened tribal control over the province, with all the political threats and pressures on the "larger Iraqi picture" that go with it. Since many of the insurgents came from within the Awakening tribes, the task of quieting Anbar was somewhat of a shell game--the number of combatants has not decreased so much as it has changed, morphing into the Iraqi police or simply standing down. A running joke describes al-Anbar province as "Chicago...1929", and through US support the parties that bring the metaphor to mind have strengthened measurably.

The Awakening's alliance with the US is purely mercenary. The insurgency became so luridly destructive that public opinion rose against the sheikhs for allowing its continued presence in their midst, and partnership with the US became the surer bet for retaining power. If that relationship stops being beneficial, the Awakening will likely turn and bite. Adding to the precarious balance, al-Anbar is rife with unaired tribal conflicts and distinctly skeptical about centralized national control; the Maliki government is viewed on a continuum from disinterested and ineffective to actively antagonistic.

The formation of the awakening has also committed the US to specific political alliances. The allies often work at counter-purposes to larger political goals for Iraq and may themselves be turned upon by other local groups, forcing the US to hold with the deposed or desert them for new allies. The worst-case scenario is that the US has paid for, trained and armed the next wave of increased violence.

Into this interesting situation come development organizations. Most of us are occupied with the usual suspects of the development world--rebuilding roads, schools and other infrastructure, developing vocational programs and the like--aimed primarily at offering a chance for stability and employment to another usual suspect, young males. The greatest risk in al-Anbar is not a re-formed insurgency, but tribal warfare and fracturing communities; the greatest hope for mitigating the risk is not employed stability, which will always be short-term coming from a development organization, but bottom-up processes of governance, rebuilding the lines of communication and coordination that knit communities together.

This is where NGOs can play their greatest role, and where we work to use our projects and our position at the center of local politics as leverage and not as an end goal. It's not as idealistic as it may sound--individual communities feel cut off from governmental and physical development, and have long since stopped attempting to remind the provincial, national and even city governments of their needs. It is from these communities, on the short end of American, tribal and provincial support, that the greatest physical threats come. Communication and leverage mitigate this threat, knitting a "whole community" back together somewhat. Regular meetings with city councils and tribal leadership organize our actions through recognized local governance, restoring it to a regional as opposed to Awakening-centric vision.

We can do nothing about the groups that are in power, but we can increase the incentive for them to act regionally. This is accomplished at the district and provincial levels, and mirrored even at the finest grain--school administrators have approached us with the same "they have forgotten us and we don't talk with them anymore" story we hear from city councils and sheikhs--in part by refusing to argue on their behalf but offering to help open the discussion if they come to the council and make their own argument. We aim to strengthen the role of each party within an interconnected whole that only then provides regional project priorities to us. This also evades somewhat the trap of outsiders dictating needs and priorities.

Branding regulations required by funding organizations have been waived, so the population sees local leadership bringing in money and development: a nominal shift since we can hardly hide our presence, but an important one. Working deliberately with all tribes and all families encourages a decentralized grassroots push to repair local relations: a "safety net" of mutually reinforced interests that might withstand or mitigate resurgent violence. It encourages the tribal leadership to open the floor and allow the networking to avoid raising resentment against them. The development projects themselves become the "carrot" at the center of the web.

A pre-packaged democracy is unlikely to succeed in Iraq in general; in al-Anbar, certainly. The bricks and mortar of democratic process, however, can be strengthened to good effect.- Published 7/2/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Gabriel Rose is a development professional working in al-Anbar province.

Securing their own street
 Jonathan Steele

The "surge" of US troops in Iraq has produced a huge fanfare in the US, leading the Bush administration, as well as several mainstream American commentators, to conclude that victory is just around the corner. Yet the most important lesson of the surge has been almost entirely overlooked: the US high command has finally realized that politics in Iraq have become local. To have any chance of success, you have to get down to the district level, even to the street level, rather than put your hope in changes made on high.

It is a lesson that should have been learned some time ago. The Iraqi government and the national parliament have been symbols of impotence and ineffectiveness almost since they came into being in 2024. Ministers and MPs sit in the Green Zone in Baghdad, just as cut off as US and British diplomats from ordinary Iraqis. They spend their time haggling over legislation that has little relevance in people's daily lives.

Similarly, the Iraqi national army is anything but national. Its make-up does not represent a cross-section of Iraqi society. Some divisions are entirely Kurdish. Others are largely Shi'ite. Few have a serious Sunni component.

With the surge the Americans are showing they have also recognized this. In al-Anbar province they saw that a growing number of tribal sheikhs and local imams, as well as the Iraqi national resistance, had resolved to confront al-Qaeda. This trend, the so-called Awakening or Sahwa movement, was one that the American commander, General David Petraeus, felt he could and should support. Up to 70,000 people are believed to be getting monthly stipends of some $300 a month from the Americans, in addition to arms.

From the American point of view, the Sahwa increases the anti-al-Qaeda front, even though the build-up of Sunni militias against al-Qaeda may be stoking the fires of a future civil war if they later go on the offensive against Shi'ite militias. Similarly, if al-Qaeda is driven out of Iraq, Sunni militias may resume their attacks on the Americans whom they regard as occupiers.

So this new US strategy of co-operation with Sunni militias in al-Anbar is a high-risk policy. The same is true in Baghdad's suburbs where US forces are working with neighborhood vigilante groups, helping them to build walls and erect checkpoints to prevent sectarian raids by outsiders. As a result the monthly toll of sectarian murders in Baghdad has fallen dramatically. If the number of bodies found dumped in Baghdad's streets after torture and execution totaled around 1,000 in January 2024, the number was down to 120 in December.

In Baghdad, Sunnis have set up these local groups out of fear for the army and the overwhelmingly Shi'ite police force. In Baghdad's Shi'ite suburbs, and especially in Sadr City where people are loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, it is the police whom residents fear. They know police have been heavily infiltrated by Badr brigade cadres loyal to the Hakim family.

The Americans dub the new vigilante and militia groups with the innocent label, Concerned Local Citizens. But most are anything but innocent. They are linked to local warlords, gang leaders, and criminal groups--the sort of people who always emerge in times of civic breakdown and urban violence. They fight with each other in pursuit of monopoly control over whatever area of the city they feel they have the muscle to exploit. They levy "taxes" on small businesses. They run their own "courts" and prisons. They operate death-squads.

So the new localization of Iraqi politics is only the latest sign of the degeneration of a system in which identity counts more than ideology or issues. In times of insecurity, people usually tend to fall back on communal and sectarian defenses. When insecurity becomes truly massive, peoples' horizons shrink yet further. To treat Iraq's collapse into local politics as a success story is laughable. Iraqis are in survival mode, and the safety of their own street, even if it has to be safeguarded by militias, is all they can hope for.- Published 7/2/2008 bitterlemons-international.org

Jonathan Steele is international affairs columnist for The Guardian newspaper

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