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After Saddam, Iraq Tribal Wars Expected

by Ferry Biedermann

Post-Saddam Iraq May Look Like Pre-Invasion Afghanistan
(IPS) BAGHDAD -- Ahmed, a mild-mannered office worker in his 60s, had no hesitation in taking up the rifle when the chief called his tribesmen to arms last year. "To refuse would have been unthinkable," he says. "I would be less than a man."

For almost a week Ahmed took a position with others in a village in eastern Iraq, rifle in hand. He gave it up only after the dispute with another tribe was settled. Ahmed believes he did his duty. "If we had not mobilized, maybe there would have been much worse bloodletting," he says.

Ahmed is not alone in his readiness to take up arms when the tribe demands it. Tribes have a hold over their people in ways the government cannot match over the country at large. Most of Iraq's 22 million people have links to a tribe, and this link has only grown stronger in the uncertainty of the current crisis.

There are an estimated 150 major tribes in Iraq, and each tribe has several smaller clans within it. Their strength can vary from a few thousand to a million or so.

These tribes can play a pivotal role in securing and maintaining control. But their loyalties are uncertain. Not all of them are fiercely loyal to Saddam Hussein, but that may not mean they will be loyal to an outside force. Tribesmen turned against the British who tried to take control from the Ottoman Empire early in the last century, killing thousands of British soldiers.

Kareem Al-Ubaide brags of his tribe's strength in a gun shop he runs in central Baghdad. "We already have 10,000 people under arms in the north near Kirkuk and 3,500 in Basra in the South," he says.

"Everybody has a weapon, and the people who don't are coming to me in their thousands now to buy rifles," he says, pointing at the rifles on the racks.

Al-Ubaide says his tribe will "fight until the last man for Saddam Hussein." But he could hardly say anything else in a shop with official minders flanking journalists.

The rifles all look new. "No, the bullets will probably not go through American soldiers' body armor," says Al-Ubaide, "but we are not cowards, we will fight anyway."

An Iraqi who has overheard Al-Ubaide's remarks whispers outside the shop that he doubts the willingness of many tribes to fight for the leadership. "We buy those arms to defend ourselves, we are not spending that money to defend the government," he says.

Iraqis seem uncertain how many tribes will fight to defend the government. They expect the role of the tribes to become important after the collapse of the government.

Many of the traditional leaders, the sheikhs, have close ties with the government, which is almost inevitable in the tightly controlled Iraqi society. Saddam Hussein has wooed them, especially since the 1991 Gulf War, to help him maintain his position. The Sunni tribes in the middle of the country have gone along with Saddam Hussein, often as a way of safeguarding their influence.

In Rashid village 20 miles outside Baghdad, 71-year old Sheikh Khuder Abbas Hussein is master of the Hamdan tribe. Its million or so members are spread across the whole country, with a large concentration around Rashid and Baghdad.

The Sheikh who lives in a large compound which includes a mosque and a farm, traces his ancestry back to Seif Al-Dawla (Sword of the Nation) Hamdani, emir of Aleppo under the Abbasid Caliphs, some 1,000 years ago. He says his tribe will not submit to the authority of outsiders.

His son seated by his side in the marble reception hall says Saddam Hussein is of peasant stock, not really a member of a recognized tribe. The Sheikh quickly stops him. "No, no, the President is from the same background as us," he says. "He is from a tribe."

The Sheikh says his tribe is prepared for a U.S. attack, and that he supports the President. His tribesmen have made plans for mobilization, and weapons have been checked and stored.

The Sheikh says welfare of the tribe comes before all else. He took over leadership of the tribe from his father in 1948, when he was barely 16 years old. "I have steered the Hamdans through a very turbulent period, full of wars, revolutions and violence, and we are still here," he says.

The tribe has survived because it always calculated what was best for its members, he says. "We judge every situation on its own merit, we don't do anything foolish. Then we act in the national interest." He pauses, and adds with a faint smile: "Now that means supporting the President."

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Albion Monitor March 11, 2003 (

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