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Provincial Borders:
Tensions Rise As Southern Iraqi Tribes Fight For Oil Jobs And Land

Ali Nasseri
As oil exploration and conservation projects create jobs in the south, Iraqi tribes are disputing the borders in Basra, Dhi Qar and Muthana. Whoever can claim the land, can claim the jobs there.
27.09.2016  |  Dhi Qar
Communications equipment near oil company sites in Dhi Qar. (photo: Abbas Shamkhi)
Communications equipment near oil company sites in Dhi Qar. (photo: Abbas Shamkhi)

At a recent demonstration in the southern Iraqi province of Muthana, a local unemployed man, Ali Abbas explained why he was there. “They want all the jobs for their people and they want to keep us unemployed,” he complained.

The “they” he is talking about are members of the al-Ghazi tribe, who are engaged in a fight for jobs with his own tribe, the al-Abbas tribe. The al-Abbas tribe had organized the demonstration.

The dispute between the two tribes stems from a new project that has seen hundreds employed in a project involving an oil storage depot for the China Petroleum Pipeline company.

And like other members of his tribe, Abbas, 34, is outraged that the al-Ghazi tribe is taking control of the land on which the depot is sitting, thereby claiming all of the available jobs for their clan. The al-Abbas tribe says it is actually their land.

The arrival of international oil companies is increasing tension between tribes. Next year's provincial elections will only make things worse.

Unfortunately demonstrating is as far as Abbas and his kin are likely to get. This dispute is just one of a handful erupting around the country, while the Iraqi government looks the other way.

The federal government in Baghdad is preoccupied by the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State and reconstruction of the areas the extremist group has been driven out of. The southern parts of the country have not suffered as much from the security crisis. However ongoing border conflicts between tribes, some of whom are threatening to take up arms, are likely to become yet another problem that Baghdad has to deal with shortly. The arrival of international oil companies and the upcoming provincial elections have only exacerbated these feuds.

Another oil-related project causing tribal conflict is an oil exploration program being run jointly by Japan’s Inpex and Russia’s Lukoil companies. The program, in the so-called Block 10 area, is located in over 5,000 square kilometres in both the Muthanna and Dhi Qar provinces.

The al-Ghazi tribe of Dhi Qar has claimed ownership of huge parts of the land in this area, notes local farmer Munshed Jaber, 65, and rightfully so, he adds. Jaber accused other tribes of trying to monopolize oil-related projects in the area and to take all the jobs.

Feelings of enmity are also present between the officials of the different provinces. “We asked for the formation of joint committees from each of the provinces to try and speed up the demarcation of borders and prevent tribal disputes from escalating,” Ahmad al-Marzouq, who heads Muthanna’s legal committee, told NIQASH. But the Dhi Qar council went ahead without us, he complains.

Meanwhile the head of Dhi Qar’s oil and gas committee, Yahya al-Mishrifawi, said that they had been forced to go ahead with marking out the borders because officials from Muthana had not attended any of the joint committee meetings.

“Because of the escalation of tribal tensions and protests, and the fear things might get worse, we proceeded unilaterally,” al-Mishrifawi explains. He says they used the correct government documents to come to their decisions and as a result, Dhi Qar now owns a significant part of the exploration area, Block 10.

We won’t accept these new borders, Harith Lahmud, the deputy head of Muthanna’s council, says. “We will not remain silent on this,” Lahmud told NIQASH. “We are going to discuss this with the federal government and we will ask them to intervene to protect the rights of the people of this province.”

In fact, it was the federal government that caused many of these problems – albeit the federal government run by former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein. The borders of Iraqi provinces were redrawn back then without taking into consideration historic and long-standing borders between different tribal areas. Several years ago the Iraqi government tried to bring these borders more into line with the latter but, as with so many unfinished political projects in Iraq, the plan was never carried out thanks to ongoing political disagreements. 

“Saddam Hussein made major changes to the map of Iraq and some of the biggest ones were on the borders shared by Dhi Qar and Muthanna,” Ali al-Atabi, a local geographer, told NIQASH. “The problem was supposed to be discussed in Parliament but the project failed. And over the past few months, this crisis has deepened yet again, thanks to fights about oil and tribes looking after their own interests.”

Interestingly a similar issue has arisen on the borders shared by the provinces of Basra and Dhi Qar too. The problem areas involve some of the most significant parts of the marshes here, which were recently designated a world heritage site by UNESCO.

The original inhabitants in the marshes, most of whom were forced to leave the area when Saddam Hussein drained the waterlands to prevent opposition forces from hiding there, say that the land belongs to them. The disputed area is about 30 kilometres south of Jabayesh in Dhi Qar. It is about 28 square kilometres big and home to around 1,000 people, many of whom came from other provinces like Basra and Maysan in the hope of improving their lives. The marshes are known for their agriculture and fishing.

However, the Bani Assad tribe from Dhi Qar say it is their homeland and that they want to resurrect the land so that returns to its past state.

The provincial councils have also become involved here. The head of the planning committee in Basra, Nashaat al-Mansouri, says that the disputed area is part of Basra, and belongs to the district of Huwair.

“Basra has provided all the necessary services for the area from out of its own budget,” al-Mansouri argues. “We have formed a committee for the revival of the marshes and we want to hold negotiations with the Dhi Qar council so as to avoid any encroachments.”

However, Badeeh Lubnan, mayor of Jabayesh in Dhi Qar, doesn’t agree. The committee formed to draw up new borders was “illegal”, he told NIQASH. “Basra officials are just redrawing the maps because of these tribal conflicts. But we have all of the maps and all of the official documents that show where Dhi Qar’s original borders are,” Lubnan insisted.

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