Recently, local authorities in Anbar were prevented by a tribal leader from demolishing some residential buildings built in violation of the law, despite needing to follow a plan to build new roads aimed at aiding Iraq’s development.
"These interventions are clear examples on how the influence of many tribes in the province has become an impediment for the application of the rule of law principles,” said Fuad Jattab, the province’s Deputy Governor for Technical Affairs. The influence and power of the tribes in the region is so strong that Jattab was unwilling to mention the offending group by name.
“T ribal leaders are directly interfering in our work and we are trying as much as possible to stop them and to apply the law," he complained.
He stressed that "customs and traditions must be confined to the tribes' premises and that they should not be applied in government departments. We always respect these traditions and norms.”
Rafea Abdul-Kareem, the Chairman of the Tribal Council of al-Anbar province, said that "there are those who pretend to be tribal leaders, but they are not. They try to exert pressure on officials for personal gains and they use the wasta to employ their relatives and followers in government departments."
Tribal leaders admit that wasta has been used by some tribes for personal gains.
"Some sheikhs would use wasta to solve certain problems of individuals in their tribes," said Khalid al-Isawi, one of al-Falluja's tribal leaders. "In some instances, authorities use force to enforce the law, depending on the power and influence of the tribes they are dealing with."
In Anbar, with a population of more than three million people, there are some 24 major tribes and some 60 other smaller ones according to classifications made by the Directorate of Tribal Affairs in the province.
After the occupation of Iraq in 2003, the province became a safe haven for those who wanted to resist US military occupation. Al-Qaeda built an alliance with the tribes in the province. But the alliance broke down, with tribal leaders annoyed at al-Qaeda’s imposition of strict Sharia Law in the region. They formed so-called Awakening Councils to fight them. Many tribe members have joined the security services since.
So effective were the Awakening Councils that the police have become nervous that they would become alternative power structures to the Iraqi national security services. They have taken action to curb tribal influence. One such measure was transferring soldiers to areas far away from their tribal homes.
"Soldiers must know and be aware that their sense of belonging should be to their country not to their tribe," said Maj. Gen. Bahaa Qaisi, al-Anbar police chief.
According to Qaisi, the transfer process "was very much appreciated by the province's citizens. Policemen have started taking more responsibility and have shown lots of commitment to their work. They are now accountable for their acts,"
Meanwhile, many tribal leaders warn against any attempts at ending or curtailing their power in the province.
"We will not allow anybody the opportunity to take away our role," said Sheikh Naji al-Mahalawi, one of Ramadi’s tribal leaders. "Tribes have played a very important role during the last few years and have sacrificed their sons to rid the city of terrorism.
"Without the tribes, there would have been no security, stability, construction, and investment in al-Anbar."
And the tribes have asserted their influence in the province. The 29 seats on the provincial council are dominated by the tribes and they exercised their power in Fallujah, voting to sack Saad Awad Rashid, the city’s mayor, after he was accused of "ignoring the role of tribes and of failing to manage the city's affairs."
They seem intent on sticking to their promise that "any official who attempts to reduce the role of tribes will face the same fate of Rashid!"
With the power to follow through on such threats, it is clear that central government’s fear of tribal influence is well-founded. However, differing political interests have so far kept the tribes disunited when it comes to their party support.
In the Abu Risheh tribe, there are two powerful leaders, Sheikh Ahmad Abu Risheh, the head of Iraq's Awakening Councils and a supporter of the Iraqi Unity Coalition, and Saad Fawzi Abu Risheh, a supporter of the State of Law Coalition.
At the moment, these party political rivalries are all that limit the power of the tribes in Anbar.