One of the major influences on Iraqi – and in fact, Middle Eastern - politics is the historic tribal system. Which extended family or clan you belong to, and what part of the country those groups came from, often has a major impact on your political loyalties and any benefits you might accrue from those connections.
In the relatively recent past though, the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan has been different from the rest of the country in that regard.
Despite the fact that there were well-known tribal groups in Iraqi Kurdistan, their authority was either not openly recognized or just hidden behind the name of a political party. And for almost 25 years Iraqi Kurdistan has supposedly been moving toward a more civil state.
However recently that seems to have been changing and tribal groups are, once again, becoming more powerful. The main reason locals have been talking about this issue was the staging of two major tribal festivals, or get-togethers, in the region, that saw thousands of tribe members come together for a series of activities, including meals, performances, fashion shows and displays of historic tribal artefacts.
While the tribes and their members insist that this revival of tribal spirit is just about their heritage in Iraqi Kurdistan, other locals fear this new mood. Given the ongoing power of tribal customs and tribal law, as well as the current insecurity and political unrest in Iraqi Kurdistan, they fear that increasing loyalty to tribal factions could lead to violence and the increased observation of tribal law will marginalize gains made by civil society groups and secular lawyers.
Other Iraqi Kurdish see the large tribal gatherings as dangerous, a way for tribes to assert their dominance and their customs.
Some of the best known tribal groups in Iraqi Kurdistan include the Barzanji, Jaf, Mirawdale, Zebari and Bradosti tribes, among many others. During the Kurdish civil war between 1994 and 1998, the two major political forces in the region who were fighting one another, used to rely on tribal leaders to resolve differences. But eventually tribal influence began to decline.
More recently, between around 2009 and 2013 – especially as democratic elections began to be taken more seriously in Iraqi Kurdistan – tribal influence started to become important again. Political parties such as the Political Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, curried favour with tribal leaders in order to get the votes of their tribe members.
“Political parties gain the loyalty of tribes and clans by considering the tribes’ interests,” Abdullah Rishawi, a local historian, explains. “In many cases the political parties then ignore actual law in order to do what the tribes want them to. The parties solve the tribes’ problems and look out for their daughters’ and sons’ interests. The personal and social relationships that are part of the tribal system are both used by the political parties and built upon by them.”
And if something drastic happens – such as the death of a tribe member, while fighting under the banner of a certain political party – then the tribe and the political party are eternally linked, Rishawi continues.
Given the current unstable situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, in terms of both security and politics, tribal laws and powers are once again a focus – although this time, not always under the auspices of a political party.
Locals have started commenting upon this, seeing recent tribal gatherings as an opportunity for the tribes to display their power and numbers.
The festival run by the Jaf tribe is well known already. This tribe, one of the oldest Kurdish tribes, has around 52 constituent groups in southern and eastern Kurdistan. Between 2002 and 2015, the Jaf tribe organised five major get-togethers in Iraqi Kurdistan.
During the first week of April, the Manmi tribe, one of the largest in the Erbil and Sulaymaniyah areas, held a special event in Sulaymaniyah that was attended by around 3,000 people.
“By organising this festival the tribe wanted to get together and get more organized,” Kamal Hamma Sharif Haji Harith, the leader of the tribe, told NIQASH. Mostly though, the festival was just about bringing people together, Harith continued. “Activities like this are positive because they bring people together and counter the impact of social media, which distances people from each other.”
“At one stage my party – the PUK – was opposed to tribal festivals like the one held by the Jaf tribe,” Hamid Haji Ghali, a senior member of the PUK, said. “We were worried the tribe might start their own political party. But the tribe has changed its position and the PUK realises there is no danger [of competition]. So we help the Jaf tribe organize their festival, in order to revive and preserve tribal heritage.”
Of course, political parties benefit from their tribal alliances during an election, Ghali agreed. “But they can’t rely on those connections because the tribes are not an officially organized force. And the tribes want to preserve their heritage and community rather than put on a show of force,” Ghali suggested.
However others do not agree. The tribes putting on these large events say they’re doing it all “in good faith”, but other Iraqi Kurdish groups see the large gatherings as dangerous, a way for tribes to assert their dominance and their customs.
Civil society groups in Iraqi Kurdistan have criticized the tribal system of justice repeatedly, saying that criminals within the tribes are not properly punished according to the law. Instead a tribal system of restorative justice is used - especially when it comes to crimes against females - and that affiliated political parties help the tribes enact their own laws.
“Tribes in Iraqi Kurdistan still have the upper hand in many small and large legal issues,” argues Shokhan Ahmed, a local lawyer and activist. “This is due to the absence of rule of law here and the fact that many locals don’t trust the law courts. This means that the tribes become more powerful and overrule what local courts may decide.”
Shokhan then told NIQASH about a murder case she had been working on for the past few months. “But before we got to court, the case was resolved. Around US$200,000 was paid and the whole file was closed.”
This is a common way that tribal law settles a dispute, even one as heinous as murder – the perpetrator’s family pays the family of the victim a certain amount of money as well as undertaking other kinds of compensation, such as, for example, banishing the murderer.