As the extremist group known as the Islamic State was pushed out of the central Iraqi city of Tikrit, some of the Iraqi tribal networks in the area emerged as heroes. And others were classified as villains.
Imad al-Ajili is one of the alleged villains. The 45-year-old, now living in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, is originally from the Albu-Ajil area, east of the city of Tikrit. His tribe there has been accused of taking part in the infamous Camp Speicher massacre, where the Islamic State, or IS, group murdered hundreds – and possibly as many as 1,700 – soldiers when they captured the military camp, including cadets. Many of the soldiers killed were members of tribes from the surrounding areas, including the al-Jibour, al-Abed and al-Dulaim tribes.
Those who lost family members in the massacre say that, in a standard form of tribal justice, the al-Ajil tribe should pay for what members have done. The Albu Ajil tribe are well known as being close to former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, and those formerly affiliated with Hussein are known as being supporters of the IS group.
“Once police at a checkpoint know that you are a member of the Albu Ajil tribe, or if the members of the militia know this, you will most definitely be cursed and insulted,” al-Ajili said. “You will be checked very thoroughly and you may be beaten and detained. More than 23 young people from the area have disappeared and we don't know what happened to them,” he continues. “They disappeared in mysterious circumstances and nobody will tell their parents anything. Instead the parents are insulted and abused if they ask any questions. And it's not just that, the whole area has virtually been demolished because of looting and acts of revenge by the Shiite Muslim militias [who liberated the area from the IS group].”
For example, the Awja area, known as the home of the Albu Nasr tribe, about 10 kilometres south of Tikrit city, is completely deserted and almost all of the buildings there have been destroyed or burned down. “Around 38 people from the tribe joined the IS group right at the very beginning of this crisis,” explains Mutaz al-Nasri, one of the residents of Awja. “And they committed crimes that they alone should be held responsible for. But instead the whole area has been targeted and attacked by nearby tribes and by volunteer militias. Getting residents to return would be nigh on impossible. Their houses have been wrecked and anyone who returns will be threatened.”
But some believe all this is justified. “The Albu Ajili and the Albu Nasr tribes were the first to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State after the extremists entered Tikrit,” Ibrahim Darwish al-Jibouri, a local who is also a member of the volunteer militias fighting the IS group, told NIQASH. “They killed our children in cold blood and threw their bodies into the Tigris. They looted the shops, and stole real estate and cars belonging to members of the al-Jibour and al-Abed tribes, as well as other tribes. It was as if they were just waiting for that day so they could inflict this upon us.”
“We know the names of the people who committed these crimes and we have pictures of them,” al-Jibouri continued. “And in fact, at one stage they were proud of what they were doing. And certainly their fellow tribe members didn't object to what they were doing. That only started when the area was liberated from the IS group. So now we say that we will not accept blood money or any kind of mediation when it comes to tribal justice,” he concluded decisively.
Tribal justice is still common in Iraq. After a crime is committed there will often be a meeting where heads of the tribes affected, and the victims and culprits, meet to decide on appropriate punishment or compensation. For example, in a murder case one tribe may demand “blood money”, to compensate for the loss of the individual killed. In Salahaddin, the traditional value of this is 100 camels, equivalent to about IQD150 million (almost US$128,000).
The tribal conflicts get even more complicated when a sectarian element is introduced. In the north of the province things are fairly straightforward – all the tribes there are Sunni and the issues between them after the IS group left may best be described as purely “tribal” problems. However in the south of the province, things get more complicated. For example, in the Balad district the central area is mostly home to Shiite Muslims. Three smaller districts inside Balad are mostly home to Sunni Muslims. Two of these Sunni areas fell under the control of the IS group – which bases its ideology on a version of extreme Sunni Islam where Shiites are considered enemies – but the group was eventually driven out by the Iraqi army and the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias. By then though, most of the people who had lived in those two districts had left – that is an estimated 110,000 people. And even if they did wish to return to their homes it would be difficult. The tribes who live in the areas around those smaller districts are Shiite Muslim and they are refusing to allow anybody back in there.
“When somebody shoots at my house or at my family and kills my son or my brother, then you can assume that the person standing behind the shooter is either part of the crime, or at the very least, approves of the crime,” argues one of the Shiite tribal leaders in the Bani Saad area, Mahmoud Saadi. “The nearby [Sunni] tribes are responsible for the blood of more than 80 young people from Bani Saad. They were the ones who welcomed the IS group and supported the group. If they had stood against the IS group – like some of the tribes of nearby Dhuluiya did – then none of this would have happened.”
Saadi says that his sister is actually married to a member of one of those tribes. “I disowned this side of my family,” he says, “and I have asked my sister to divorce her husband.”
Local police records in Balad suggest that members of tribes are taking their own revenge on anybody who is left – they show that there have been more than 30 cases of what are assumed to be tribe-on-tribe crime, ranging from short term abductions and severe beatings to insults and being denied entry to certain areas. Rumours and stories also abound. Two of the most widely circulated involve Adnan Kheirallah , a policeman who was apparently beaten for hours while tied to a power pole under the burning midday sun, and Abu Ikhlas, a wheelchair bound individual, who was beaten with batons.
Some of the residents of the former IS-held territory suggest there are more sinister motives afoot too. “Over the past ten months, a policy has developed here that allows others to seize our property – orchards, houses, irrigation channels and anything that can be sold,” says Abu Safwan al-Azzawi, one of the locals. “Others wish to change the demographics of this area,” he suggests, “and it's actually all about who controls the most fertile land on the banks of the Tigris river as well as sectarian politics. The local tribes are using the Shiite Muslim militias to prevent locals returning to their homes for that reason.”
Local authorities have tried to find a solution and there have even been funds allocated – US$3.5 million - to help facilitate the return of those locals who fled from certain areas. However the financial problems that Iraq is facing as a whole mean that there has been little movement on these funds.
“The IS group is not the product of any particular tribe although certain tribes – the Albu Ajil and the Albu Nasr - are now associated with it because many of their people joined the extremists,” says Marwan Naji al-Jabara, the spokesperson for the Salahaddin provincial council. Al-Jabara doesn't think the tribes in Salahaddin are the problem and in fact, he believes that the tribal system is an excellent social structure that goes beyond ethnic and sectarian allegiances.
“The best solution for all of these problems is the law,” al-Jabara suggests. “When the law is applied to the criminals who rally around the IS flag and when their crimes are documented then other problems created in areas that the IS group controlled won't affect those who didn't pollute themselves by joining the extremists.”
Not everyone agrees with al-Jabara. Mustafa al-Sufi, a local civil society activist in the area, thinks that tribal justice and tribal affiliations often see members working above and beyond the Iraqi law. “For example some tribes have major influence on national politics or on the volunteer militias,” he explains. “Tribal leaders who have influence decide who occupies certain jobs or political ranks. Sons of tribal leaders might break the law and escape punishment because their fathers appointed the judiciary or the politicians. Other tribes – like the Albu Ajil and the Albu Nasr tribes – are now classified as terrorists and criminals, regardless of what they did. They've been branded traitors – even if members of the tribe might work in the military or law enforcement,” he notes.
It is hard to know what the long lasting impact of the IS group will be on Iraq's tribes. What locals do know though is that some tribal feuds have already lasted for decades, where families fight over mere meters of pasture or over long forgotten slights. The blood of hundreds of Iraqis – that is, members of tribes - has been spilled since this security crisis began. It isn't hard to imagine the tribal fighting and infighting will continue, even if, in the end, the violence comes under a new name.