One early morning recently, Nathim al-Shammari got up, got dressed and walked down to his workplace as usual. But this day was far from ordinary. When al-Shammari got to his store, in the Zubair neighbourhood in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, he found a chilling sentence graffitied across the front of the premises: Wanted. For Blood Money.
Frightened, al-Shammari hurried home and packed, intending to to stay elsewhere for a while. He also called his family to tell them what had happened and then he went to report the incident at the local police station.
“There they told me to stay where I was and not to file a complaint,” he explains. “Then the head of my tribe called me and told me there was a conflict that had something to do with my cousins fighting with members of another tribe.”
Al-Shammari is employed by one of the local government departments and runs his small grocery store on the side. Thanks to the brewing tribal conflict, he had to close the store and take a month’s vacation from his regular job, moving with his family to another location until the situation could be resolved. All of the latter cost al-Shammari a lot of time and money, he complains. And all because of something done by somebody he had never even met. The dispute had to do with a distant relative he did not know, who had not repaid a debt. “And I found myself caught up in a fight that I had nothing to do with,” he told NIQASH.
A local expert in tribal affairs tells of a Basra doctor who was reluctant to operate on patients in case anything went wrong and he was attacked by members of the patient’s tribe.
This is just an example of the way that tribal justice is meted out in parts of southern Iraq. Many Iraqis resolve problems – whether criminal or civil – without going to the authorities. They prefer to use the ancient systems of tribal justice.
Despite the trappings of democracy and the rule of law in Iraq, the tribal system remains strong in this country and elsewhere in the Middle East. As one tribal leader told NIQASH, “when the state is strong and capable of imposing the letter of the law, every person feels that his rights are respected. But when the state is weak for one reason or the other, and is incapable of enforcing the law throughout the entire country, then tribal associations become stronger and tribal laws are applied more frequently. It becomes the only option to protect people and their families.”
In tribal law, when a dispute arises, the complainant decides whether they wish to use tribal law or go to the legal system. If they choose tribal law, then the accused must abide by their decision; if they do not, then it may mean that more members of the two tribes involved are forced into a wider dispute, perhaps even a feud. What this means in effect is that family and tribe members would most likely persuade the accused to accede to the complainant’s wishes.
“And this chaos is supported by influential people,” explains Ali al-Mathhaji, a Basra human rights activist. “Most of the politicians and officials believe that they get their power from their tribal support. That’s why tribal loyalty, and tribal law, plays such a big part in decision making.”
If Iraqi officials are using tribal law, then how can one try and stop ordinary citizens from using it too, al-Mathhaji argues.
And while in some cases, tribal law may be a good way to resolve a dispute, in other cases – such as in the shopkeeper, al-Shammari’s – it just causes unnecessary fear and waste.
The Ibn Rushd School in Basra’s Jumhuriyah neighbourhood is a good example of this. There one of the parents whose son had failed exams, wrote threatening messages on the school walls, beat the school’s principal and threatened teachers.
Many schools have been threatened or forced to close in similar cases, Jawad al-Maryosh, the head of Basra’s teachers’ union, told NIQASH. This included the Al Nisr Al Arabi school in central Basra and the Al Latif and Al Shahid secondary schools in the Harrah area, among others.
The reasons behind the closures may be that a certain student failed exams, or it could be something as simple as the school not paying rent for its buildings on time, al-Maryosh pointed out. The disputes are usually resolved eventually and the local education authorities always stay out of it, he says. They don’t provide any assistance for endangered teaching staff either.
A local expert in tribal affairs, Salam al-Sharifi, tells NIQASH about a Basra doctor who was reluctant to operate on patients in case anything went wrong and he was attacked by members of the patient’s tribe.
“This has happened in the past,” al-Sharifi told NIQASH. “Some doctors had their cars burned and some of them were forced to pay blood money [a sum to compensate for the death of an individual, or harm done to that person] – in some cases the doctors paid as much as IQD50 million [around US$39,000]. In many situations, the doctors won’t try and bring the problem to further attention because their reputation is at stake.”
Of course, tribal justice is not all bad either. Sometimes it can be the quickest way to a resolution that is happily accepted by all. For example, members of the Bani Tamim tribe closed down a major commercial area in Basra because they said the rent on the land had not been paid by investors.
“We knew it wasn’t the right thing to do,” says one tribe member who didn’t want to give their name. “But the park’s administration, who rented the land from us, had not paid us one penny for almost seven years. If we had not done this, we would have received nothing.”
Some of the tribal leaders in Basra do not approve of this kind of behaviour. It is a form of “terrorism made from traditions,” says Abdullah Aziz al-Khafaji, a local community leader. It terrorizes innocent people and divides society, he argues.
“These acts are ones of revenge,” al-Khafaji stated. “They are only happening because of the weakness of the state, and therefore the rule of law, after 2003. Many tribes have made promises that they would not use tribal justice to get revenge but unfortunately they did not keep them.”
The local government has been trying to do something about this too, says Sheikh Abbas Al-Fadli, who advises the provincial council on tribal matters and who heads a special committee tasked with resolving inter-tribal conflicts, working together with local security forces.
“The joint committee has started its work and we now have an overview of existing problems,” al-Fadli told NIQASH; the tribe is trying to get as much cooperation from local tribal leaders as possible. “Most of the tribal groups in northern Basra are now coordinating with the commander of security forces here to put an end to these problems. We believe that in the coming days we will see a lot of success. Reconciliation is the best solution,” al-Fadli argues.
Additionally, local lawyer Saleh Kadhem al-Mutawari notes that there are actually penalties under real Iraqi law for some of the things that tribal justice often demands.
According to the Iraqi penal code, verbal threats can be punished by up to a year in prison and if somebody threatens to kill you, they could go to jail for around seven years.
“The law says that the victim can also ask for financial compensation through the courts, especially if he suffers any consequences of the threatening behaviour – such as damages to property, a shop or a vehicle,” al-Mutawari says. “But of course, most people don’t go to the authorities because they fear it will only bring on further acts of revenge.”