Iraqis in Maysan province are living as though at war. Tribal feuding has seen armed road blocks set up, almost a dozen deaths and arson. And despite locals' best efforts, nobody knows how to stop the fighting.
One of the problems with Maysan tribal feuding, elders say: Everybody has a gun.
Iraqi man, Karim Ahmad, was killed while he was just standing at his front door, waiting for his usual lift to work. Ahmad's three children then had to watch their father, 44, die on their own front doorstep in the district of Maymunah, southwest of the city of Amara in Iraq's southern Maysan province.
“When we filed a complaint with local security agencies, they asked us a lot of questions, like whether he had problems with other people in other tribes,” says Ahmad's brother, Abu Hussam. “They promised that they would investigate but up until now we have no idea about who killed him or why.”
But the family suspect Ahmad was killed because of some sort of tribal conflict. The Maymunah district has recently been the site of many such conflicts. These usually arise due to individuals' personal quarrels about things like a relationship, or a piece of land or the ownership of livestock. The fights start off as personal but then become family, and then tribal, feuds. Once the fight reaches the tribal level whole groups of people are committed to the grievance.
Two tribes in the area – the Bani Lam and the al-Ozairi - acknowledge long standing animosity. Their feuding dates back over a century and every now and then fights erupt; these are often settled by elders before some new dispute starts the fighting off again. One recent serious dispute in Maymunah arose because two locals were fighting over a pile of soil. One of them ended up dead. In retaliation the murdered man's tribe burned down the killer's house. The conflict escalated until the whole district was basically on lock down and experiencing a kind of minor version of civil war, with people scared to come out of their houses in case of random gunfire; the two opposing groups were simply shooting at each other.
In the nearby Majar area, the two tribes fighting are the al-Fartous and the al-Bu Ali tribes.
People in the Maymunah area and even in surrounding districts like Majar have been living like this for the past four months, locals say. Ten locals have been killed, dozens more injured and a number of houses burned down. The commercial market in the area closed because it wasn't safe to be on the streets. And the two feuding tribes have even set up road blocks in strategic areas, like the Maysan-Dhi Qar road, in order to ferret out their enemies.
“The two sides used heavy weapons,” an eyewitness to the fighting, who wanted to remain anonymous for security reasons, told NIQASH. “People here are terrified. Some families have left certain neighbourhoods, where the fighting is particularly bad.”
Local tribal elders have made some attempts to mediate between the two tribes but these have failed due to the high number of casualties and loss of property. Locals say those fighting are more rebellious these days and nobody respects any kind of law.
Nobody else seems to be able to do anything about the tribal fighting either. “Without the support of the army, the local police are unable to do anything about these tribal conflicts,” Sarhan Salem Younes, who heads the provincial council's security and defence committee in Maysan, told NIQASH. “The tribes have much more sophisticated weapons than the local police. Some of them have machine guns and even mortars.”
It is also difficult for local police to do anything because they too could become involved in the tribal feuding – often the police officers are themselves from one or other of the tribes and in the past, they were attacked and threatened when they tried to interfere. Because of their own tribal membership, they risk escalating the conflict even further.
And many in Maysan believe that the tribal fighting has become even worse because the division of the Iraqi army that used to be stationed in the province was moved to Anbar to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State there. The somewhat more independent soldiers provided a counterpoint to the inter-tribal prejudices.
“Tribal elders and other senior community leaders in Maysan have been trying to resolve these conflicts, minimize them and punish offenders,” says Hassan Abdul-Nabi, a senior officer in the Maysan police, who heads the tribal affairs department. “But we've noticed that some parties, who could benefit from the escalation of the conflict, have started to interfere. They're using the fighting to sell arms, without any fear of punishment.”
Tribal justice is taken very seriously in Iraq, where state-sponsored justice is either often not available or not trusted. Tribes don't go to court, they come up with justice themselves. One of the tenets of this is the concept of “blood money”, where the family and tribe of the victim – whether killed by accident or on purpose – is awarded financial compensation by the killer's family and tribe.
But recently the amount given as “blood money” demanded has risen to sometimes unmanageable levels. In this part of Iraq, blood money tended not to be over IQD600 million (around US$500,000) and often the killer's family would also be forced to leave the area, so as to lessen the potential for future fights. Recently requested blood money payments have been as high as IQD1 billion (around US$850,000). Some locals say the practice is out of control. In the past it was a deterrent to individuals, now it has become an opportunity to make a profit and to show off power.
“Asking for blood money is acceptable,” says a local cleric, Majid al-Saadi. “But asking for too much is not. People who ask for too much are committing a sin and when that happens, clerics will often withdraw from negotiations. “Nobody listens to us when it is like this,” al-Saadi explains.
“Things are getting worse here all the time,” says Abdul-Hussein Arnous Ghannami, the leader of the Albu Ghanim tribe. “The level of fighting has completely paralysed this place.”
Ghannami has his own ideas about why there is so much chaos here at the moment: Nobody listens to the tribal elders and everyone has a gun, he argues.
“In the past, relationships between tribes were much better,” Ghannami told NIQASH. “People used to listen to their sheikhs [tribal leaders] and appreciate what they said. Especially the young people. That is very different to what is going on today.”