The hit-and-run auto accident that caused the death of one of Hamid al-Sayyed Najim’s sons was not resolved in any court. Instead the family, whose home is in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, opted for a tribal resolution. They saw this as the best way of getting justice for their son.
“Many Mosul families have gone back to tribal rules when it comes to resolving conflicts,” Nassar al-Nuaimi, a relative of the deceased’s family, explained. “The law is unable to protect individual rights. And because of the absence of civil laws or the weakness in their enforcement, people feel a real need to seek tribal protection.”
In the end, al-Nuaimi said, the outcome of the tribal meeting called for the family of the person who caused the death to pay the Najims IQD25 million (US$21,000).
“But we returned the money as an expression of good will,” al-Nuaimi noted: in tribal law, it is quite common for victims to waive financial damages as it is seen as the honourable thing to do and much of tribal law mediation is based on restoring honour. And, al-Nuaimi added, “it only took us few days to reach a resolution. If we had gone to court, it would have taken months.”
The incident is hardly uncommon: As American political scientist Katherine Blue Carroll wrote in a January 2011 report, Tribal Law and Reconciliation in the new Iraq, published in the Middle East Journal, “well-developed systems of tribal [or customary] law originating in the pre-Islamic era have continued to function in the modern Arab world”.
Although religious or political figures may get involved, usually the process centres on mediation between the two conflicted parties by a family, or tribal leader. The mediator, Blue Carroll writes, determines the facts of the case and works out what sort of reparation is suitable, according to tribal legal codes before enacting some kind of communal reconciliation.
Sheikh Barzan al-Badrani, chief of the Badrani tribe in Mosul, who often acts as a mediator at tribal law meetings, said that tribal law was providing more protection than Iraqi federal law, which was often not even enforced – although this was mainly due to the security situation in Mosul.
The security situation in Mosul has been unstable, with violence between the various ethnic, religious, political and military groups continuing to plague the city. There are also reports that two different military groups currently basically run half of the city each, with the Iraqi military reporting to Baghdad and the Kurdish military to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
This has meant that, more recently, tribal law has become increasingly influential among urban families, rather than just among rural dwellers, living further from major centres with courthouses and police forces, whom one might expect to turn to tribal law.
“Given the weakness of the new Iraqi state and in particular its legal system, it is not surprising that tribal law surged in to fill the gap,” Blue Carroll noted.
“The collapse of Iraqi state institutions after April 2003 [and the US-led invasion of Iraq] and the chaos that prevailed at the time, has seen tribal law filling a security vacuum,” explained Ahmad Fakkak, a professor of political science at the University of Mosul.
Tribal law and customs have become even more influential as tribal leaders have begun to take up more senior positions inside state or state-funded institutions, especially those pertaining to power plants, oil pipelines and railways.
For example, also attending that inner city meeting at which these decisions about the Mosul hit-and-run accident were made was Jabir al-Abed Rabbo, the head of the state’s provincial council. But he wasn’t attending in any official capacity; Rabbo is a member of the al-Jibouri tribe, to which the family member who had caused the accident also belonged.
Fakkak explains further: The tribal leaders have tremendous electoral influence and democracy has allowed them to have their children or leading members of the tribe elected into powerful positions, which in turn has allowed them to have tribal members appointed to powerful economic positions. “This has been accompanied by almost the full withdrawal of the technocrats,” Fakkak added.
The provincial council of the state of Ninawa presents a good example of this. Out of the 25 seats held by Arabs (rather than Kurdish politicians), 15 are tribal leaders. One MP, Abdullah al-Hamdoun, pointed out that half of the members of the Iraqiya list in Ninawa, of whom there are 20, won seats thanks to tribal loyalties.
Interestingly, all the politicians mentioned by Hamdoun use their tribal titles – that is, they add a third name to their first two. This is known as adding a “nisbat”, or specifier, to indicate a person’s affiliation to, among other things, a person, place or tribe. For instance, al-Jibouri or al-Obaidi, basically says the person is “of Jibouri” or “of Obaidi” descent. It’s a little like saying “von” in a German surname or “de” in a French one. And one of the staff of Mosul’s electoral commission believes that many voters in the region simply search for candidates from the same tribe by surname when choosing whom to vote for.
Possibly this is why the head of the biggest voting bloc on Ninawa’s council is the head of the Shammar tribe and one of the most influential tribal figures in Iraq. As Fakkak pointed out, “the president of the council, his deputy and five other members are all well known tribal leaders. You often hear the word “sheikh” being used in conversations between council members!” Sheikh is an honorific in Arabic used for tribal leaders as well as religious authorities.
Things are not that different in Baghdad’s own parliament. Osama al-Nujaifi, the speaker of parliament, comes from a very well known Mosul family and during his electoral campaign he did his best to utilize those ties, visiting tribes to promote his candidacy as well as those of his affiliates.
The relationship is a reciprocal one. Having become speaker of the house at the national level, al-Nujaifi was then asked to head a tribal council, that of the Bani Khaled tribe, a large clan group that spans the whole of Iraq. Analysts say that although al-Nujaifi is an urban dweller whose tribal ties were not originally as strong, he accepted the post, knowing full well that many members of his own political party were elected due to their tribal connections.
Another factor strengthening the influence of tribes and tribal law in Iraq is the migration of rural Iraqis into the urban areas, like Mosul. The emigration is being caused by drought and worsening agricultural conditions. This in turn is raising fears among the citizens of Mosul that tribal traditions will increasingly come to impact upon their urban lives, especially as tribal members often choose to settle in certain neighbourhoods together.
“There have always been conflicts between the traditional and the new and this is what is happening in Mosul’s community now,” explained Ali al-Mimari, a professor of political sociology at the University of Mosul. “There is a hidden tug-of-war happening. The citizens of Mosul are afraid that villagers’ values and traditions will come to dominate the city.”
As a result, observers say that Mosul locals are increasingly using a local dialect to distinguish themselves from newcomers and they are also increasingly emphasizing their Mosul family ties.
The other issue of concern in Mosul is the fact that tribes have almost complete control over Mosul’s security forces. Apparently this is because the city locals are reluctant to become part of the police or military. Some younger locals posted messages on the governor of Ninawa, Atheel al-Nujaifi’s Facebook page complaining about the way that local police treated civilians. Al-Nujaifi’s reply: “The reason for this is that the people of the city of Mosul are barely represented within the security services.”
A source within the security services, who preferred to remain anonymous, told NIQASH that this was true. “Around 70 per cent of local police in Ninawa are from the al-Jibouri tribe,” the source claimed, “and the other 30 per cent are members of other tribes.”
In a 2008 analysis of Palestinian tribes, Glenn Robinson, an American professor of defence analysis who works at the University of California, wrote that: “where states are strong and can reliably protect citizens, clans weaken; where states are weak, clans are strong.” It seems that Iraq is another nation proving this true.