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5.26.2010 Iraq’s tribes may hold the balance of power

By The Economist

THE big maps on the walls of the sprawling American base known as Camp Victory, next to Baghdad’s main airport, show Iraq as a country divided into parts more or less dominated by either Sunni or Shia Muslims. But when the camp’s uniformed occupants, many on a third or fourth tour of duty there, discuss their dealings with the country’s leaders, the word that dominates their talk is tribe.

More than a hundred are spread across Iraq, some with a quarter of a million members, many of them cutting across sectarian lines. Local politics has been run mainly by tribal leaders ever since they wrested control of vast stretches of land from insurgent groups two or three years ago, bringing a measure of calm to Iraq. For the first time, therefore, the tribes command the national stage. With the main political parties deadlocked after an inconclusive election, the tribes are courted as potential allies by leaders on all sides, and could act as one of several kingmakers.

The tribes have been transformed from gun-toting bands of desert warriors into well-oiled political machines. Many of their leaders have gained clout by funnelling government contracts to companies tied to them, dispensing justice in tribal courts that are a bit less prone to bribery than state equivalents, supervising recruitment to the civil service and armed forces, and—perhaps most of all—controlling blocks of votes by invoking ancient tribal loyalties.

The election on March 7th confirmed their rise, especially in northern Iraq. A tribal block led by Sheikh Abdullah Humedi won control of Nineveh, Iraq’s second most populous province, with the city of Mosul at its hub, while an alliance led by the Jubburi tribe won half the seats in the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Tribal leaders in Iraq’s largest province, Anbar, west of Baghdad, which is overwhelmingly Sunni, outmanoeuvred one of their own who had aspirations for national office, Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha. Instead they adeptly swung the province behind Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia, helping to secure him the biggest share of the national vote. Yet, to break the logjam in the new parliament, whose members are struggling to cobble together a governing coalition, they may soon drop Mr Allawi as well. One sheikh, Hamid al-Hais, has already done so.

In the words of a noted Iraqi academic, the tribal leaders are “the ultimate pragmatists”. They won concessions from Saddam Hussein. In earlier days they did the same with the ruling Ottoman Turks. In between, they cut deals with the British. These days what the modern tribes want varies widely. Some expect government jobs and cash for infrastructure projects. Other want more autonomy, and perhaps even a tribal council that functions as an upper house of parliament. That idea dismays some of the urban professional politicians but others might support it as part of a wider constitutional reform to limit the powers of the prime minister. Party barons particularly dislike the tight grip of the incumbent, Nuri al-Maliki, who is determined to make deals to cling to power, despite his narrow defeat at the polls.

The overall influence of the tribes is uncertain. They could be a force for cross-sectarian reconciliation, since many of the big tribal confederations, such as the Shammar, straddle the Sunni-Shia divide. Or they could disrupt Iraqi politics still more with their demands for special favours entrenching an already malign system of patronage and corruption. Iraq has existed as a country for less than a century. The bonds holding it together have frayed. Some kind of constitutional equilibrium is sorely needed. But if that fails to come about, pessimists see the country turning into a kind of Somalia with oil, an anarchic collection of wealthy competing fiefs, with tribes to the fore.