Baghdad Must Seize the Chance to Work With Iraq’s Tribes


Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a series, produced in collaboration with the U.S. Institute of Peace, on the challenges faced by a post-ISIL Iraq. Read the first installment here

With the military campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (or ISIL) in Iraq over, attention has turned to addressing the grievances and factors that gave rise to the extremist group. These include Sunni marginalization from the political process, sectarian policies that ossified community cleavages and spurred extremist ideology, economic deprivation, and ineffective governance and public service delivery. Steps are already being taken to deal with these matters. Yet if the Iraqi government and its partners are to bring about positive long-term changes that mitigate the factors giving rise to extremism, they must get a handle on a phenomenon that has often been a determining variable in the country’s peace and stability equation: tribes and tribalism.

About 75 percent of Iraq’s population is either a member or close associate of one of the country’s approximately 150 tribes. The tribes, which comprise multiple family-based clans, have wielded considerable influence since modern Iraq’s founding in 1921. In contemporary Iraq, tribes and tribalism are most prominent in Sunni areas — Anbar, Salahadin, Kirkuk, Nineveh — and the southern, mainly Shia province of Basra. Tribal leaders, called sheikhs, settle disputes within their tribes, some of which cut across ethnic and sectarian lines. Tribal networks can help members gain employment, secure government services and protect members from external threats.

Most prominently, however, tribes have been engaged by successive Iraqi regimes to provide security where the state is weak. While tribalism is ubiquitous throughout Iraq, it is particularly prominent among the Sunni community. Indeed, tribalism is at the core of Sunni political identity and mobilization, a fact that must be considered when thinking about how to address the Sunni grievance of political marginalization.

Since its founding, the Iraqi state has employed three main approaches to tribalism: ignore or empower, which allowed tribalism to flourish at the expense of the state; exclude and subjugate, which made tribes competitors to state authority; or manipulate, which caused social cleavages and damaged state-society relationships. If employed again, these approaches risk precipitating more tensions and new cycles of violence. The state must find a new path of engagement with tribalism.

Over the past two years, we — and our respective organizations — have observed, facilitated and convened dialogue processes involving tribal leaders and government officials dealing with the most sensitive issues emerging in the post-ISIL period. The local tribal agreements that these dialogues have produced have headed off revenge killings between sects and prevented tribes from settling scores over crimes related to ISIL’s three years of domination in the Sunni heartland. Dialogue has opened the way for displaced people to return home and produced agreements to respect the rule of law. These processes have proved to be a tool that could help Iraq break its cycles of violence.

The dialogues have also underscored how the fragmentation of tribes in largely Sunni areas — a product of ISIL’s disruption — is driving them to seek solutions from the Iraqi state. This presents a vital opportunity the government must capitalize on if tribes and tribalism are to be transformed from a force that subverts state authority to one that supports it. Specifically, the government must take advantage of this unique moment by adopting a new approach that prioritizes engaging tribes and aspects of tribalism supportive of state processes.

Tribes in Post-Saddam Iraq

Throughout Iraq’s modern history, the strength of tribes has fluctuated with the power of the state: When state authority was strong, tribal leaders and laws were subordinate to formal institutions; when state institutions were weak, the power of sheikhs and tribal practices around issues of justice, security, political identity, and mobilization of armed men was enhanced. As a tribal leader from Tikrit told us in 2015, “Tribal law is not meant to compete with the state’s laws. Rather it is meant to fill gaps not addressed by the state.”

During Ba’athist rule from 1968 to 2003, tribalism was at first undermined and suppressed, and later tolerated, though manipulated, under the regime of Saddam Hussein. The development of ethno-sectarian politics post-2003, however, reinvigorated tribal political authority among the Sunni community. Iraq’s Shia and Kurdish communities, because of their longtime organized opposition to Saddam’s dictatorship, were better prepared to launch political parties to compete in the newly democratic fray. By contrast, Sunnis, who had dominated Saddam’s state apparatus and military, wrestled with the new political order of Shia empowerment and with a sense of marginalization exacerbated by “de-Ba’athification” — the purge of mostly Sunni members of Saddam’s Ba’ath party from public jobs. In response, Sunnis largely boycotted the formal political process, hindering the development of political parties representing their interests. Consequently, tribal authorities among the Sunni community remained more politically relevant than those from Shia constituencies.

This political authority, which came with it the ability to mobilize their members to fight, proved critical in the struggle against al-Qaeda in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province. The opposition tribes coalesced in their engagement with the U.S. military on what became known as the Tribal Awakening, in which tribal fighters drove out the extremists.

The gains made during the awakening, however, proved short-lived as the two terms of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006–2014), characterized by increasingly centralized authority, bred more Sunni tribal frustration and marginalization. Maliki’s decision to block Sunni tribesmen who fought in the awakening from joining the security establishment caused a particularly dangerous jolt. The U.S.-led coalition had promised Sunni tribal integration with state forces, which was seen as a crucial step toward preventing the reemergence of extremism in Sunni areas.

Ultimately, this alienation fueled the expansion of ISIL in Sunni areas. Some Sunni tribes and communities saw ISIL as a bulwark against an increasingly authoritarian and sectarian government in Baghdad. Yet as with al-Qaeda, tribes quickly soured on ISIL’s brutality, religious edicts, and suppression of tribal norms. Many turned to armed opposition. In 2014, the international community and Iraqi government took advantage of this turn to form the Tribal Mobilization Forces, a largely Sunni tribal force supported by the U.S.-led coalition and under the umbrella of the quasi-governmental Popular Mobilization Forces. Their overarching purpose was clear: to integrate Sunnis in the fight against ISIL and lay the foundation for greater Sunni accommodation within the state — something Sunnis had sought since 2003.

Tribal Pacts After ISIL

Almost continuous conflict in Sunni areas since 2003 has spawned fractures both within and between tribes. These fissures make it harder to deal with three of the central disagreements that have arisen in ISIL-cleared areas: disputes over security arrangements; justice and accountability for crimes committed under ISIL; and demands for compensation. A number of recent local agreements, some of which our organizations helped facilitate, have sought to allay these tensions. Sunni tribal leaders, recognizing that their traditional system is in disarray, have entered into the agreements in hope of restoring tribal cohesion and repairing their relationship with the state. Government participants joined seeking help stabilizing areas cleared of ISIL, which requires the engagement of tribal authorities with differing relationships with the government.

Security Provisions

Tribal security concerns must contend first with the fact that the number of armed actors involved in security in Iraq has expanded even since 2014. The quasi-governmental Popular Mobilization Forces, which has fielded as many as 120,000 mostly Shi’a fighters, joined the Iraqi Security Forces, Federal Police and Peshmerga in the fight against ISIL and continue to hold key liberated areas. Tribal Mobilization Forces remain active, but there is no plan to integrate them into the military or have them play a significant long-term security role.

Second, trust — and mistrust — in security actors remains a major obstacle to stabilizing areas cleared of ISIL. In Nineveh and Anbar, the federal police are distrusted largely because they used force to quell Sunni protests. In the dialogue sessions we observed, Sunnis routinely complained of exclusion from security involvement while other communities voiced mistrust of Sunnis playing any role at all.

The pacts forged in Anbar, Salahadin, Kirkuk, and Nineveh seek to overcome these challenges in various ways. Take for instance, the town of Yathrib in Salahadin province. Here, the displaced Sunni community — and its tribal representatives — did not trust the Popular Mobilization Forces enough to return home after ISIL was driven from the area. Sunnis in the dialogue sessions repeatedly said the Popular Mobilization Forces unfairly accuse them of supporting ISIL. Conversely, Shia tribal leaders from the neighboring towns accused the Sunni community of having joined ISIL and threatened violence if Sunnis returned. These leaders did not trust a security arrangement that did not include the Popular Mobilization Forces, which had liberated the town. A compromise was eventually reached: a security unit comprising Sunni and Shia tribesmen would be established to work with the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Iraqi Security Forces to secure the town.

The dialogue sessions made it clear that Sunni tribes want to be seen by the security forces, including the Popular Mobilization Forces, as partners and not enemies. This was reflected in other pacts, such as one focused on the internal division among the tribes from Hawija in southwest Kirkuk. There, four major tribal confederations comprising 60 tribes have committed to respect, support, and cooperate with state security forces, which include three Iraqi Security Forces Brigades, three different Popular Mobilization Forces brigades, and local police forces. Equally important, this commitment unifies the position of tribes, meaning these security actors — and the state in general — do not have to deal with tribes individually around security issues.

The importance of unifying the position of tribes in Hawija and its environs on security matters cannot be understated given the fraught relationship Sunni tribes in the area have had with the state since 2003. During the American occupation, the area was a hotbed of insurgency, and in 2013 violent demonstrations erupted to protest Maliki’s heavy-handed policies. A rapid conflict assessment of Hawija conducted by our respective organizations prior to the liberation of the area — consisting of interviews with 144 tribal and government actors — found that 66 percent of respondents ranked security as the imperative factor impacting the return of internally displaced persons from the area. An overwhelming majority (93 percent) expected violent conflict to occur in the post-liberation phase due to intra-Sunni tribal and tribal-state divisions. The pact in Hawija directly works to mitigate these concerns by achieving a consensus on how to deal with thorny issues and highlighting the role Sunni tribes can play in supporting state security actors. Ultimately, scaling up to the provincial or national levels and institutionalizing such an approach could help facilitate greater Sunni rapprochement with the state.

Justice and Accountability

Traditionally, the social contract of tribalism holds that an attack on one member is an affront to all. In the current environment, the contract has flipped: Tribes stand accused of working with ISIL due to individual members or families siding with the extremists. Under some of the recent pacts, tribes have agreed to support state security institutions by declining to shield members accused of ISIL ties and instead turning those suspects over to

As the tribal pacts strengthen formal justice and accountability efforts, they also help ease concerns that the government is simply intent on collective punishment of the Sunni community. Sunnis in the dialogue sessions repeatedly protested the assumption that Sunnis who stayed in ISIL-controlled areas must be supporters of the terrorist group. They insisted the focus should be on finding the individuals who actually espoused extremist ideology and were responsible for crimes. Tribal pacts signed by leading tribes, and national and provincial government and security actors in majority-Sunni areas like Hawija, Anbar, and Nineveh, reflect this

The pact in Hawija went a step further. It created a committee of tribal, security, and administrative officials to work on identifying and capturing individuals who worked with ISIL. The arrangement enhances the community’s trust. Recently, the committee intervened to halt the local Popular Mobilization Forces unit’s plans to forcibly displace families related to ISIL suspects. Instead, the committee pledged to work with the Popular Mobilization Forces and other security actors to carefully identify only those with blood on their hands, per the agreement. This outcome shows the utility of using Sunni tribes to prevent collective punishment and hold individuals accountable for crimes committed in ISIL’s name.


Under customary tribal law, “blood money” is paid to the family of a victim by the tribe of the perpetrator. After ISIL, many tribal authorities are resisting the practice. In the dialogues, tribal leaders said that paying victims’ families would be tantamount to admitting the whole tribe had supported ISIL simply because some individuals had. The demand for compensation is strong, however, and without blood money payments, pernicious alternatives such as murder are permissible under tribal law, creating the risk of revenge acts of violence.

The dialogue processes and their resulting pacts have sought to establish a common position on the issue. For instance, the dialogue process for Yathrib, where Shia tribal authorities were intransigent in their demand for blood money from the Sunni tribes, led to a compromise: In lieu of blood money, Shia tribes would accept payment from the government’s formal compensation fund. The dialogues in Hawija and Nineveh produced a similar outcome in that they call for the government, not tribal processes, to dispense compensation. A shift away from tribal blood money processes and towards an effective state compensation mechanism will not only minimize the inimical role the former plays but also, in the long term, enhance Sunni trust in the state.

Consolidating for Sustained Peace

The pacts give some needed cohesion to tribal dynamics and — perhaps more importantly for Iraq’s long-term development — highlight a shift by the tribes, particularly Sunni, toward the state for addressing security and justice issues. As such, the government must support the implementation of the pacts agreed to, as they provide an effective framework to engage tribes and their constituents on sensitive issues. Without implementation, the progress made will be reversed, increasing the prospects for violence. More specifically, to consolidate these gains and help engender longer-term stability, certain actions need to be taken by the government and supported by the international community.

For one, Sunni tribal fighters and members must be included in the government security apparatus in some way, either by incorporating them into local police forces  or by establishing more collaborative security arrangements that involve tribes and communities. This will increase trust in the government’s security actors and allay the sense of marginalization Sunni tribes and communities have felt since 2003.

Additionally, the government needs to ensure that an experience like de-Ba’athification is not repeated. The General Amnesty Law passed in August 2016 moved in that direction by offering amnesty to people who were forced to join the group, provided they were not involved in serious crimes. The pacts that commit tribes to work with government authorities will support implementation of this law on the local level by convincing all involved actors not to engage in collective punishment.

Finally, the government must at least signal that all of ISIL’s victims will be compensated. Baghdad has set up a fund to reward fighters and their families who battled ISIL, mostly through property and land distribution. This will benefit mainly Shias, who form the majority of the Popular Mobilization Forces, and will be seen as sectarian unless a broader compensation plan is at least initiated that curbs demands for blood money. This is why the tribal pacts that seek to prevent blood-money payments are a useful foundation on which to build.

The state’s approach to tribal dynamics should try to build on the positive aspects of tribalism while moderating practices inconsistent with international human rights principles. So far, however, the Iraqi government has not done this. The Bayti tribe, whose members include Arab Sunnis, Shia, and Turkmen, is one example of a tribe in which various sects and ethnicities enlarge their identities by uniting under a tribal banner. The commitment in the Hawija pact to stop exchanging women to resolve tribal disputes, meanwhile, shows how successful such engagement can be on human rights questions. The current environment, in which tribes are seeking accord with and willing to support the state, opens the way for this strategy. Indeed, tribal engagement in this period can result in broader outcomes conducive to the development of the rule of law. This was demonstrated by the dropping of the use of women in tribal disputes as well as by the broader call from tribal leaders in Hawija to reform tribal customary law — called thaya — to make it more consistent with formal law and responsive to the factors driving extremist religious ideology.

Many within government and civil society continue, with some good reason, to view tribalism as anathema to the development of strong state institutions. Certainly, some elements of tribalism, such as blood money, are at odds with Iraq’s legal system, while others, like exchanging women, violate both Iraqi and international humanitarian law. And in many areas of the southern provinces, which were largely spared from ISIL’s violence, tribes have grown so powerful that police are afraid to carry out their duties. These outcomes are, however, largely a product of a weak state.

To be sure, tribes are no panacea. However, they are strong enough to impede or advance efforts to stabilize and develop the Iraqi state, and they are a fundamental building block of greater Sunni accommodation. In the long term, the development of strong and inclusive state institutions, particularly those in charge of security and justice, and broad-based political parties, will minimize the outsize role tribal authorities play in politics and security, leaving them more focused on their traditional role of resolving family disputes. But to achieve these outcomes, the state, in the short term, needs to capitalize on the current opportunity that the tribal pacts present. The Iraqi government must start to view tribes not as a foe or proxy to be ignored, subjugated, or manipulated, but as partners in building the long-suffering nation’s stability.


Osama Gharizi is regional program manager for the Middle East at the United States Institute of Peace, and based in Iraq. Haider Al-Ibrahimi is executive director of Sanad for Peacebuilding Organization, a leading Iraqi non-governmental organization.

Image: U.S. Institute of Peace