Anbar Province: Just How Relevant are the Tribes?

The provincial election of Anbar is probably as authentic a test for the role of tribes in Iraq’s present and future as there ever will be. Tribes should demonstrate their strongest showing in the local elections of this province, where tribal solidarity and cohesion is more likely to register in narrower races. Anbar is also Iraq’s more homogenous Sunni Arab province, and was once the epicenter of that community’s Ba’athist-inspired as well as jihadist-led insurgency against the changed political realities of post-Saddam Iraq, namely the fall of Arab Sunnis from the helm of power. The results in Anbar will reveal whether an important segment of Sunnis will opt to be represented by either rehabilitated Ba’athists or Islamists in the mould of the Muslim Brotherhood, or they may return to the familiarity of traditional identities such as tribalism.

Culturally, Anbar is divided into two: on the upper Euphrates, small caravan towns with limited agricultural activity such as Anah, Rawa, Hit and the oasis community of Kubaisa had always existed, their chief claim to fame was the export of clerics, minorities (specifically Jews), administrators and merchants to major cities like Baghdad where they reached the pinnacle of success, and never looked back. These towns gave modern Iraq some of its most ardent ideologues and apparatchiks, whether Arab nationalist or Communist. In more recent times, several important mid-level native Al-Qaeda figures emerged from these hubs.

But the swath of territory from Baghdad to the Muhammadi area fell prey to marauding tribes as central authority waned, itself a function of the waning fortunes of this particular trade route; some of these marauders would later coalesce into the Dulaim Confederation, Anbar’s most important tribal association. The townspeople who lived there were pushed out, either to Baghdad or to the other towns further up the river. Small tribes would be subsumed into the confederation, or would seek to join it. In the process, origins were obscured, and the Dulaim invented a genealogical table that links over a million souls alive today to three ancestors, brothers, whose names translate from Arabic as “Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” and who are separated from our modern times by a mere dozen generations. Most genealogists don’t put much stock into such claims.

Over the centuries, stronger clans or subsections of the tribes would emerge to do battle over the best arable lands; as a result the weakest were pushed to more arid margins, where they could only feed themselves through brigandage. Those habits die hard, for the descendants of these brigands turned into modern-day smugglers and into highway robbers who aided Al-Qaeda when the jihadists were ascendant and flush with cash. But it were these same bandits who first seized upon Al-Qaeda’s weaknesses and diminishing fortunes, and turned against it, settling for American gold and patronage. One such leader was Sattar Abu Risheh, a nominal sheikh who transformed his band of tribesmen into the first successful Awakening Council. That is where the idea of using tribes as a political counterbalance to Al-Qaeda took flight, giving tribes a new lease on political life, after decades whereby the individual tribesman turned his loyalties away from the tribal sheikh to that of the central state.

These efforts have historical precedents: when the British came to Iraq in the aftermath of World War I, they did some social engineering in Anbar itself, determining that the choice of a paramount sheikh for the Dulaim would make governance easier. Their candidate was Ali al-Suleiman, and their gold made his candidacy stick.

In 2005, the composition of the provincial council was determined by only 3,775 votes, the bulk of which were won by the Islamic Party. Most of Iraq’s Sunnis had boycotted the elections, while Anbar specifically was for the most part in the control of Al-Qaeda at the time. The Islamic Party, an offshoot of the pan-Middle Eastern Muslim Brothers movement and now attempts to model itself after Turkey’s ruling Islamists (AKP), had decided to join to the political process early on. They claim to be the most significant national force among Iraq’s Sunnis, a claim that will be measured against those made by the stand-ins for the Ba’athists, who have reinvented themselves as secular and staunchly sectarian politicians. In 2005, a coalition of the Islamic Party and these neo-Ba’athists groupings cornered the Sunni Arab vote for the parliamentary elections, but this coalition has been fraying of late, and in Anbar and elsewhere, the various components are competing against each other. Yet both political strands are keeping a watchful eye on how many votes the tribal lists may mobilize, a development that if successful will put their political futures at risk.

Abu Risheh fell to an Al-Qaeda bomb and was succeeded by his brother, an urbane businessman formerly based in Dubai, who is running on his own slate in the forthcoming elections. Their tribe is small in number, and cannot be held as a measure of the strength of tribal support. The traditional tribal leaders of the Dulaim are also in the running; two cousins who descend from Ali al-Suleiman. However, one of them, the less prominent of the two, has been co-opted into joining the slate of the Islamic Party.

Therefore, the only measure of the relevance of tribalism shall be the slate headed by Ali al-Hatem, the other cousin, who is running as the head of a tribal alliance. His success or lack of it must be measured against that of the other two credible forces that command a national following among Sunnis, and will reveal whether tribes will come into their own as a credible and competitive political vehicle.

Anbar’s new provincial council is to have 29 seats.

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