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http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com/ Monday, September 29, 2003 Sheikhs and Tribes... A few people pointed out an article to me titled “Iraqi Family Ties Complicate American Efforts for Change” [http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/28/international/middleeast/28CLAN.html], by John Tierney. You need to be registered in New York Times to read it, but since registration is free, the articles are sometimes worth the hassle. I could comment for days on the article but I’ll have to make it as brief as possible, and I’ll also have to make it in two parts. Today I’ll blog about tribes and sheikhs and tomorrow I’ll blog about cousins and veils. Iraqi family ties are complicating things for Americans- true. But not for the reasons Tierney states. He simplifies the whole situation incredibly by stating that because Iraqis tend to marry cousins, they’ll be less likely to turn each other in to American forces for all sorts of reasons that all lead back to nepotism. First and foremost, in Baghdad, Mosul, Basrah, Kirkuk and various other large cities in Iraq, marrying cousins is out of style, and not very popular, when you have other choices. Most people who get into college end up marrying someone from college or someone they meet at work. In other areas, cousins marry each other for the simple reason that many smaller cities and provinces are dominated by 4 or 5 huge ‘tribes’ or ‘clans’. So, naturally, everyone who isn’t a parent, grandparent, brother, sister, aunt or uncle is a ‘cousin’. These tribes are led by one or more Sheikhs. When people hear the word ‘tribe’ or ‘sheikh’, they instantly imagine, I’m sure, Bedouins on camels and scenes from Lawrence of Arabia. Many modern-day Sheikhs in Iraq have college degrees. Many have lived abroad and own property in London, Beirut and various other glamorous capitals… they ride around in Mercedes’ and live in sprawling villas fully furnished with Victorian furniture, Persian carpets, oil paintings, and air conditioners. Some of them have British, German or American wives. A Sheikh is respected highly both by his clan members and by the members of other clans or tribes. He is usually considered the wisest or most influential member of the family. He is often also the wealthiest. Sheikhs also have many duties. The modern Sheikh acts as a sort of family judge for the larger family disputes. He may have to give verdicts on anything from a land dispute to a marital spat. His word isn’t necessarily law, but any family member who decides to go against it is considered on his own, i.e. without the support and influence of the tribe. They are also responsible for the well-being of many of the poorer members of the tribe who come to them for help. We had relatively few orphans in orphanages in Iraq because the tribe takes in children without parents and they are often under the care of the sheikh’s direct family. The sheikh’s wife is sort of the ‘First Lady’ of the family and has a lot of influence with family members. Shortly after the occupation, Jay Garner began meeting with the prominent members of Iraqi society- businessmen, religious leaders, academicians and sheikhs. The sheikhs were important because each sheikh basically had influence over hundreds, if not thousands, of ‘family’. The prominent sheikhs from all over Iraq were brought together in a huge conference of sorts. They sat gathered, staring at the representative of the occupation forces who, I think, was British and sat speaking in broken, awkward Arabic. He told the sheikhs that Garner and friends really needed their help to build a democratic Iraq. They were powerful, influential people- they could contribute a lot to society. A few of the sheikhs were bitter. One of the most prominent had lost 18 family members with one blow when the American forces dropped a cluster bomb on his home, outside of Baghdad, and killed women, children, and grandchildren all gathered together in fear. The only survivor of that massacre was a two-year-old boy who had to have his foot amputated. Another sheikh was the head of a family in Basrah who lost 8 people to a missile that fell on their home, while they slept. The scenes of the house were beyond horrid- a mess of broken furniture, crumbling walls and severed arms and legs. Almost every single sheikh had his own woeful story to tell. They were angry and annoyed. And these weren’t people who loved Saddam. Many of them hated the former regime because in a fit of socialism, during the eighties, a law was established that allowed thousands of acres of land to be confiscated from wealthy landowners and sheikhs and divided out between poor farmers. They resented the fact that land they had owned for several generations was being given out to nobody farmers who would no longer be willing to harvest their fields. So they came to the meeting, wary but willing to listen. Many of them rose to speak. They told the representative right away that the Americans and British were occupiers- that was undeniable, but they were willing to help if it would move the country forward. Their one stipulation was the following: that they be given a timetable that gave a general idea of when the occupation forces would pull out of Iraq. They told the representative that they couldn’t go back to their ‘3shayir’, or tribes, asking them to ‘please cooperate with the Americans although they killed your families, raided your homes, and detained your sons’ without some promise that, should security prevail, there would be prompt elections and a withdrawal of occupation forces. Some of them also wanted to contribute politically. They had influence, power and connections… they wanted to be useful in some way. The representative frowned, fumbled and told them that there was no way he was going to promise a withdrawal of occupation forces. They would be in Iraq ‘as long as they were needed’… that might be two years, that might be five years and it might be ten years. There were going to be no promises… there certainly was no ‘timetable’ and the sheikhs had no say in what was going on- they could simply consent. The whole group, in a storm of indignation and helplessness, rose to leave the meeting. They left the representative looking frustrated and foolish, frowning at the diminishing mass in front of him. When asked to comment on how the meeting went, he smiled, waved a hand and replied, “No comment.” When one of the prominent sheikhs was asked how the meeting went, he angrily said that it wasn’t a conference- they had gathered up the sheikhs to ‘give them orders’ without a willingness to listen to the other side of the story or even to compromise… the representative thought he was talking to his own private army- not the pillars of tribal society in Iraq. Apparently, the sheikhs were blacklisted because, of late, their houses are being targeted. They are raided in the middle of the night with armored cars, troops and helicopters. The sheikh and his immediate family members are pushed to the ground with a booted foot and held there at gunpoint. The house is searched and often looted and the sheikh and his sons are dragged off with hands behind their backs and bags covering their heads. The whole family is left outraged and incredulous: the most respected member of the tribe is being imprisoned for no particular reason except that they may need him for questioning. In many cases, the sheikh is returned a few days later with an ‘apology’, only to be raided and detained once more! I would think that publicly humiliating and detaining respected members of society like sheikhs and religious leaders would contribute more to throttling democracy than ‘cousins marrying cousins’. Many of the attacks against the occupying forces are acts of revenge for assaulted family members, or people who were killed during raids, demonstrations or checkpoints. But the author fails to mention that, of course. He also fails to mention that because many of the provinces are in fact governed by the sheikhs of large tribes, they are much safer than Baghdad and parts of the south. Baghdad is an eclectic mix of Iraqis from all over the country and sheikhs have little influence over members outside of their family. In smaller provinces or towns, on the other hand, looting and abduction are rare because the criminal will have a virtual army to answer to- not a confused, and often careless, occupying army and some frightened Iraqi police. Iraq is not some backward country overrun by ignorant land sheikhs or oil princes. People have a deep respect for wisdom and ‘origin’. People can trace their families back for hundreds of years and the need to ‘belong’ to a specific family or tribe and have a sheikh doesn’t hinder education, modernization, democracy or culture. Arabs and Kurds in the region have strong tribal ties and it is considered an honor to have a strong family backing- even if you don’t care about tribal law or have strayed far from family influence. I’m an example of a modern-day, Iraqi female who is a part of a tribe- I’ve never met our sheikh- I’ve never needed to… I have a university degree, I had a job and I have a family who would sacrifice a lot to protect me… and none of this hinders me from having ambition or a sense of obligation towards law and order. I also want democracy, security, and a civil, healthy society… right along with the strong family bonds I'm accustomed to as an Iraqi. Who knows? Maybe I’ll start a tribal blog and become a virtual sheikh myself… __________________________________ Do you Yahoo!? The New Yahoo! Shopping - with improved product search http://shopping.yahoo.com _______________________________________________ Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. To unsubscribe, visit http://lists.casi.org.uk/mailman/listinfo/casi-discuss To contact the list manager, email firstname.lastname@example.org All postings are archived on CASI's website: http://www.casi.org.uk