The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[casi] Riverbendblog: Sheikhs and Tribes...

Monday, September 29, 2003

Sheikhs and Tribes...

A few people pointed out an article to me titled
“Iraqi Family Ties Complicate American Efforts for
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

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

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

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

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

Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To unsubscribe, visit
To contact the list manager, email
All postings are archived on CASI's website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]