FEATURE - In Iraqi election, tribal vote is precious

  • World
  • Saturday, 10 Dec 2005

By Michael Georgy and Omar al-Ibadi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's rulers have long sought the loyalty of the country's influential Arab tribes, so politicians contesting elections are making plenty of promises to their leaders -- proud men like Adel Abbas. 

It is a tough sell. 

Sitting in his house in a neighbourhood of western Baghdad where kidnappings, murder and bombings never let up, he has yet to see a strong Iraqi leader from the present crop who can deliver security and gain his respect. 

"There are many killings here. Shi'ite militiamen with the government often kidnap Sunnis and kill them," said Abbas, a Sunni Muslim, repeating a much-denied allegation that the new Shi'ite majority government condones death squads targeting the minority that dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein. 

"That is all we have seen for more than two years. We just hope someone can come along and change this but we just don't know." 

With Iraq in danger of sliding into sectarian conflict, the 150 main tribes to which most Iraqis owe some allegiance are seen as a force that can promote politicians and help stabilise the country after parliamentary elections on Dec. 15. 

Largely brought to Iraq by Bedouin migrants from the Arabian peninsula, tribes are held together by blood ties and a strict code of honour, not sectarian identities. With intermarriage common, many tribes include both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims. 

Abbas is a Sunni but many of the people who follow his lead as a top leader of the nationwide Azzawi tribe are Shi'ites. 

Iraq's rulers, from the Ottoman Turks and British to Saddam Hussein sought the tribes' support, making the opinions of tribal leaders a barometer of a government's popularity. 

In spite of his powerful intelligence agencies, former president Saddam always treated tribes with caution. He was ruthless with those who betrayed him and generous to loyal ones, providing cash, weapons and jobs in the army. 


These days, Iraqi politicians publicise meetings with tribal leaders, especially in Anbar province, heartland of the Sunni Arab revolt against the Kurdish- and Shi'ite-led government. 

However, after spending many years in exile in the United States, Britain and Iran, most of Iraq's leaders are struggling to win the loyalty of inward-looking tribes, who see revenge on the U.S. occupiers, or on each other, as a matter of honour. 

A respect for toughness in the tribal codes means any future national leader will have to be firm to win respect from many of the traditional tribal leaders, whose word still holds particular sway in rural areas. 

"The government isn't up to the challenges it faces, and is too weak. We need a strong government to handle the lack of security and rebuild Iraq," said Imaad al-Fatlawi, the sheikh of the Fatla tribe in the town of Diwaniya south of Baghdad. 

"Iraq is moving the opposite way so the new government has to be more loyal to Iraqis." 

Abbas' mixed tribe fiercely backed Saddam's Sunni-dominated administration. Now he is telling his people to keep an open mind when they vote. 

That is encouraging for Washington, which hopes democracy can undermine guerrillas who have killed tens of thousands of security forces and civilians. 

So far, Abbas and other tribal leaders have seen no evidence that U.S.-backed politicians with slick Western-style election advertisements or religious candidates who make pledges in mosques can deliver stability, basic services or jobs. 

However, some tribal leaders are cautiously optimistic. 


"I believe the election could bring a change in the political situation," said sheikh Atella Mahdi Lohaimos, 61, of the Jobor tribe, who heads a Shi'ite list allied with Sunnis in the central town of Hilla. "We need to have this country free and united and sovereign." 

Many Iraqis would say that is wishful thinking. 

Iraqi security forces are not expected to take on guerrillas on their own in the near future without U.S. troops, whose continued presence infuriates tribal leaders bound by ancient codes to resist invasion and who are traditionally a catalyst for either loyalty to or uprisings against rulers in Baghdad. 

Unrest which eventually led to an insurgent takeover of Falluja last year was closely linked to opinion among local tribes, who took revenge every time U.S. troops attacked one of their members and allowed guerrillas, including a smattering of foreigners allied to al Qaeda, to move freely in their city. 

So it is in the interests of Iraq's future leaders to have tribes on their side as they try to improve security. There have been signs that tribal chiefs are turning against al Qaeda. 

Sunni tribesmen came to the rescue of Shi'ite neighbours in Anbar towns after they were attacked by Sunni extremists loyal to the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. 

It is hard to gauge how tribesmen will vote but it seems sectarian violence tearing through Iraq's social fabric will push some toward the secular, cross-sectarian list headed by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a tough-talking, U.S.-backed Shi'ite with appeal among both Shi'ites and Sunnis. 

Abbas, whose word carries weight in the rebellious Jihad neighbourhood near Baghdad airport, said: "I think people in my tribe are leaning towards Allawi." 

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