South Iraq's Armed Clans Outmuscling the State

South Iraq's Armed Clans Outmuscling the State

The Iraqi forces at any moment could lose their grip on some areas in south Iraq that are not as safe as some might think, ceding control to powerful clans as happened in the past.

The clans of the south have been locking horns with one another over various disputes that could originate from social or financial disagreements. More recently, potable water shortages have also aggravated the tensions between them.

Such quarrels could develop into fist fights that involve bladed weapons, and that would be anything but the worst-case scenario. Usually, clans use automatic firearms and artillery guns while clashing with each other. "Several clans possess canons, rocket launchers and Katyusha rockets," Iraqi security analyst Hisham Al-Hashimi told Raseef22.

In Basra governorate, far south of Iraq, members of the Tamim clan last year closed Al-Khorah Park, hanging on its gate a banner that read: "To all brotherly investors, we apologize for denying you entry due to a disagreement between Banu Tamim tribe and the management of the park."

After the closure of the park became news, sources from the Tamim clan described what had happened as an "individual act" over a financial disagreement between one of its members and an investor. They also condemned such escalations.

Clan members frequently act on their own accord in south Iraq; what happened at the park is just one of tens of cases that all took place before the eyes of the authorities, who seem unable to deal with tribal dominance.

What Is Happening in South Iraq?

Basra governorate is flooded with weapons amid recurring severe clashes between clans. Such confrontations could see traffic grind to a halt, or prevent children of a certain clan from going to school.

A police first lieutenant told Raseef22 that tribal disputes "always exhaust security forces. In most cases, disagreements between clans reach a point where local [police] forces cannot control".


Share TweetSome clans in south Iraq have artillery and rocket launchers at their disposal; they never miss out on a chance to flex their muscles

Share TweetNot only do disputes between clans in south Iraq develop into fights, but also into battles with machine guns and artillery

"Kalashnikovs and pistols are occasionally used, yet BKC, RPG7 and other medium weapons are the most seen" in such clashes, added the policeman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Tribal disputes usually break out due to minor personal disagreements, such as a car accident or marital problems. This kind of violence usually results in high death tolls, yet the police and other security forces do not interfere when clans face off. It is the tribal elders who usually contain such situations.

Hassanain Al-Monshed, an activist from Maysan where tribal disputes are fierce, says the clans are growing more powerful in his governorate and other southern areas. "Quite often, the clans outmuscle the Iraqi security forces," he said to Raseef22, adding that medium weapons could be used intensively over the course of days. The fire exchanges, he said, could "cause disturbance" in cities.

Clans in the district of Al-Majar Al-Kabir in Maysan have repeatedly embroiled themselves in ferocious fighting. Last January, the Iraqi government had to send security forces to end a battle, after armed members of a clan had launched attacks on rivals' houses, according to eyewitnesses.

The assailants drove cars similar to the Iraqi police vehicles, the eyewitnesses said, wielding automatic guns and medium weapons, including RPG7. They fired live rounds at their rivals' houses in what is colloquially known as "Daka", an attack on enemies' residence that is not necessarily lethal yet comes as a warning from the attackers. No security personnel stepped in during the melee or even afterwards.

Feeble Government, Powerful Clans

The Iraqi government seems to be incapable of facing the clans militarily for the time being, with the latter occasionally possessing more firearms than what local police stations have at their disposal.

According to security forces, the well-armed clans have capitalized on the inadequacy of the state's security measures; they would not hesitate to fight with Iraqi forces.

However, Al-Hashimi believes the Iraqi state is actually capable of keeping the clans on a tight leash and "depriving them of firearms and medium weapons, but it doesn't have the will to do so due to political reasons".

Former Iraqi governments used to cite the war against terrorism while turning a blind eye to the clans' violence. Today, other interests related to politics and elections maintain the status-quo, Al-Hashimi elaborated.

But the brutal clashes that have been ongoing in Basra for weeks urged the Iraqi government to send police forces to restore order, a move that has barely borne fruit thus far.

An intelligence officer who was on a reconnaissance mission in Basra days ago says the situation is pretty difficult to control. He is convinced that security forces could either initiate talks with the clans or confront them, favoring the former option to avoid a loss in human lives, though it might not be applicable.

"The situation in the governorate is unstable and the clans don't leave room for talks over any disagreement; they always use weapons to solve problems," he said, pointing out that the recent mobilization of heavy artillery reinforcements suggests the Iraqi government has the intention to engage with the clans.

The status-quo in the south has sparked expectations that a military campaign similar to Operation Charge of the Knights (Saulat Al-Fursan) -- which former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's government unleashed in Basra in 2007 -- might be imminent.

The Clans Stronger Than the State?

Late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein strengthened the clans in the 1990s to protect his regime. Despite the upheaval in April 2003, the clans' role has not diminished. On the contrary; their dominance has expanded as state authorities grew feeble.

The clans' political influence has become greater since 2003, with officials from consecutive governments buttering clan elders up to secure votes in elections. Clans have by far controlled polling, deciding who would make it to the parliament. Some tribe elders even took part in parliamentary elections and won seats.

"Clans throughout modern Iraqi history, even before the oil discovery and the establishment of the state institutions, were competing with the state, or comprised the core of the state," Ali Taher, a sociology professor at Al-Mustansiriyah University, told Raseef22.

"After the end of the monarchy and feudalism and the beginning of the republican era, they became followers of the state, or one of its arms that it could use whenever it pleases, like what happened in the 1990s when Saddam Hussein bolstered his regime using them."

After the 2003 ouster of Saddam, Taher went on, the clans filled the political void left by the collapse of the state, which these days can marginalize the clans and once again take up the reins of Iraq only by enforcing the law.

Mostafa Saadoun

Mostafa Saadoun is an Iraqi journalist focusing on human rights. He is the founder and director of the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights.


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