A House of Tribes for Iraq


Apr 25, 2008

This commentary originally appeared on The Washington Post on April 25, 2008.

Many western notions of governance may be struggling to take hold in Iraq, but one that deserves a close look is the effort to create what would amount to a unique upper legislative body: The House of Tribes.

Iraq has over 100 tribes, some of whose roots trace back a thousand years. While modernization and urbanization have eroded tribal affiliations, tribal loyalties remain a bedrock of Iraqi society. Indeed, tribal affinities may matter as much as national, ethnic or religious identities.

Tribal influences in Iraq have a greater longer-term effect than religion in many parts of the country. The Iraqi tribes, with tens of thousands of members, are based on lineage. They are concentrated in parts of Iraq, yet branch across to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf region, including the United Arab Emirates.

The phenomenon of globalization might well have left tribes on the ash heap of history — yet tribes have instead been empowered by it. They are becoming stronger and more potent players across regional transnational lines. Iraqi tribes, as with tribes elsewhere in the region, operate across borders — in the Levant and on the Arabian Peninsula.

Tribes have historically been part of the political milieu, but not in ways familiar to the Western imagination. Western understanding of governance is not the same as the tribal effort to bring together the entire nation under a unified government via many tribal interlocutors. Tribes have been one of the most important components of Iraqi society and politics since well before Baathism, and traditionally tribal elders have sought governance from within, not imposed from outside. Today, they search for a more important role to play in a democratically nascent Iraq.

Tiny steps are already being taken. The tribal Awakening Council — a group of like-minded tribal leaders — was created in Anbar province in 2006, empowering tribes to fight al-Qaeda. Indeed, tribal leaders are an important component in the war on terror and insurgency. Al-Qaeda was pushed out of Anbar by tribes, and the U.S. should not commit the same mistake because Salafi jihadists failed to understand tribal affinity among the Iraqi populace.

But to honestly fight this fight, all tribes must be part of the Iraqi political process. Currently, the Iraqi tribal diaspora throughout the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula is left out. Some tribal leaders who are not in the Awakening Council were part of the insurgency in the past. They might again take up arms against multinational and Iraqi forces if they are not brought into the political and economic process soon.

The Iraqi government needs a nudge to work with tribes from all communities and ethnicities. Our proposal envisions revamping the Iraqi constitution to create a federal branch with two houses: a lower house comprised of all political parties and dealing with daily political, social and economic issues; and a higher House of Tribes, based on tribal affiliations, not provinces. This would introduce a check and balance system that would benefit all Iraqis and set the stage for pure Iraqi reunification. The governance scope of this higher body would be the same as the lower.

Tribal leaders should not be defined by geographic location but by their constituencies. Each tribe should have an equal number of representatives. In recent discussions with regional Iraqi tribal elders, Sunni and Shiite tribes sought a compact that would end violence and promote stability. They see other Gulf Arab countries, specifically the United Arab Emirates, as a model for federal development. Such an effort could enhance U.S. policy towards Iraq by diminishing the notion that Washington is taking sides.

Overall, a balance of power is missing from Iraq today, making the government weak. The Awakening Council is a first step, but not a long-term solution, because it is only a temporary entity, and is not fully inclusive. This contributes to splits and conflicts among tribes. Creating an institution for tribal leaders would provide them an incentive to participate in the political process and open the door to full integration of tribal forces into the Iraqi security and police forces. A House of Tribes could usher in a form of democracy, unique to Iraq, which heals and brings peace.

Theodore Karasik and Ghassan Schbley are RAND analysts.

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