Iraq: March 22, 2005


Al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab terrorists arent the only ones out there killing people. Two Shia Arab tribes in southern Iraq, the al Halah and the Garamsha, have been skirmishing with each other recently. The fighting has been going on for the past month, and is pretty low level stuff. A few shots here, a few shots there. The tribes were not able to have their traditional private wars when Saddam was in power. Well, at least not unless it suited Saddams purposes. But dozens of tribes have long standing feuds with each other, and the post-Saddam press freedom has allowed many Iraqis to say impolitic things about tribal grudges. These comments on radio, or in newspapers, have often escalated, and before you know it, carloads of young men, armed with AK-47s, pistols, RPGs and grenades, are driving off to settle matters. 

Tribal warfare, even with the introduction of automatic weapons, tends to involve much more noise than blood. The object of these tribal wars is usually to make a big display of power, and hope that one side will realize they are out-matched, and back down. The tribal antagonisms have been growing over the last two years, and gotten deadlier. Some of the tribesmen have obtained military training, as part of their work guarding oil facilities and other important installations, or by joining the army or police. The tribesmen have also learned how to move about, heavily armed, without arousing the suspicion of the British, or other coalition troops, that work in the south. The new Iraqi government has treated the tribes with respect, since many tribal chiefs can get their people to vote as a block. And then theres all those armed young men in each tribe. The tribes are not eager for all out civil war. Even the angry young men know that another round of violence will benefit no one. Most Iraqis are beginning to realize that its other Iraqis who are responsible for all the violence, not the coalition troops. But tribal justice has long been the only kind most people could depend on. The new justice system has been slow to establish itself, although the police are making progress in replacing tribal gunmen as peacekeepers.

The tribes are also kept in check by the obvious combat superiority of the coalition troops, and the growing competence of the Iraqi troops and police. The government has made a point of sending camera crews along on raids conducted by the army or police. Most Iraqis now regularly see Iraqi police conducting raids and arresting gangsters and terrorists responsible for kidnappings, robberies and suicide bombings. It's taken for granted that the American troops are near-invincible. Another example of that occurred on the 20th, when about  Sunni Arabs staged an unusually large attack on passing U.S. Army vehicles. Nearly fifty men opened up with assault rifles, RPGs and machine-guns. But within minutes, 26 of the attackers were dead, and seven captured (all but one of those wounded). In a nearby village, that the gang had been using as a hideout, a stockpile of four dozen hand grenades, six rocket-propelled grenade (RPG)  launchers, 16 RPG rockets, 13 machine-guns, 22 AK-47 assault rifles, and nearly 3,000 rounds of ammo for the AK-47s and machine-guns. The American troops they attacked were better trained, and backed by a quick-reaction force that was soon on the scene to help. The Iraqis didn't have much of a chance, and many Iraqis in the area saw the demonstration.

The tribes are a fact of life in Iraq, but the tribes have always been practical, at least the ones that still survive. Fewer tribes are interested in supporting a Sunni Arab effort to regain control of the country, and more want to make a deal with the new government. Those deals basically mean tribesmen are shooting at government forces less, and at each other, criminals and terrorists, more.  


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