Iraq: The Ancient Rules of Tribal Warfare


October 28, 2005: Yesterday, fifteen people were killed when a common "hostage retrieval operation" turned violent. It all began when a Sunni Arab gang kidnapped a Shia Arab belonging to Muqtada al-Sadr's militia. As is typical in such kidnappings, the victims family went to militia leaders and asked for help in getting the man freed. Several dozen armed militiamen then went to the nearby Sunni Arab town where the kidnappers came from. The victim was freed, but while the Shia Arab gang was driving out of the Sunni Arab town, they were ambushed by Sunni Arab militiamen. As a result, 14 Shia Arabs were killed, and over a dozen wounded. A policemen was also killed.

Normally, these incidents, which are frequent, do not end in bloodshed. The main form of "combat" is to gather a larger number of gunmen, and force the other side to do your will simply because you have superior numbers. Kill someone, and you have a long term feud on your hands. If the hostages are taken openly (with the captors identifiable), the hostage become a bargaining chip in negotiations over some other issue (often between tribes). The tribal chiefs play a large role in the negotiations, but it is gangster chiefs and warlords (for want of a better name) who initiate the violence in the first place. Most of these disputes are over money, even if the groups involved are nominally religious or political. There are a lot of murders, but these are usually done by men in masks, or late at night. If the culprit is anonymous, there is much less chance of a blood feud getting started. Kidnapping someone is just a way to open negotiations over some issue.

However, with all those dead Shia Arabs, al Sadr is under a lot of pressure to take some kind of public revenge. Just killing a bunch of Sunni Arabs in the middle of the night won't do. The government is also under a lot of pressure to show that they can prevent these kind of battles. Something interesting is liable to happen, or else the tribal elders will just negotiate another compromise deal. These tribal battles have been going on for thousands of years. Even Saddam tolerated a certain amount of it, especially after the Shia Arab rebellion in 1991, when Saddam needed additional muscle from the Sunni Arab tribal militias.

Kurds are increasing their security after three terrorist bombs went off in the northern town of Sulaymanyah on October 25th. This has been the first terrorist attack up there in over two years. It is believed that the Kurds got complacent, and terrorists took advantage of it. The Sunni Arabs are very angry about what's going on in the Kurdish controlled areas. The main gripes have to do with the economic growth, and rule of law. The Sunni Arabs have neither, and they have become angrier still as the Kurdish areas have become a vacation resort area for Iraqis from the rest of the country. The mountains in the north are cooler, and rather picturesque. The bombing shows that, as long as their are homicidal maniacs in the area, you can never let down your guard.


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