The Iraqi Tribes and the Post-Saddam System

Amatzia Baram
Amatzia Baram Senior Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace; Former Visiting Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings

July 8, 2003

Outside of Iraq, the common wisdom holds that Saddam Hussein’s power base in the Sunni Arab community was both monolithic and loyal to his regime and so is likely to prove entirely uncooperative in post-Saddam Iraq. In truth, important elements of Iraqi tribal society harbored grudges toward the defunct regime because they, like many others, were the victims of its atrocities, and so may prove willing to cooperate with the new political system. The support of such tribal groups is particularly important in the countryside, but it may also be helpful in the large towns. Such support could be extremely useful as coalition forces face growing agitation from a few influential radical Shiite clergy and daily armed attacks coming from Sunni Arab supporters of the Baath regime embittered by the loss of their privileges and hoping to bring Saddam back to power.


The cornerstone of Saddam’s power base was the group of tribes usually called al-Takarita (“the Tikritis”), of which his own Albu Nasir tribe is one. There are a number of clans and other groups within the Albu Nasir that over time have grown estranged from him. For the most part, these fallings out resulted principally from the vicissitudes of life near the center of Saddam’s regime. Key members of the tribe fell from grace at different points—a lethal development in many cases—turning their relatives against Saddam. Members of these disgruntled sub-tribal groupings may prove invaluable to the United States in providing information about weapons of mass destruction, financial transactions, hide sites, or other regime activities. Some of the “houses” (buyut, sing. bayt) of the Albu Nasir might even be willing to cast their lot with coalition forces completely, driven as well by Iran’s support for the radical Shiite clerics who are the bête noir of the Sunni tribes.

One disgruntled house within the Albu Nasir is the bayt of ‘Abd al-Mun’im, which includes Saddam’s in-law, Lt. General Maher ‘Abd Rashid, a hero of the Iran-Iraq War. The fact that Qusayy Saddam Hussein is married to the general’s daughter, Lama (according to some reports they recently got divorced, but there is no reliable confirmation), did not prevent the president from placing Maher ‘Abd Rashid under house arrest at the end of the Iraq-Iran War. Two of General Maher’s brothers remained important officials in Saddam’s regime, but the family suspects that Saddam was involved in planning a helicopter accident in which their brother, Brigadier General Tahir, died in the last stage of the Iraq-Iran War—one of several such strange, fatal helicopter crashes at the end of the Iran-Iraq War.

Another alienated branch of the Albu Nasir is the bayt of Major General Umar al-Haza’. In 1986, Saddam tortured and executed him for slandering Sabha, Saddam’s mother. According to some sources, Umar’s son then provided the information that enabled a group of oppositionists to badly wound Udayy in an assassination attempt in December 1996. Still another sub-tribal unit, the Albu Latif, harbors resentment against Saddam for the death of one of their favorite sons, Brigadier General Adnan Sharif Shihab. Shihab’s helicopter was shot down “accidentally” by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile at the start of the Iran-Iraq War, although members of his bayt, and many others, believe that it was done on the orders of Minister of Defense Adnan Khayr Allah, Saddam’s cousin and oldest friend. Another member of this bayt, Major General Thabit Sultan Ahmad Shihab, was executed in 1993 after several years of tension with the president. In 1987, while deputy chief of staff for operations, he had refused to call Saddam’s cousins Husayn Kamil and Ali Hasan al-Majid by the term “my Lord” (Sayyidi, which also has the meaning “descendent of the Prophet Muhammad”), considering them undeserving upstarts. For this impertinence, he was unceremoniously retired and demoted.

Ultimately, given the nature of Saddam’s brutal regime and uncontrollable paranoia, it is not surprising that there are many other individuals and clans among the Albu Nasir who are alienated, if not deeply hostile to him and his nuclear family. Even within Saddam’s own clan, he has numerous enemies. Many among the Hasan al-Majid branch of the family—the branch that included Husayn and Saddam Kamil Hasan, gunned down with their father and sister in February 1996 after they foolishly returned to Baghdad after having defected to Jordan—bear a deep grudge against Saddam for the deaths after he had promised them amnesty. Saddam’s mother’s side of his family suspects that he had Adnan Khayr Allah—who was not only minister of defense and his oldest friend, but also was his maternal cousin and brother-in-law—killed in another suspicious helicopter crash in 1989. Most deeply hurt by this apparent assassination has been Saddam’s first wife (and maternal cousin) Sajidah.


Among the Tikritis beyond the Albu Nasir, there are also fissures that could be usefully exploited. One tribe, al-Shaya’isha, has some frictions with Saddam and his family because two prominent members of the tribe were the generals Tahir Yahya and Hardan al-Tikriti, both of whom were purged under Saddam’s orders soon after the Baath regained power in 1968. Hardan was assassinated in Kuwait in 1971 by Saddam’s agents, and much of the tribe was gradually excluded from power during the 1970s. The only well-known member of this tribe who was still in uniform in 2003 was General al-Hakam Hasan ‘Ali, commander of army aviation, in 1991. He lost his command in the mid-1990s and was made an anonymous advisor to the president—effectively promoting him out of power. Although Hakim himself is not fit for any public office because his helicopter gunships slaughtered thousands of noncombatants during the suppression of the Shiite uprising in 1991, other Shaya’isha who were not implicated in any atrocities might be of help. Two other tribes collectively called the Hadithiyyin, the Rifa’iyyin, and the Jawa’ina also bear grudges against Saddam. The latter are hostile to Saddam and his family because he executed some of their most prominent members: Jasim Amin Mukhlis and Raji ‘Abbas al-Tikriti in 1993 and General Husayn Hiyawi in the early 1970s. Even within tribes that had suffered at Saddam’s hand, one may find many individuals who preferred their personal interests over those of the tribe and remained loyal to him. Still, some are very likely to be bitterly against the fallen leader.


Under Saddam’s dictatorship, many of Iraq’s Sunni tribes enjoyed considerable perquisites and privileges that ensured at least some degree of loyalty to the regime. Many tribal shaykhs received payments, access to weaponry, and a blind eye from Baghdad to smuggling and other illegal activities. To man his various internal security forces, such as the Presidential Guard and Special Republican Guard, Saddam imported large numbers of young, uneducated tribal men from Tikrit and his childhood village, al-Ujah, and secondarily from other parts of the Iraqi Sunni Arab countryside and even some Shiite areas. Young men from tribes considered friendly to the regime were encouraged to join the armed forces and the security organs and enjoyed speedy promotion. Overall, these tribes benefited in multifarious ways from Saddam’s rule.

Which tribes enjoyed this kind of preferential treatment? In the Sunni Arab areas practically all of the tribes did, but some were more privileged than others. These tribes included principally those neighboring Tikrit (mostly in the Salah al-Din Governorate): the Jubbur in Sharqat, the ‘Ubayd in al-‘Alam and Tarmiya, the Mushahadah in Tarmiya, the Luhayb in Sharqat, and the al-‘Azza in Balad. A bit farther afield, there were the Harb in ad-Dur, the Tayy in Mosul (the minister of defense, General Sultan Hashim, hails from that tribe), the Khazraj from south of Mosul, and the Maghamis from Khalis. Finally, while the large Sunni Arab tribal federation of the Dulaym west of Baghdad collaborated with the regime rather closely, the Shammar Jarba northwest of Baghdad in the Jazira collaborated somewhat less enthusiastically.

Nevertheless, too much can be made of the loyalty of these tribes to Saddam’s regime. In fact, coup attempts by members of some of these tribes suggest less than complete loyalty to the dictator. In January 1990, members of the Jubbur attempted to assassinate Saddam, resulting in numerous retirements, arrests, and executions. In the early 1990s, some prominent ‘Ubaydis were singled out by the regime as would-be revolutionaries and retired or even incarcerated. The fact that even at the end of the regime there were still many Jubburis and Ubaydis in the regime is a testament both to their importance to the regime and to their willingness to ignore the harm done to their tribesmen. Indeed, many individuals have proved ready to sacrifice their tribe’s interests in exchange for promising careers, but this does not mean that tribal loyalties have been completely forsaken. For instance, although the Dulaym federation seemed to remain loyal to the regime to the end, and in the Dulaym town of Fallujah there were quite a few postwar clashes with U.S. forces, less resistance to coalition forces was reported in the Dulaym town of al-Ramadi, west of Baghdad. The reason for the latter phenomenon seems to be that many people of al-Ramadi, those hailing from the Albu Nimr tribe, cannot forget the brutal August 1995 suppression—at the hands of Saddam’s Fida’iyyin—of their protest against the execution of their most illustrious son, Air Force General Mazlum al-Dulaymi. Still, it would be a major mistake to assume that there is no support for the defunct Baath regime there too. The Albu Nimr are not a majority in al-Ramadi, and it is in the interest of the pro-Saddam forces in town to demonstrate that al-Ramadi is no less hostile to the U.S. presence than Fallujah. Despite the ambivalence and complexity of tribal loyalties, it should be possible for the coalition to reach out to parts of some or all of these major Sunni tribes. Anyone without a record of crimes against humanity or serious corruption, and who was not an “active member” in the Baath Party (‘adhu ‘amil, the most senior of the four ranks of party membership), and there are such, should be considered for public office.


Under Saddam Hussein as president, and to a lesser extent even under his predecessor, President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr (1968-1979), tribal chiefs were given weapons, lands, money, and great authority over their tribes. This has applied to Sunni, Shiite, and even some Kurdish tribes. In exchange, Shiite and Kurdish tribes (as well as Arab tribes close to the Kurdish zones) assisted the regime by monitoring the borders with Iran and preventing their own tribesmen from joining anti-Baath insurgents. Tribal autonomy meant that tribal law and practices (‘urf, ‘adah) prevailed in the tribal countryside, even over the law of the land. For instance, tribal rules governed practices such as blood feud and peacemaking (sulha), including blood money (diyyeh), official government prohibitions against murder notwithstanding. Beginning in the 1990s, the regime also accepted tribal practices when it came to “honor” crimes, including the murder of women to protect family honor (‘ird). Indeed, men murdering their female relatives for reasons of “protecting the family honor” were routinely acquitted in the state courts, and sometimes were not even brought to justice.

All of this means that the tribes are accustomed to acting in semi-independence, have followed a different rule of law than the rest of the country, and have precedent and tradition on their side. Managing them and bringing them in line with the policies of the central authority will be an important challenge for a new interim authority and a new, democratic Iraqi government. The guiding principle for coalition forces in the post-Saddam era ought to be, at least during the first year or two, to interfere as little as possible in intra- and inter-tribal affairs. At the same time, it is imperative to make very clear that the tribes are not autonomous from the state and that state control applies wherever the central authority decides to implement it. Thus, for example, “honor killing” of women, presently largely unpunished, must be stopped, if necessary by force. Indeed, any new Iraqi government—and the interim authority that precedes it—should probably handle the tribes with a combination of benefits, diplomacy, and force, just as the old regime did.

With regard to benefits, tribal shaykhs may be regarded as a useful conduit, receiving resources from a new central government in Baghdad and disseminating them to their tribesmen. Thus, providing resources to the shaykhs can be justified not as outright bribery but as simply a form of distribution network, because most shaykhs will make sure that their followers do receive equitable (if not quite equal) shares of the largesse. However, the central authority must keep tabs on these practices and be satisfied that the allocations by the shaykhs are equitable. If there are complaints by one section of the tribe that the shaykh is discriminating against them, the central authority has a very effective whip: it can, and should, allow this section to become independent and nominate its own shaykh, who then will be entitled to receive the resources directly. This would be a significant blow to the old shaykh and serve as an example for others.

Another way for coalition forces to handle an unjust or disloyal shaykh—at least before a full-fledged Iraqi democracy emerges—would be to allow a village under the control of such a shaykh to elect its own local authority or mayor. Often such local authorities are more important than the grand shaykhs. By giving them government support, their loyalty to the central authority in Baghdad will be secured at the expense of the authority of the old shaykh. There are other options, like replacing the old shaykh with one of his relatives, but picking the right such shaykh (i.e., one with greater popularity than the old shaykh) might require a subtlety and understanding of tribal sentiment beyond American and British forces.

It would be an exercise in futility for the coalition or an interim authority to try to collect all weapons from the tribes. Tribal Iraqis have had rifles and handguns for hundreds of years, and will not give them up willingly. On the other hand, it should be both reasonable and possible for an interim authority to insist that the tribes hand over heavier weaponry such as rocket launchers, machine guns, mortars, artillery pieces, and armored personnel carriers. Indeed, the intent would be not only to deprive the tribes of their ability to employ large-scale violence for political purposes, but also to make clear that only the central authority in Baghdad will be allowed to exercise military power. Similarly, the central authority must make a maximal effort to shut down looting, robbery, attacks on other tribes, or any use of violence for political purposes. Still, it is important to sweeten the deal for the tribes by offering them economic benefits in return for their heavy weapons. This will require a major effort to provide the tribal areas with social and economic services at least up to prewar levels. Tribal areas must be the targets of renewed efforts to provide health services, nutritional supplements, treated water, sewage treatment, electricity, and roads where they have eroded. Telephone services and education will have to be resuscitated and improved. The situation in the Shiite areas of the south (mainly in Basrah and around ‘Amarah) is particularly bad, but there are other areas, like Mosul, that are also badly off.

Finally, there is the problem of the tribes that have been collaborating very closely with the Baath regime since it came to power in 1968. These tribes will find it more difficult to work with a new government, and there may be a need for some special measures to get them to work together with the government. For instance, the United States could insist that their shaykhs be replaced in return for their participation in various economic reconstruction programs. It is important to identify the problematic tribes ahead of time and be aware of the potential difficulties even before they arise. Some of these tribes are Shiite, such as the Bani Hasan, Aal Jaryu, Albu Dush, Aal ‘Isa, Aal Shibil, and the Shiite branch of Saddam’s tribe, the Albu Nasir, led by Husayn Sayyid ‘Ali. All of these tribes are located in and around Najaf.


Of course, these recommendations for handling Iraq’s Sunni tribes also entail certain risks. As the U.S. experience in Afghanistan suggests, giving too much power to tribal shaykhs may turn some of them into independent warlords whom the central government will be unable to control. In Iraq, however, government policies dating back to Ottoman times have weakened the tribes and made them far less cohesive and powerful than in Afghanistan. Even Saddam Hussein was careful not to give them enough power to challenge the state. As long as the central authority denies heavy weapons (tanks, armored personnel carriers, aircraft) to the tribes, the power of the shaykhs will remain limited.

There is also the risk of tribal revolts, which at one time were endemic to the Kurdish and Shiite regions of Iraq. Today, the Kurds’ dependence on U.S. support makes a Kurdish revolt of any kind unlikely, while recent Shiite uprisings have all taken place mostly in the (more religious and nationalistic) urban areas rather than the countryside. The main problem may lie in the Sunni Arab countryside and small towns, such as Fallujah, where many of Saddam’s former bodyguards and Special Republican Guard have taken shelter with the local population. Short of large-scale revolt, tribes may also mount local attempts to challenge central authority and expand their own autonomy, as they tried at times even under Saddam. A meaningful difference between Iraq and Afghanistan in that respect is that the road system in Iraq is far more developed. As a result, government access even to the remotest villages is relatively easy.

How can the coalition and the new Iraqi government best rein in tribal power? There is no alternative to military action in cases of hard-core resistance, such as Fallujah. Yet it should be possible to control most local tribal challenges as the old regime usually did, simply by effective policing and nonviolent displays of force (although the regime also employed extreme violence to put down political opposition). Nevertheless, the most potent vehicle for central government control is the distribution of government services and other benefits. The Iraqi countryside desperately needs new infrastructure, as well as many basic services and goods, such as purified water, treated sewage, roads, electricity, schools, hospitals, agricultural machinery, fertilizers, irrigation systems, and even high-quality seeds. Within a few months the central government in Baghdad, whether it is still largely run by the coalition forces or by Iraqis, should be able to provide all this and more—even to the most remote villages. At that point, tribal shaykhs will have to work with the government or risk being overthrown by their own people.

Finally, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the new Iraqi government must ensure that tribal allegiances do not become a new source of oppression. Traditional tribal systems were reasonably equitable, and tribal shaykhs were reasonably democratic because they did not have the power to impose their will on a reluctant tribe. Under the British Mandate and then the monarchy, however, the central government often rewarded shaykhs for their obedience by giving them total power over their tribesmen—a practice that bred alienation, resentment, and revolt. This mistake must be avoided at all costs. Shaykhs who are unpopular with their tribesmen should immediately be removed and replaced with more popular figures. The central government must also keep itself well informed about tribal politics (local governors, for instance, should be versed in tribal affairs), and it must take immediate action if it learns of any abuses of authority.

With time, tribal groupings may melt away and tribesmen may begin to act as individual citizens, interacting directly with the government rather than through their shaykhs. This option should be left open, but such possibilities will have to wait until law and order are established, infrastructure is largely repaired, the economy is revived, and a reasonably representative Iraqi government takes over. Until then, the tribes can provide security and social support for their members. Meanwhile, a popular shaykh who works closely with the central government and serves as a channel for government services and support can be an effective force for law and order. Provided it maintains a solid cadre of specialists in tribal affairs, the central government in Baghdad has a good chance of being able to use the tribal system to increase social stability in rural areas and keep the country in one piece. By contrast, an attempt to ignore the tribes or dismantle the tribal system would be destabilizing and could even increase the chances of armed conflict.


For U.S. and British forces attempting to restore order and create a new authority, dealing with Iraq’s tribes will be an important challenge. Because the tribes were a key element of Saddam’s power base and because they exercised considerable autonomy under the Baath regime, asserting control over them will send an important message to the rest of Iraq that Saddam’s regime is finished and the new Iraq will be very different from the old Iraq. In addition to the tribal shaykhs, the new regime will have to involve the educated class in managing provincial towns such as Fallujah, Anna, ‘Amarah, and Majar al-Kabir, as well as major cities such as Mosul and Basra. While all due respect should be shown for tradition, modern education and progressive social attitudes should also be encouraged to take root in Iraqi society. All this will be a difficult task, especially because the intricacies of Iraqi tribal society will be very foreign to most American and British officials—let alone troops. But with assistance from the Iraqis themselves, it should be possible for an interim authority to bring recalcitrant tribes to heel and convince agnostic tribes to support the kinder, gentler, and more equitable new Iraq.

* Amatzia Baram was a Visiting Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution. He is professor of Middle East History at the University of Haifa, Israel.