In post-ISIS Iraq, tribal justice grows in shadow of Baghdad mistrust

Local traditions fill power vacuum where government has no reach. Sofia Barbarani reports from Fallujah

Photo by Imad Mohammad
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When a member of Iraq’s powerful Albu Esa tribe was shot dead by a short-tempered militiaman, no policeman was called, no judge was summoned or court hearing held. Instead, Baghdad left it to tribal justice.

Diya Hadi Al Easawi had been trying to force his way through the busy gateway between Iraq's capital and Sunni-majority Anbar province by skirting the long queue of vehicles. Tensions boiled over, warning shots were fired and Al Easawi was killed by a stray bullet to the head.

The leaders of his tribe chose not to pursue the killer – a member of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella of largely Iran-backed Shiite militia groups – who was set free and the case closed.

Mahmood Al Easawi, a leader of the Albu Esa tribe, says this has been a regular occurrence in Iraq’s westernmost province, where the central government’s jurisdiction, and residents’ confidence in the Iraqi leadership, is at an all-time low.

"Every single week, the government will ask us to resolve a murder," the 39-year-old says. "People go to their sheikhs to fix their problems, not the government. They don't trust the government."

In Fallujah, Sheikh Mahmood sits in a cool, dark corner of one of the coffee shops that has reopened in Anbar's second-biggest city following its liberation from ISIS control. He sports a large moustache and wears a military uniform. As well as being a respected tribal leader, Mahmood is also a major in the PMF's Sunni component, the Hashed Al Ashaari, and he speaks openly about the tribal role in Iraqi law enforcement.

“Under Saddam, when someone was killed, the court decided. [Today] there is no law, so you can see tribal power more,” he says. “Tribal power has always remained the same, the difference is in the power of the law. It was strong under Saddam, now it's weaker.”

The fall of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the gaping power vacuum that ensued paved the way for the resurfacing of tribal customs. Sheikhs in Fallujah say Iraq's weak federal government and ongoing political turmoil has only served to strengthen their centuries-old system.

This was compounded in post-ISIS-Iraq, where the growing schism between a Shia-dominated government and Sunni civilians is pushing Anbaris to their local leaders and bypassing a rule of law of which they remain sceptical.

Photo by Imad Mohammad
Young men cool off in the Euphrates river. Imad Mohammed for The National 

Residents blame the central government for what they say is the collective punishment of a province often criticised for the rise of ISIS. In 2013, Fallujah was the first city to fall to the terrorists after some residents supported the organisation and the gunmen who entered the city.

Although liberated by the Iraqi military in June 2016, Fallujah is still plagued by the legacy of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi's 18-month rule. High unemployment is feeding a decade-old sense of disillusion as a lack of jobs and a precarious economy give rise to criminal activity.

The presence of the tribes in these areas instead of representatives of the central government make tribal justice more appealing, according to analysts.

“It's often viewed as a better alternative, particularly in a time or place where the state's legitimacy or efficacy is in question,” said Jared Levy, director of research at the Iraqi Oil Report.


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Twenty kilometres west of Fallujah, the leader of the Al Halabsa tribe laments the destitute state of his province and the possible repercussions of the conditions here.

“There is more unemployment now than there was in 2012, there are no government jobs, no projects to support the farmers,” says Sheikh Khalil Ibrahim Al Halbousy, sitting in a vast, empty reception hall off the main road that links Fallujah to Anbar’s capital, Ramadi.

“When a father can’t feed his family what should he do? I fear what could happen,” he says.

The spike in crime has resulted in an increase in the amount of diya – or blood money – to be paid to the families of victims, the sheikh says. Under Anbar's tribal law, the accidental killing of a person can cost a family $4,000 (Dh14,690). This number balloons to $40,000 if the person is found guilty of premeditated murder.

In March, three people were killed in Garma, a small village northeast of Fallujah, during a scuffle between farmers. Before the police could intervene, members of the Halabsa tribe approached the families of the victims and culprits and settled on a $40,000 payoff.

“Even if I’m a tribal leader, I hope that Baghdad will be strong because we are under pressure to fix problems. Most people come to us because they don’t trust Baghdad,” Sheikh Khalil says.

Fallujah residents rest on the bank of the Euphrates river. Imad Mohammed for The National 
Fallujah residents rest on the bank of the Euphrates river. Imad Mohammed for The National 

Sheikh Jassem Al Halbousy, a member of the Halabsa tribe, supports the sheikh’s account of widespread mistrust of Iraq’s political elite.

“When the government is really strong, the tribes get weak, when the government is weak the individual goes to the tribe to get their problems fixed,” he says.

Sheikh Jassem, a former member of Saddam's military, recalls the months that followed the fall of the dictator. "When the Americans came to Iraq, the country was without a government for more than eight months. But because we had tribal law, we didn't face any problems," he says.

In Fallujah, Sheikh Mahmood is convinced that the Baghdad-tribal partnership is a marriage of convenience. “This relationship is not based on trust,” he says. Instead, Baghdad relies on the tribes’ insight into Anbar to resolve outstanding issues more pertinent to a courtroom.

Sheikh Mahmood believes that even the formation of a new government will fail to change the dynamic between Anbaris and Baghdad.

“Straight after choosing a prime minister, relations will improve, because every prime minister right after elections will be weak so he will go to the tribes and make connections,” he says. “Then, after a few months, he will ignore it and things will go back to how they were.”

But as Baghdad's political turmoil shows no sign of abating and efforts to restore relations with their Sunni citizens remain non-existent, the Iraqi state is likely to have to continue delegating power to Anbar's sheikhs. It would be a move that will increasingly undermine the state's control over a province that has been the birthplace of both Al Qaeda and ISIS.

For some, Baghdad’s disrepair is so desperate that they would prefer a renewed American intervention. “The only solution is America,” says Sheikh Khalil. “They need to remove these people [from power] for new ones.”