Tribes in Shia-majority central and southern Iraq play an influential role in national politics, local politics, and the security sector. According to a recent IOM survey in the Basra governorate, a densely populated tribal governorate in the south, 65 percent of respondents view armed tribal conflicts as the biggest social issue in the governorate’s center. At the same time, 43 percent, and 49 percent of local and displaced citizens, respectively, showed trust in tribes as safety nets, compared to 25 percent and 10 percent that showed trust in state courts instead. Additionally, 62 percent of residents and internally displaced respondents originally from other southern governorates showed “positive trust” in tribal leaders—a level surpassing all other authorities. Indeed, the tribes’ increased political relevance and capacity for violence is elevating their importance in Iraq’s political-security landscape.
Facing a threat from Muqtada al-Sadr’s rise to power, Iran-allied Iraqi Shia paramilitaries and their associated political parties have been politically mobilizing tribal networks in central and southern Iraq against Sadr and his militarized movement, which distances itself from Iran. These Iran-allied paramilitaries, represented politically by the Fatah bloc in the 2018 parliament, have been at loggerheads with Sadr, whose party won the majority of seats in the October 2021 elections. The former even went as far as to allege that the elections were “rigged.” Sadr’s parliamentary majority now appears poised to marginalize Iran-allied actors in the next Iraqi government, thus potentially weakening their clout within security agencies and the bureaucracy.
Shia paramilitaries, strongly represented in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), launched a campaign to protest the preliminary results by mobilizing their constituencies to disrupt vital roads and encircle the Green Zone in Baghdad—the location of numerous government facilities. Pro-paramilitary protesters waved tribal flags, and tribal elders gave speeches in support of the parties protesting the results. The third post-elections statement issued on 18 October by the Iraqi Resistance Coordination Commission (IRCC), or Tansiqiya, which collectively represents key Iran-allied paramilitaries, shed light on the protestors’ tribal identities and asked them to cease disruptions and reinstate order in the streets. In part, the statement aimed to emphasize implicitly that tribal networks were a core element of the groups’ street mobilization and that there was deep discontent in the south.
Escalation between Sadrists and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), another key Iran-allied group, surged between January and February 2022, when five assassination attempts in Maysan governorate targeted local leaders from both groups. Maysan, a densely tribal area, has been a stronghold for both groupings since AAH splintered from the Sadrists’ Mahdi Army in 2006. These assassinations risk involving tribal networks in paramilitary infighting, thus inciting bloody tribal violence. For example, in February this year, some Iraqi social media influencers associated with Iran-allied groups openly called on tribes in the south to crack down on Sadrists and implied that tribes should avenge their members allegedly killed by Sadrists in Maysan. However, afterwards, the Sadrists and AAH managed to reduce tensions with a high-level meeting in Maysan on 11 February to hand over the culprits to the authorities.
Shortly after the Sadrist-AAH escalation period in Maysan, a clan in the Albu Mohammad, a southern tribe, was listed among the signatories of a 15 February statement that threatened an Iraqi television anchor who questioned the credentials of Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi, the chief of staff of the PMF who also belongs to the tribe. The other signatories of the statement are a cluster of vigilante groups that act as surrogates for the Iran-allied groups to intimidate political rivals. Around the same time that the statement was released, the Shia Coordination Framework—currently representing Iran-allied Iraqi political and paramilitary forces rivaling the Sadrists— stated that it had received a declaration from “the chieftains of the precious Iraqi tribes that call upon all political forces to offer solutions to break the current deadlock.”
The persisting cleavage between Sadr, his allies, and the Iran-allied paramilitaries also risks triggering internecine tribal conflicts in the Sunni governorate of Anbar in Western Iraq. Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), a militant group playing a leading role in directing other Iran-allied groups in Iraq, has been leading a campaign to intimidate Parliament Speaker Muhammad al-Halbusi, Sadr’s ally and Anbar’s strongman who has been increasing his hostile rhetoric against the paramilitaries. For example, KH dispatched forces in the governorate in February this year to send a warning message to Halbusi and mobilize local allies. KH has been propping up Sattam Abu Risha against Halbusi: Sattam is the son of the late Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the famous leader of the U.S.-backed Awakening Councils that fought against Al-Qaeda. In late March, Halbusi attempted to detain Sattam and met with Ahmed Abu Risha, another Awakening leader and Sattam’s uncle, as a message to challenge KH.
Iran-allied groups have long solidified their relations with southern tribes and clans from governorates like Basra, Thi Qar, Maysan, and others, including Sunni-majority governorates, both prior and during the fight against the Islamic State in western and northern Iraq. These relations were fortified mainly as a means to reinforce the groups’ local control and sustain their logistical and manpower supply for the battlefields. Indeed, each of those groups has a tribal bureau that serves as an outreach vehicle to local communities, and such access is facilitated by the tribal affiliations of paramilitary commanders themselves. Prominent examples include the leader of AAH who belongs to the al-Khazal tribal confederation and Harakat al-Nujaba’s leader who belongs to the al-Ka’ab confederation. These shared affiliations can also serve to amalgamate alliances, as in the case of Faleh al-Fayyad, the Chairman of the PMF, and Hadi al-Ameri, the Secretary-General of Badr Organization, the largest force in the PMF, both of which belong to the Albu Amer tribe.
Tribal networks can disrupt counterinsurgents’ efforts to capture paramilitary elements by denying access to their areas and sheltering militants. For example, KH institutionalized its outreach to tribes through a platform named “The Alliance of the Second 1920 Revolution.” This alliance organizes pro-paramilitary tribal elders and figures that routinely issue statements supportive of those groups and the Iran-led regional axis. Indeed, such relationships between tribal networks and paramilitary-backed political parties evolved due to the shared legacies of resisting the Saddam Hussein regime, and as a result of transactional relations during election periods that benefited both sides after 2003.
Despite the role tribal networks can play in protecting paramilitaries, a face-off situation between two major paramilitary groups may well force tribal actors to overtly take sides if a significant number of fighters belonging to those tribal networks are killed. Tribal actors proactively becoming part of clashes between paramilitary groups is likely to further fuel inter-tribal conflicts and social fragmentation in southern Iraq as well as at its center. Increasing tribal violence is likely to increase chances of friction between competing paramilitary commanders. Thus, competing paramilitaries can use tribal conflicts as tool for plausible deniability to settle scores and attribute them to internecine tribal conflicts.
Tribal networks are also influential actors within Iraq’s security architecture. Enjoying vast access to light-to-medium weaponry, especially following the country’s fight against the Islamic State, clans and tribal networks in central and southern Iraq regularly engage with each other. Sometimes those networks engage in armed clashes with security forces due to disputes over revenge killings, land, water resources, employment in oil facilities in resource-rich areas, illicit trade, and de facto control of border-crossings with Iran, among other reasons. Such conflicts thrive as state authorities are incapacitated and local security actors collude with tribal networks or are co-opted by them.
According to data collected from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), incidents of tribal violence in Iraq more than doubled in 2020 compared to 2019, and the number of such incidents surged by 70 percent in 2021 compared to 2020. The share of such incidents in the three southern governorates of Basra, Thi Qar, and Maysan in 2020 was around 46 percent of the country’s total incidents of tribal violence, and the three governorates’ share climbed to 55 percent in the year after. The fatalities of tribal conflicts in the three governorates constituted around 30 percent of Iraq’s overall number of fatalities linked to tribal conflicts. The share of fatalities in the three governorates doubled in 2021 compared to the year before.
In the last quarter of 2021, incidents of tribal violence generally declined in those governorates compared to the previous three quarters with the exception of Maysan, where incidents of tribal violence have been steadily rising. In the last two quarters of 2021, the number of incidents of tribal violence in Maysan extraordinarily outpaced even those of Basra (Figure 1). This trend has vigorously persisted in the first quarter of 2022, where reported incidents in Maysan eclipsed Basra’s, compared to the same period the year before in which Basra’s incidents overshadowed those of Maysan (Figure 1).
It is likely that the 2022 escalation spiral between the Sadrists and AAH and the continuous rise of tribal violence incidents in Maysan are linked. With the exception of Maysan, last year’s elections temporarily mitigated tribal violence in the south in the last two quarters of the year—perhaps due to increased security measures. However, elections-related tribal mobilization may yet empower certain tribal networks against others, thus aggravating tribal violence in the country—a phenomenon also driven by ailing service provision, climate change, and oil investments feeding local level corruption and inter-tribal competition. On the other hand, if the outgoing government secures a third term, it will likely attempt to step up security operations in the south and co-opt tribal networks, which it may use in part to challenge paramilitaries.
Tamer Badawi is an independent analyst focused on paramilitary groups, politics, and security in Iraq and the wider neighborhood. He is a PhD researcher and Teaching Assistant in the University of Kent’s Politics and International Relations Department (Canterbury, UK) where he researches paramilitary groups in Iraq. He tweets at @Tamerbadawi1.
1 The author included incidents of attacks conducted by the Sunni Tribal Mobilization Forces (TMF) against Islamic State group elements as part of annual incidents of tribal violence because there is a possibility that a segment of those attacks consists of tribal revenge killings but were reported and mis-categorized as incidents of counterinsurgency.
2 One expert on tribal politics in Iraq told the author that there is a considerable amount of underreported incidents of tribal violence in Basra in particular. Therefore, the data obtained from ACLED is used in this analysis to reflect the trends of such violence rather than present a precise count of incidents occurring in reality.