News of violence in Iraq has become routine, and it is now rare to witness a day without a case of violence. Political violence is what draws most attention, not due to its scarcity, but for other factors related to the division of society into factions and groups. Tribal and clan violence is fueled by weapons ranging from medium to heavy arms usually used in conflicts between clans and tribes without the state having a significant role in containing them. This cycle of successive violent retaliation does not have any boundaries. It can begin with a petty squabble such as a disagreement about the distribution of resources, a dispute over a plot of ​​land or even, and this is not extremely rare either, over a joke between two people. 

Forgotten Victims

The victims of tribal and clan violence are not just the dead or wounded. They also include those who are psychologically damaged by this violence. Enforced disappearances or forced marriages which mostly concern women, cause significant psychological damages, as male hegemony demeans and denigrates women while depriving them of the right to raise their voices. It is with great difficulty that we were able to talk to one of these women. Only 16 years old, this girl says that she was forcibly married to her cousin while she was still underaged, and she did not have the right to express an opinion on the issue of her marriage, as this is the custom of her clan. After her wedding, she was obligated to leave school and traveled with her new husband from Basra to Maysan, 200 km away, even losing contact with her mother after a few months.

This woman says that she is frequently subjected to marital rape, as tribal custom grants the man full dominion under the myth of a man’s “marital rights” and she is subjected to physical violence even for reasons beyond her control. “My husband beats me when I have my menstrual period.”, she admitted. When she complained about this treatment, her husband accused of treachery and forbade her from using the phone, rendering her completely cut off from others. Crying, and devoid of hope and solace, she continues: “I plan to escape, but I am afraid of exploitation and extortion.”

Historical Context 

Successive political regimes in Iraq have invested in the tribal authority instead of dismantling it, leading to a further spread of violence. Husseini Al-Atrakji, a security researcher, says: “The factors of clan domination date back to the Ottoman occupation of Iraq, as the Ottomans worked to empower clan leaders by supporting them with land and money from the Iraqi State. Most importantly, the [Ottomans] enabled tribes and clans to rule via a special constitution called ‘clan customs’.”

“The power of the clans grew as a result of the Ottoman-Safavid conflict that extended for a long time in Iraq,” Al-Atrakji continued. “Both occupations exploited loyal clans in the Sunni and Shiite communities, and then these clans became instruments of struggle from which the occupation benefitted.”

“Later, after the emergence of the Iraqi state, the authorities in the 1950s tried to settle clans of different religious sects in the Baghdad belt,” says Al-Atrakji, who works as Vice President of Watan Al Furatain Center for Strategic Studies. As for the contemporary history of the clans, he explained that during the 1990s, the State ruled by the now-dissolved Baath Party enabled clans by allowing tribal customs to be parallel to the laws of the State. “[They] succeeded in splitting the Arab tribes by placing clan leaders loyal to it, in an attempt to control these clans and contain their discontent after the defeat in the Gulf War and the international blockade that was imposed on Iraq.”, he detailed.

After 2003, however, the political class found strategic depth and power in the clans, and thus the division of these clans became on a sectarian basis. So, we are now faced with Sunni clans and Shiite clans, specific geographical spheres. This policy of support and division resulted in conflicts between and among the same Shiite or Sunni clans over resources and areas of influence. 

State Involvement

In the many crises that plague Iraq, the question remains as to the state’s authority, and its prevalence over all other rules. Yet, the role of the State authority is almost non-existent in many major issues, which researcher Satea Ammar attributes to being linked, at least in the history of Iraq since the establishment of the modern state structures in 1921 until now, to the identity of the State itself: “The modern State, as such, has its own ideological apparatuses which are the cultural product of its policies. The function of these apparatuses is to create social and cultural integration within the state space, such that we could talk about a modern society, a society that is fundamentally governed by law and modern cultural values. This is the core issue in Iraq which, over a hundred years since the founding of its modern state, has failed to produce any integrative identity for its society, as tribal identity remained active along with its values ​​and behaviors in the public sphere.”

Mrs. Ammar also believes that the matter relates to cultural geography. “Iraq has long attracted these [tribal] groups due to its water wealth and plain lands. This was accompanied by a lack of central power in Iraq for a long period of time, since the sixth century AD. These factors made the political landscape brimming with clan activity. We may have witnessed at specific times a weakening or even fading of these clans, but they quickly returned to activity due to the policies of the State itself.”

About distinguishing clan violence from the context of prevalent violence in Iraq, Ammar says, “The violence of groups in Iraq, whether clan or religious, is linked to the legacy of the State’s identity as mentioned above. What distinguishes religious violence from tribal violence, however, is that the former is more legalized and linked to material and sectarian interests, and its logic necessitates organization, while clan violence was and still is linked to other variables and values. It is fluid and therefore not confined to fixed motives. Therefore, by its nature, tribal violence falls under the rubric of the law and civil values, and corresponds inversely with these two variables. Religious violence is linked to a legitimacy above the law, in which the discussion goes beyond the problem of law itself.”

Masculine Values

Masculine values prevail and are in tribal societies. These include revenge, the usage of arms to settle disputes, and inclination to kill. It is not rare for a child to be born already bearing the duty of revenge for his father who was killed before he was born. The child must then grow to exact that revenge and pursue his father’s killer or else the stigma of “shame” would haunt him for the rest of his days.

A doctor working in the Maysan Health Department says, “Those who are targets of failed assassination attempts give false statements about the incident in order to mislead security services, despite the fact that the police intervenes as soon as the case arrives at the hospital.” The doctor, who declined to be named for security reasons, continues, “We need to know how the accident happened to assess the injury and determine the medical or surgical intervention needed, but we face difficulty in obtaining correct information from the victims or their families.”

According to those familiar with the matter, the reason behind this failure to disclose information about the incident is that this victim wishes to take revenge in his own hands without State intervention, and in other cases, some tribal protocols prevent the victim from claiming compensation for the injury he sustained if he files a complaint with the security services. 

What Does Psychology Say?

“This violent social structure necessarily produces violent individuals, as violence reproduces itself continuously,” says psychology researcher Mohammed Al-Omrani. He continues, “Understanding violence and its dangers and consequences must take into account three main factors: the structure that produces violence, the violent person, and the victim of violence or the abused. The structure producing violence provides us with its causes, contexts, and the capabilities that support it.” Al-Omrani believes that, “In light of the inability of state agencies to play their role in arbitrating disputes between as individuals and groups, the social structure plays the role of imposing values ​​and standards that are constituted culturally and historically, and as a result of the conflicts and wars that Iraq has endured, as well as the large Bedouin migrations from the desert, armed force, violence, cruelty and revenge represent the masculine values ​​that have become rooted in the culture of these Iraqi tribes, and from there begins the cycle producing violence.”

As for the violent person, Al-Omrani believes that “a person is not born violent, as there is no instinct of aggression. However, there are objective conditions that determine the way in which a person engages in such violent behavior, and if the climate in which the individual is raised encourages violence and rewards it, then violence becomes an acceptable option. It thus produces negative psychological states for individuals and society, such as psychopathy, bipolar disorder, and other psychological disorders.”

As for victims of violence, the matter is different. Although many are killed due to clan violence, during tribal conflicts or by assassination, others are subject to severe psychological violence. Muhammad al-Omrani says, “There is symbolic violence practiced by male domination over both men and women, represented by the values ​​and standards imposed on both sexes that they cannot eschew for fear of social ostracization. There is also violence practiced by men against women such as physical and verbal violence, as well as preventing their access to education, work and going outside the home, all of which takes place within so-called clan customs. The victims of such violence invariably suffer severe psychological crises, some of which are passivity, frustration, depression, and inability to change their lived reality. Others even engage in this climate of violence, and turn into violent individuals or those who encourage violence, thus completing the cycle of reproduction of violence.”

VIAMuhammad Abdul-Ridha - Iraqi researcher