Tribal feuds pushing many Iraqis to leave Basra

In the absence of law and order — or at least of faith in the judicial system — many Iraqis are resorting to tribal justice.
Saturday 29/06/2019
Family feuds. A cartoon depicting an Iraqi tribal leader with the words “Law of Basra” written above him in Arabic (Arkan Qasim).
Family feuds. A cartoon depicting an Iraqi tribal leader with the words “Law of Basra” written above him in Arabic (Arkan Qasim).

BASRA, Iraq - Tribal feuds are leading many residents of the southern Iraqi city of Basra to leave their homes and resettle in other provinces and sometimes outside the country altogether.

Since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, tribal leaders have gained in strength and capitalised on the state’s weakness. With anti-government sentiment increasing in Basra over the past year due to poor services, many tribal leaders have begun to act with impunity.

One former Basra resident said he and his family had been pushed to leave the city out of fear for their safety.

“I belong to a clan called ‘Mzeraa’, which has a dispute with another clan,” said Husam Almzeraawie, a former resident of Basra who did not wish to name the rival clan. “They killed two members of our clan. I decided to flee with my family to save our lives,” he said.

“The tribes own a countless number of weapons, many types that the government itself does not have,” said Almzeraawie. “These feuds make us unable to live in peace.”

Almzeraawie first fled to Turkey and travelled across Europe to settle in Germany.  “I chose to go to Germany because I heard that there is a safe life there,” he said. His wife, Nour Mohammed, said the family had suffered a lot in Basra.

Security sources said there has been a rise in the number of people killed or wounded due to tribal feuds in the county’s south, especially in Basra, where security forces have little presence. No specific numbers have been released by authorities.

Residents point to an increase of “degga ashairiya” (tribal warning). It refers to an old custom where gun-carrying members of a certain tribe gather and shoot at the house of a member of an opposing tribe until he agrees to come out and settle a dispute through negotiations. If he refuses to negotiate or no settlement is reached, more violence is expected, sometimes leading to fatalities.

In the absence of law and order — or at least of faith in the judicial system — more and more Iraqis are resorting to tribal justice.

The Ministry of Interior has sought to curb the practice of “degga ashairiya” by including it under article four of Iraq’s anti-terrorism act, but with no success.

Basra police chief Rashidde Fleih recently told reporters that “some tribes in Basra own heavy weapons that are equivalent to two military divisions.”

Tribal access to heavy weaponry came after the 2014 fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani calling on Iraqi volunteers to take up arms against the Islamic State (ISIS).  Many of the weapons came from Iran.

Once the fight against ISIS was over, many of the militiamen who belonged to tribes went back home with their weapons.

“House for sale” signs have become a frequent sight in Basra. Not many people in the province have faith in the government’s ability to exert authority over the powerful tribal leaders.

“The local or federal security authorities could not enforce the law to eliminate tribal conflicts,” said Ameen Wahhab Basra, a member of Basra’s provincial council. The state cannot even protect its own land from being taken over by tribes, he added.

Security officials admit that government efforts to stop tribal transgressions have failed.

“We initiated a campaign to arrest those who practice the ‘degga ashairiya’ and punish them in accordance with the law, which ranges from a 15-year prison sentence, to a life term or even the death penalty, but we have not applied any of these punishments so far,” said police spokesman Colonel Bassem Ghanem.

Tribal leaders have suggested a solution. They want the government to negotiate with them.

“We talked to the government many times and we proposed to them that they give to tribe members ten employment opportunities for each batch of 100 weapons that the tribes hand over to the government,” said Basra-based Sheikh Dhurgham al-Maliki.

“This would have reduced tribal conflicts in the city of Basra but unfortunately the government turned a deaf ear.”

A cartoon depicting an Iraqi tribal leader with the words “Masters of the streets” written above him in Arabic. (Arkan Qasim)
A cartoon depicting an Iraqi tribal leader with the words “Masters of the streets” written above him in Arabic. (Arkan Qasim)
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