Ali Ghazwan / Nasiriyah / August 2022 – Translated by Walaa Rayya
The phone was ringing while (F.A), 19 years old, was in the fitting room at a bridal gown store, attempting to pick a dress that would suit her wedding to her “beloved dream prince”. She was unaware that the “wedding” she had waited for years would turn into a “tragedy” due to a fatal shooting.
As soon as she left, (F.A.) rushed to grab her phone from her sister’s hand, thinking that the caller was her fiancé Ali but she was surprised by a loud voice accompanied by sobs and could only make out the words: ” My condolences to you my child. Alawi is dead”. Then she fainted and fell to the ground.
The girl’s fiancé was transferred from Basra to the Wadi al-Salam cemetery in Najaf governorate, she woke up at Basra Educational Hospital so she made sure that she wasn’t dreaming and that what she heard on the other end of the phone was real. Her father-in-law’s voice informed her that her fiancé had died from a sudden shooting due to a clan dispute.
Iraq, particularly its southern provinces, witnesses hundreds of armed clan clashes annually, resulting in dozens of casualties. Basra alone has experienced over 200 armed conflicts in the past year and a half, causing the death and injury of over 300 individuals, according to a security source. Approximately 5,000 arrest warrants have been issued for those involved in clan clashes.
On a summer day, Ali Abdul-Hussein Al-Maliki, 21 years old, was standing in front of his house located in the Five Miles area in the center of the southern city of Basra, trying to fix his father’s car when he was hit by a bullet from gunfire that broke out during a clan clash that took place nearby and fell to the ground.
Abdul-Hussain Al-Malki, the father of the victim, recounted the incident as if it just happened and said with anger: “They killed my son in the prime of his life. A bullet hit him in the chest seven days before his wedding.”
He said, “My son fell in front of me and I was numb with shock and I passed out. The neighbors took him to the hospital for treatment.” Tears fall from his eyes as he added, “but he died on the way.”
The grieving father, along with the rest of his family, blamed the government for the death of his son, considering it responsible for failing to control the spread and use of weapons in the increasingly rampant clan conflicts that have escaped the control of security forces.
A permanent presence of weapons
Clan clashes have been rampant in most governorates, especially in the southern and central regions, in recent decades, in light of the weakness of security forces and their inability to confront the spread of weapons and their use in conflicts, funerals, and celebrations. The victims are often innocent civilians who are killed or injured.
The spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Major General Khalid Al-Muhana, describes clan conflicts as one of the most dangerous factors threatening social peace, revealing the issuance of mandatory orders from the commander-in-chief of the armed forces to disarm all areas witnessing clan conflicts, arrest the perpetrators, and deal with them firmly.
According to Al-Muhana, “approximately 7,000 medium and light weapons have been seized in recent times,” in addition, more than 270 individuals involved in clan conflicts were arrested in the Basra and Dhi Qar provinces in 2021 alone.
With the intensification of government measures to confront the spread of tribal conflicts and the influx of various weapons, about 360 individuals involved in tribal conflicts have been arrested in various cities in the country during the first months of 2022, according to Al-Muhanna, “We are continuing inspections to confiscate light and medium weapons and arrest those involved.”
Al-Muhana believes that the possession of weapons is part of Iraqi cultural heritage and the wars and armed conflicts in the community have greatly contributed to the embedding of this culture. He clarifies that large weapon caches have been overrun in certain periods and the weapons have been leaked to the people, making them widely available.
In mid-August 2022, the leadership of the Rapid Response Unit, affiliated with the Ministry of Interior, announced the resolution of 787 tribal conflicts in the governorate of Maysan alone. The leadership pointed out that a committee was formed to resolve tribal conflicts, composed of local leaders, elders, and the leader of the Rapid Response Unit.
Civil society activists monitoring these conflicts say that these numbers are only a small part of the actual ones, that the government is largely absent, and that its actions are weak. Activist Ali Abbas emphasized that the majority of armed confrontations between large clans do not reach the police stations and the government remains passive, and the minor conflicts in which there are no casualties are forgotten.
According to high-level security sources in the Interior Ministry, there are 7 million 600 thousand pieces of firearms in the hands of civilians in Iraq, revealing a record of 321 armed tribal conflicts in the three southern governorates of Basra, Maysan, and Nasiriyah in 2020 alone. The governorate of Basra had a share of 140 conflicts, with 41 people killed and 105 injured.
The types of weapons used in the conflicts range from light Kalashnikovs to medium BKC machine guns mounted on vehicles, while in other conflicts, anti-armor RPG 7 launchers were used.
Threat of arms
Revenge conflicts between clans, social or accidental incidents, conflicts over agricultural land ownership or those related to oil companies, and the compensation they pay to those affected by their projects and even job opportunities they provide… The reasons for tribal conflicts in Iraq differ, but weapons or threats of their use are always present.
Sheikh Sadeq Nasif, the General Sheikh of the Banu Lam clan, says that “the provinces of Basra and Maysan suffer from repeated tribal conflicts for various reasons about issues linked to agricultural land ownership and private irrigation rights, financial or social problems or old revenge.”
In addition to those disputes, some clans have attempted to impose their authority on oil companies operating on their lands to extract the maximum possible compensation from them.
These disputes often escalate into armed conflicts that intermittently persist for hours or days, and involve the use of weapons.
According to the Iraqi Prime Minister’s decision number 149 of 2011, the damages caused by the oil companies will be compensated, as well as the damage resulting from the evacuation of agricultural lands to continue the operations of the oil licensing companies. The Iraqi Ministry of Oil is responsible for compensating farmers who are financially affected by the operations of these companies and the damage caused by their work.
According to the strategy adopted by the Ministry of Oil to control agricultural lands, under the provisions of the Hydrocarbon Wealth Preservation Law No. 84 of 1985, the Ministry has the right to expropriate agricultural lands for the implementation of oil projects after giving the owners financial compensation. The Ministry refers to these lands as ” Prohibited Oil Areas”.
Clans in the face of corporations
With its transformation into petroleum reserves, the lands, some of which are unsuitable for agriculture or grazing, gain significant importance and ownership become a contested site among clans that invested or lived on it, and sometimes clans impose special demands for approval of the investment by oil companies in those lands.
This is what happened on October 22, 2019, when a clan called “Bayt Wafi” known for its influence in the Basra governorate, closed the entrances to the Majnoun oil field located in the eastern part of Basra and invested by the Chinese company (C.B.C.C) and the British company “Petrofac”. They demanded financial compensation in exchange for their consent to the companies’ operations. Afterward, the clan returned to armed demonstration, cut off the roads leading to the field, and prevented workers from accessing it before agreeing to provide job opportunities for their unemployed sons. This affected the companies’ operations in the field for several days.
On October 18th, 2020, Petronas of Malaysia was threatened with the departure from the Graf oil field in Dhi Qar Governorate, following tensions with clans residing near the field. They were demanding jobs for their children, according to Yahya Al-Mashrafi, the chairman of the Energy Committee in Dhi Qar Governorate Council, who also revealed that the Chinese CPECC company involved in oil production development in the Graf field, was subjected to repeated arson attacks on March 17, 2017, targeted its operating machinery within the territory of the Shweilat clan.
Sometimes, clan conflicts cause damage to infrastructure. On August 18, the Ministry of Electricity announced that one of the power transmission lines in southern the country was out of service due to a clan dispute. The mentioned line (Hartha/Qurna 400 kV) in northern Basra was targeted with fire, resulting in a cut in the transmission line and disconnection of lines in the southern region, which almost led to a complete blackout of electricity. The ministry stated that “electric power transmission lines are constantly being damaged in areas experiencing clan conflicts, especially in northern Basra province.”
Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi pledged on July 2, 2020, to take decisive action to hold accountable and pursue those behind the threat and harassment of foreign companies. During a meeting with investors, he stated that the investment sector faces many challenges, including clan threats to companies.
Despite the commitments made by Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi on 2 July 2020 to protect foreign companies, a group calling itself “the cave owners”, a militia affiliated with Iran, stated on 27 October 2020, calling on Iraqis to provide information on the presence of investors or economic experts from countries considered as competitors to Iran, such as the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, in exchange for amounts ranging from 20,000 to 50,000 dollars. This statement came after the assassination of Iranian Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Mahmoudi by a US air strike.
Clan conflicts clothed in the disguise of politics
Tribal customs have encouraged the carrying of arms since ancient times, as a way to show off strength or to confront opponents and competitors. However, during periods of state power, weapons were hidden in the homes of clan leaders and their drawing rooms and were not shown to the public. But during periods of the weakness of the state or when governments needed the support of clans to achieve specific goals, the clans were armed and their weapons appeared at that time strongly on occasion and were carried widely.
According to Mohammed Al-Zayedawi, one of the clan leaders from Basra governorate, political groups, and parties have tribal tools that activate some conflicts for specific goals such as stirring up the street towards certain files and achieving political objectives. He explained that most of the armed factions exploit the sons of the clans who belong to their ranks by pushing them to store various types of weapons in an attempt to hide them from the security authorities and use them for special purposes. However, these weapons find their way to use in any tribal conflict that occurs.
From his perspective, Al-Zayedawi, who previously served as an advisor to the governor of Basra, accuses some political parties and armed factions of standing behind brokers working in smuggling weapons and selling them to clans, as the arms trade is one of the sources of revenue for these parties. This promotes the acquisition and storage of weapons.
After 2003, political parties in Iraq were able to exploit tribal customs and traditions to strengthen their power, either by using them in elections or through direct political and social domination by resorting to clans’ power. The tribe transformed from a structure based on blood ties to a politically and economically motivated structure driven by religious or sectarian fervor.
With the cooperation between political parties and some clans, the spread of weapons among clans increased greatly, and no house in a tribal area was without weapons, which made tribes a rival force to state security institutions and even dominated them in many cases, according to Al- Zeyadawi.
While Al-Zeyadawi emphasizes the need to control borders with neighboring countries through which weapons and equipment are smuggled, he says that “Basra recorded from early 2019 until mid-2021 more than 200 armed conflicts that killed 43 citizens and injured about 277 others. Approximately 5,000 arrest warrants were issued against those involved in tribal conflicts under article 4 – terrorism.
Weapons supply outlets
According to the head of the Iraqi tribes’ association, Mohammad Al-Jabiri, the majority of the weapons possessed by the tribes today are from the former regime and also from Iran, as many weapons have flowed in large quantities from Iran to Iraq through southern routes after the war against ISIS.
He added: “When the regime fell in 2003, the tribes took control of the medium and heavy weapons belonging to the Iraqi army from the camps and offices they left behind, and in later years, weapons were spread in black markets specialized in their sale and which are difficult to control.”
Regarding other sources of armament for the clans, Al-Jabiri says, “Many clans were able to reinforce their armament through smuggling weapons from areas that witnessed battles with the ISIS terrorist organization to southern areas, and they were obtained at low prices following the organization’s defeat.” This allowed them to possess a weapons arsenal they could turn to in case of any conflict that might arise with rival clans for any reason.
New weapons change the rules of engagement
The rules of engagement among conflicting clans have changed in recent years with the introduction of medium and sometimes heavy weapons after conflicts were carried out using light weapons like Kalashnikovs.
According to security expert Ahmed Al-Sharifi, a new and dangerous shift has recently occurred in the rules of engagement. In some clan disputes in the oil-rich northern Basra region, drones (for surveillance, monitoring, and targeting) and Katyusha rockets have been used to cause maximum damage to the other side.
Weapon markets are widespread in all Iraqi governorates, including the Kurdistan region, some of which are public, and their assets of weapons and ammunition are displayed in private stores, while others are secret and hide what they sell. Many sales and purchases are made through traders and intermediaries who communicate through social media, such as the famous “Meridi” market in Baghdad and the “Weapons” market in the southern governorate of Dhi Qar.
According to security expert Ahmed Al-Sharifi, there are different reasons why clans resort to using light, medium, and heavy weapons. He said that sometimes it is related to a big struggle for control over oil-rich areas and to blackmail the companies working there, sometimes to financial disputes resulting from speculation, or to trivial matters due to comments on social media sites or conflicts between children of two families.
The majority of armed conflicts are recorded in the three southern governorates, Basra, Maysan, and Dhi Qar, which a representative source identified as 321 during 2020, including 140 in Basra.
The Dhi Qar province recorded more than 50 clan armed conflicts in 2021, and over 30 conflicts have been recorded during the first half of the current year, including the shooting of a high-ranking army officer, a Brigadier General, on April 21, 2022, who died immediately and was shot by a sniper while attempting to resolve a conflict between two clans in North Eastern Nasiriya. The conflict also involved the burning of houses and drawing rooms and the death of several people.
In contrast, the province of Maysan recorded around 13 tribal disputes in which weapons were used in the first months of 2022, including a dispute that broke out in April 2022 between two clans in the Azir area of southern Maysan, which resulted in 8 deaths and wounded, and was the most violent so far.
In Baghdad, the political decision-making source in Iraq, security forces have recorded 11 armed clan conflicts from the beginning of the current year until the month of May, which resulted in 35 people being killed or wounded.
Despite the security breaches and the frequent resorting of clans to arms to confront each other, especially in some provinces such as Basra, the Basra Operations Commander, Major General Ali Al-Majidi confirms, “The frequency of armed clan conflicts has decreased in the province during the recent period.”
To clarify that security control is established in most areas experiencing repeated tribal disputes, he said that “security forces in the province continue to pursue and arrest those involved in these disputes, as more than 1000 people were arrested during the first months of 2022.”
An activist from Basra, who declined to give his name, commented on the number of 1000 people arrested due to tribal conflicts in his province, saying that this number, as well as the events on the ground, confirm the magnitude of the conflicts and to what extent tribes have resorted to weapons to confront each other, even in ordinary disputes.
The activist linked the reason to the decrease in the state’s security control and the fearlessness of the clansmen towards being subjected to the law. He stated, “Arms are widespread, leading us to be wary of our sons, friends, and families getting involved in any argument or disagreement for fear that it could escalate into an armed conflict.”
The Commander of the Rapid Response Division, Lieutenant General Thamer Mohammad, does not hide his concerns about the escalation of clan conflicts because of the use of medium and heavy weapons, stating that “clan conflicts have evolved with the presence of weapons and ease of access to them, resulting in negative impacts on community security.”
Lieutenant General Mohammad calls on the judiciary to “support the members and officers in the implementation of duties, given that some clans are trying to influence the security decision in one way or another,” he also revealed that at the beginning of the year 2022, his forces in Maysan Governorate found a stockpile of ammunition belonging to one of the clans, which included light and medium weapons. And heavy, as well as land mines.”
The writer of the report analyzed a study by the Ministry of Interior’s clan affairs department, attributing the rise and trend of tribal conflicts to three factors: the availability of illegal weapons, which the security forces are working to control; attempts to seize agricultural lands for oil exploration; and the spread of drug trafficking, which generates significant profits and leads to conflicts within a single clan.
Deputies turn to their clan’s weapon
The resort to tribal weapons is not limited to citizens but has included many state officials and even members of parliament who rely on their tribes to face challenges or threats.
In the last resort to the clan, dozens of members of the tribe of independent deputy Basem Khashan, who is a lawyer who affirmed his support for the power of the state and the law, gathered after announcing that he was subjected to an armed attack by individuals affiliated with the Sadrist movement.
Khashan is known for his criticism of the Sadrist movement and he wrote a warning that the movement would resort to pressuring the judiciary to dissolve parliament. However, after he was subjected to that attack, he sought refuge with his tribe instead of turning to the law.
Armed individuals are gathering and shouting slogans in front of a tribal drawing room in the Al-Muthanna governorate after the tribe of the deputy called on its sons to join the “arms rally” in a demonstration of strength and to confirm their readiness to respond to any party that “attacks” their members. These demonstrations are often accompanied by intense shooting operations. The situation sometimes evolves into confrontations with the other side.
Calls for control of firearms
Essa Al-Naji, a member of the tribal conflict resolution committee in Maysan, stresses the need to end the phenomenon of resorting to weapons to settle tribal conflicts by strengthening the presence of security forces and the authority of law.”
He believes that “the power of the police and security services comes from the strength of the state, and all parties, as well as politicians, must stand with the state to help it establish security and eliminate clan conflicts that left hundreds of dead and wounded.”
Katea al-Rikabi, a former member of the Parliamentary Security and Defense Committee, calls on the Iraqi government to prepare a new strategy to control the clans’ weapons and disarm them in any way, revealing that some of them have drones that may be used in clan warfare.
He added: “For a long time, we have been calling and stressing that the clan should not be an alternative to the law in any way, but rather supportive of the law and its implementation.”
In November 2018, with the escalation of clan conflicts, the judiciary, with the support of the Ministry of the Interior, directed to tighten the penalties, and to deal with the tribal attack as terrorist crimes. The Supreme Judicial Council affirmed that Article 2 of the Anti-Terrorism Law, which was approved in 2005, stipulates that a threat that aims to spread terror among people, whatever its motives, is considered a terrorist act.
Seven successive governments, after the regime change in 2003, were unable to fulfill their promises to implement the project to limit weapons to the state. This knot has become the most dangerous issue facing Iraqi governments and will constitute a challenge to the next government in a country where weapons have been sold on the black market since 2003, according to al-Rikabi.
From his perspective, military analyst Fadel Abu Ragheef believes that re-establishing a previous government decision to purchase weapons at competitive prices to withdraw them from the people and clans is crucial, calling for “holding accountable all those found by evidence, that they possess an arsenal of medium and light weapons, regardless of their social and partisan status.”
He continued, “The unbridled weapon that has fueled the phenomenon of clan conflicts requires social and security solutions, such as holding the operations and police commanders in the governorates where clan conflict is recorded responsible for that, and if there is evidence of weapon display at mourning gatherings or social events, these leaderships and the sheik of the clan should bear responsibility.”
Abu Ragheef called on the Ministry of the Interior to “reconsider all licensed arms sales offices, cancel them, and freeze the work of various licenses for carrying and possessing weapons granted to citizens because they constitute a threat to social security and civil peace.”
As government agencies step up their enforcement measures to manage conflicts, a video has circulated showing masked individuals declaring the creation of an armed tribal faction to confront other tribes in the Abi Saida region of the Diyala province.
The Abi Saida area has been witnessing large tribal disputes for years, leading to the division of the region into territories controlled by tribes. These conflicts, which resulted in casualties and forced hundreds of families to leave, have also led to an increase in requests for government employees to be transferred to other regions.
Ali Abbas, an activist, comments on this by stating that “Given the current discussions about the revival of ISIS and the weakness of the government, along with the mediocrity of political party-affiliated militias, and the requirement of the factions involved in the ongoing Shia conflict to support the tribes, the power of the tribes is likely to become more prominent”.
With a mocking tone and a smirk, he says: “it’s possible that in a few months, each tribe may form its own armed group to assert its authority, secure its rights, and safeguard its achievements”.
The investigation was completed with the support of the NIRIJ Network for Investigative Journalism.