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Tribalism in modern Iraq, Part I: Saddam’s tribal shadow state  

Kurdish Herald Vol. 2 Issue 1, February 2010 - by Ali Al-Saffar


The nexus of power in Iraq has perpetually been the subject of heated debate amongst readers of politics, members of opposition parties dedicated to dismantling Saddam Hussein’s regime, and more generally, those with an interest in Iraq. The very fact that Saddam managed to remain in power for so long despite dragging Iraq through decades of war, sanctions and unbridled suffering begs the following question: what policies and strategies did Saddam use to consolidate his own power? This is what I will be trying to address over the next few weeks.


First and foremost, it is important to introduce the concept of the "shadow state", that is: “the network of associates, chains of patrons and clients, circles of exclusion and privilege emanating from the office and person of the president” that lay behind the public state, which itself is composed of government institutions, bureaucracies and agencies that one would expect to find in any ordinary state.


The former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, meets with tribal leaders in Iraq
(Woods, Kevin M. Iraqi Perspectives Report.US Naval Institute Press. April 2006)


This "shadow state" – built around neo-patrimonial relations of men vying for the favor of the president – nurtured a system whereby, through their privileged status in Iraqi society and the realisation that these privileges were bestowed upon them (and could therefore be withdrawn) by the president, the players in this shadow stated showed dedication and allegiance to Saddam. The shadow state effectively tied the personal interests and wellbeing of these clients to the very existence of Saddam Hussein, convincing them that they would lose everything in the event of his overthrow.


Tribalism in Iraq as a phenomenon warrants analysis from various of perspectives. To begin, I will explore the key features of the patrimonial Iraqi state throughout the three decades of Ba’athist leadership in an attempt to understand what it was that allowed the shadow state to become so pervasive and resilient. I will concentrate on the way Saddam manipulated these networks of patronage and the use of Etatiste tribalism to consolidate power from 1968 up until the imposition of United Nations sanctions in 1990.


Etatiste Tribalism:


"We are against sectarianism, racism and tribalism"

(Ba’ath Part Communiqué Number 1, July 1968)


"It is no real mystery about the way we run Iraq. We run it exactly as we used to run Tikrit"

(An Associate of Saddam, quoted in Simmons 1994, pp. 218)


That the Ba’ath party would advertise its disdain of tribalism in its very first communiqué is a tribute to the level of importance it attached to overcoming the “epitome of backwardness and social reaction” . Years of agrarian reform and an increasingly centralised state financed through the exponential rise in oil revenue after the 1972 nationalisations subverted Iraq’s tribes in terms of their political organisation and influence and ate into their economic base . The state became increasingly intrusive in performing the social functions traditionally performed by the tribes, leading to the disintegration of large tribal federations such as the Muntafiq in the south .

Despite this seemingly unflappable stance against tribalism in Iraqi culture, and the persistent (public) extolling of the virtues of modernity, tribalism was very much embedded in Saddam’s psyche . His manipulation of tribal affinity and kinship and his weaning of al-Asabiyya al-Qabaliyaa, or tribal solidarity, illustrated his partiality to this “epitome of backwardness” that he publically derided.

Having witnessed the country’s tumultuous recent history, littered with revolutions and coups, and learning from the first Ba’ath regime’s mistakes that had allowed it to be overthrown after a few short months in 1963, Saddam showed that he understood the Khaldunian premise that “those with the tribal solidarity lead”. It became apparent that party loyalty was not sufficient in ensuring a prolonged leadership, and that reliance on family ties would be needed to cement a grip on power. He was entrusted by President Bakr to head the Office of Public Relations (internal security apparatus), and quickly moved to establish a presidential protection force (al-Himaya), in which he recruited young Tikriti boys, primarily from his own tribe, the Albu-Nasir . These loyal young men, who owed all that they had in the way of position and possessions to Saddam, also owed him their complete allegiance. This was a glimpse of the much wider-scale networks of patronage that he would come to foster throughout his presidency, securing quiescence with "a judicious mix of fear, patronage and basing the hub of his regime on those tied to him by clan and family loyalties," (Dodge 2003).

The three main bodies that constituted the military and security services, including the aforementioned Office of Public relations, as well as the military bureau of the party, and the Committee of the Tribes, now came under the influence of Saddam, and he quickly moved to fill these apparatus with Tikriti members of friendly, allied tribes. Thus, the Beijats (a sub-section of the Albu-Nasir and the clan that Saddam himself belongs to) became heavily represented in the Republican Guard and the Defence Ministry, while the internal security apparatus at all levels were "flooded with his tribesmen and other loyalists, mostly from the towns of Tikrit, al-Dour , Beiji and Ouja," (Dodge 2003).

Saddam’s reliance on his kinsmen in the Albu-Nasir, a tribe of only 30,000, is seen in the level of their representation in all internal security organisations and military bodies. In the concentric rings that surrounded Saddam, the Albu-Nasir were ubiquitous in the closest circles, clear testament to their position as the most trusted of Saddam’s clients. They controlled the Special Security Organisation (al-Amn al-Khas), the most important internal security body in Iraq that is charged with ensuring the loyalty of all security and military personnel , and featured prominently in the Special Republican Guard, 80% of which came from Tikrit and its environs . Further illustrating the level of his reliance on Tikritis, the roles of commander of the air force and armed forces, as well as their chiefs of staff and divisional commanders have almost universally been reserved for men from Tikrit.

These concentric rings act as effective barometers of Saddam’s perception of tribal loyalty; while those charged with his personal protection were primarily members of his own tribe, those further from his person but whose positions demanded extreme loyalty often came from other "trusted tribes", mostly found around Tikrit and almost entirely from Salahuddin province. These included the Ubayd, the Mushahada, the Luhaib, the Dulaim and the Jabour , with the latter reportedly providing over 50,000 of their members to swell the ranks of the Republican and Special Republican Guard . In recruiting for these positions, Saddam consistently explained his recruitment policies through asserting that the sons of these tribes have nomadic origins, and as such were considered more trustworthy as they "retained the old tribal values of communal spirit, honour, and manly valour," (Baram, 1997).

Saddam’s proclaimed opposition to the tribalism of Iraqi society likely stemmed from the same roots as his policies on civil society institutions. Rather than being opposed to them on ideological grounds that saw them as being an archaic thorn in the side of his plans to modernise Iraqi society, tribalism posed problems to the prospects of omnipresent state hegemony, so instead of eliminating tribalism altogether, the state moved to “detach tribal elements from their original habitat and build them into itself” . As such, he moved to integrate these primordial networks, on which he relied on as a base of power, into the wider bureaucracy of the party, the administration and the military.


Tikriti representation overwhelmingly exceeded the representation of Tikrit within the population of Iraq as a whole; at times, the entire membership of the Revolutionary Command Council – the chief decision making body within the Ba’athist state structure- hailed from Tikrit . This phenomenon cannot be attributed solely to nepotism, but should be considered as part of a much wider strategy of building vast networks whose wellbeing depended very much on that of Saddam’s. The use of networks of friendly tribes, embedded within the state apparatus but often acting independently of it, represented but one form of the shadow state in Iraq. The etatiste tribalism described above would later morph into a nurturing of social tribalism as the state lost capacity as an instrument of control and governance.


Next Issue: The Shadow State under Sanctions.


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