Friday, September 24, 2004


By William Fisher

Sometimes, the most astonishing statements are made in the US Congress, and disappear under the radar, completely unnoticed by press or public.

One such was made by Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage before the House Subcommittee on Operations last week.

It is worth repeating.

Mr. Armitage was being questioned by a committee member on some of the Bush Administration’s un-planned missteps in Iraq.

One such misstep, Mr. Armitage volunteered, was that the US was not aware of, and was wrong-footed by, the ‘tribal influences’ in that country.

This admission of error – one of the few the Administration makes these days – is truly astonishing. How can it be true?

The US State Department, the Pentagon, and many other agencies of the American government, have access to literally hundreds of experts on Iraq. To the best minds in the world on this subject. To their own staffs. To scholars steeped in the history and customs of the country. To Thinktanks without limit.

Did it ask for expert opinion? Or did it ask and then not listen? Well, we’ll probably never know.

What we do know is this: If you asked a junior high school class to write a paper on Iraq, most of the students’ submissions would contain references to the tribes of Iraq. Not because they’re all so brilliant, but because most of them have access to the Internet, and a simple Internet search would have told you much more than you wanted to know about tribes in Iraq.

Let’s try it. Go to Google. Enter ‘Iraq Tribes’. The first three references are: ‘The Iraqi Tribes and the Post-Saddam System’, ‘Definition of Arab Tribes in Iraq’, and ‘Iraqi Tribes Are Key Source of Loyalty, Rebellion’. These are three of the 230,000 results of this simple search.

How often during the reign of Proconsul Paul Bremer did we hear about ‘tribes’ ? We heard about Sunnis, about Shias, about Kurds, occasionally about Turkomen, even less often about Assyrians or the many other minorities within Iraq.

But we never learned that these Iraqi tribes – huge families bonded by tradition and inter-marriage – are a central part of the social fabric of Iraq, that they exist within all these major religious groupings, that they frequently straddle Shia and Sunni, and that they are at least as important and influential as the larger groups to which they belong.

As far as I am aware, Prime Minister Allawi was the first person who ever mentioned tribes in prime time: During his visit to the White House, he talked about the conversations he was having with tribal as well as religious leaders, and their participation in the political process. Mr. Allawi knows all about tribes because he is a member of one – as is every other Iraqi. None of them signed up to belong to a tribe; they were members by birth.

Before the US invasion of Iraq, the State Department had undertaken an ambitious project to plan for ‘the day after Saddam’. It brought together some of the best of Iraqi thinking on a broad range of subjects, from education to politics to the role of woman in society. In the end, the plan was rejected by the Department of Defense, which believed it unnecessary because US troops would be greeted as liberators and the barrels of their guns would be filled with flowers.

US failure to even recognize, much less deal with, the role of tribes in shaping Iraqi attitudes and behavior is a measure of the bankruptcy of American policy and strategy.