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A Witch's Brew of Instability: Iraq's Tribe-Militia Nexus

Main image: General Othman Ghanami, commander of the 8th infantry division, meets fellow sheikhs in Diwaniyah, 2008. Credit: Timothy J. Villareal


As the Iraqi protest movement continues with no end in sight, a growing number of tribal threats and ultimatums have been directed at the government over protester deaths.

Some observers have speculated that tribal influence may be key for determining what happens next across the south of the country. But Iraq’s history strongly suggests that the goal of winning tribal support is for the most part, a mirage.

Tribal backing for any state or non-state group can create the illusion that local politics has changed direction, but this is often fleeting; tribes are only one aspect of a constantly shifting landscape of different religious, political and security force elites. These groups exist in an environment of changing elite bargains.

Among Iraqis, loyalty to tribes is fluid and fragmented by religious and political identity. In many cases it is non-existent, therefore the scale of tribal support that can be mobilized is hard to ascertain. Sheikhs sometimes exaggerate their credentials to the point of not having formal status as a Sheikh.

Linked to this problem, tribal structures have changed over the years, due to displacement and changing political patronage, meaning only those with intimate knowledge of a particular tribe will be able to predict its influence and ability to act cohesively.

In 2010 for example, an Iraqi from Wasit reported to the US State Department that "we used to have three sheikhs in our tribe. Now with Maliki we have about 30.”[i]

These posts are therefore not intended as a guide to the southern tribes mentioned below, but are more intended as a note of caution when discussing tribal influence.

They explore some of the links between fragmented tribal leadership in the south of Iraq and the formation of Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) units and previously, the south’s Tribal Support Councils (TSCs), a program initiated by former PM Nouri al Maliki, a version of which has recently been revived in some provinces.

Secondly, they examine the risk that repression of protests could create splits within security forces and southern tribes which are linked through security hiring. But rather than simply resulting in tribal conflict or conflict between ideologically distinct security forces, both intra tribal and intra security force clashes are possible.

At worst, this could lead to a fratricidal conflict that could affect oil production and plunge the country into irreversible decline, a repeat of Libya’s chaotic trajectory after 2011. Iraq's version of such a conflict could even be more severe.

At best, tribes and politicians may be able to come together for the common good, and there is encouraging precedent for this. But even in this scenario, sporadic clashes between tribes and between PMF factions will likely continue.

The long term picture is bleak, due to Iraq’s youthful demographic profile and minimal non-oil investment, which exacerbates zero sum competition for jobs and resources between tribes and political groups.

It is hard to think of a worse example of this than the struggle between different groups to benefit from the Hartha water treatment project, which delayed construction of a facility designed to provide clean water for hundreds of thousands of people.

In this context, multiple actors outside of Iraq have failed to see the country primarily as a fragile, conflict prone and fragmented state, instead viewing Iraq through the lens of Iranian influence and/or terrorism.

In the security sector, weak governance has led to a struggle for dwindling resources to support patronage networks, which has also afflicted Sunni majority provinces. This is manifested in tribal and political disputes over security force hiring, rather than the building blocks of civilian governance, taking place among tribes and political parties and later, the PMF.

While a broad platform for political patronage, TSCs were a short lived but important stage in the militia-ization of Iraq which was well underway before Nouri al Maliki began the TSC initiative in 2008, after Operation Charge of the Knights against Moqtada al Sadr’s Jaish al Mahdi (JAM) in Basra.

At the time, Dagher al Mousawi, leader of the obscure political party Sayyid al Shuhada (affiliated to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and later, former PM Nouri al Maliki) told the US State Department that, “tribal leaders have been discussing with ISF the creation of armed tribal levies in the swamp areas north of Basra city.”[ii]

The TSC phenomenon is briefly explored in the context of tribal mobilization in Iraq, as examined in my essay The Civil Wars of Iraq’s Sunni Tribes. As in that essay, I argue that attempts to co-opt tribal authority rarely lead to good outcomes for any side, despite what people may believe about the famed “Awakening” against “Al Qaeda in Iraq.”

Although Iraqi government support for the US led Sunni Awakening was only partial (better characterized as resistance to it) the trend of normalizing paramilitaries has been a feature of post 2003 Iraq, and paved the way for the PMF.

Untangling the current political party-militia dynamic will require a profound wake up call for mainstream political parties. Iraqi parties must realise that the historical era which gave rise to party militias and supporting loyalist Sheikhs must end immediately, or the state risks destroying itself.

There is no room for complancency: if the risks described here do not emerge in the next year or two, it is only a matter of time before they emerge unless dramatic reforms occur.

Lastly, it is worth noting that tribes could be a vital conduit of communication between protesters and government elements and should not be seen as an “opportunity” for any actor to make security gains.

A Witch's Brew of Instability: The Tribe-Militia Nexus

On 30 November, an unnamed Western diplomat told The Guardian that Iran was “coming unstuck” in southern Iraq because,

“they have the tribes to deal with...what has been unleashed in the south in particular is a blood feud, and they are blaming Iran and its proxies for this. It’s very dangerous, and unchartered territory for Tehran.”[iii]

This is a regrettable view, that Iraq is a competition ground for Iran and the West rather than a country that is vulnerable to chaotic, multi-sided violence that only worsens state failure.

But there can be no doubt about the danger of the situation: Iraq could be sliding to yet another civil war where “winners” compete for dwindling resources. Furthermore, the tribal situation is far from “uncharted territory” for Iran and will be a major factor in Iraq’s stability, or lack of it, going forward.

Any attempt to push back against Iran-aligned groups using tribes could easily create problems down the line, or just as easily push Iranian influence out of PMF base areas. As a friend in Dhi Qar (who is close to a prominent tribal leader) recently told me,

“tribes go after their interests, it doesn't matter if was Asaib or Badr or Sadr, they’re looking for money, that's it.”

In theory, the “government” holds that card, financially. But analysis of Iraq’s 2019 budget and a glance at lacklustre oil prices suggests that the practice of “renting” tribal power will soon lose value for Baghdad. At that point, everyone could “come unstuck.”

The British, Americans, Iranians, international oil companies, NGOs and the Iraqi government, both under Saddam and after 2003, have all found that a strategy of co-opting powerful tribes, while seemingly logical, can create nightmarish complexity.

Meanwhile, tribal elders can mediate disputes and tribal councils can keep local peace, but tribal relations are almost always volatile. As Asaib Ahl al Haq (AAH) leader Qais al Khazali himself reported to American interrogators, the smuggling tribes of Maysan,

“Make their own rules and have little outside governance...Even Saddam could not control these tribes.”[iv]

That year, the Americans had a remarkably similar view of Maysan, describing:

“a combination of Shia inter-militia competition, Iranian historical influence, and tribalism...a witch's brew of instability.”[v]

Now Khazali has to meet frequently with tribal delegations and is himself at risk of falling into the quagmire of tribal politics, managing the outrage of Dhi Qar’s tribes following the Nasiriyah massacre on 28 November. This follows major clashes between AAH and members of the Khazraj tribe north of Baghdad, tit for tat violence that went on for a year and, according to Phillip Smyth, threatened to suck in Moqtada al Sadr's Saraya al Salaam (SaS) PMF.

It now looks as if Khazali will be unable to sooth tribal anger after two AAH commanders were brutally lynched following the shooting of protesters; on 10 December there were reports of four bomb attacks in Amarah, Maysan, three of them targeting AAH property.

At the same time, Khazali may be less interested talks, following the lynching of an alleged PMF sniper (who turned out to be innocent) in Baghdad on 11 December.

Fragile alliances

Earlier this year, Khazali met with a delegation from the Ghannam tribe, prominent in Diwaniyah, Qadisiyah province, but also spanning several southern provinces including Maysan.[vi] Technically one of Khazali’s former “enemies” (a flexible term in Iraq) during the US occupation, the current Chief of Staff of the Iraqi army, Othman Ali Farhood al Ghanami[vii] is also a sheikh from the Ghannam tribe.[viii] He now coordinates with Iraq’s Coalition allies at the highest levels.[ix]

The general/ sheikh commanded the Iraqi army 8th division during the height of the Coalition struggle with Iran-backed militias, overseeing extremely violent battles with militias in his home province.[x] Between the Coalition aligned army and the Coalition opposed AAH, Diwaniyah also has a host of Badr-aligned paramilitaries.

As Ghanami’s forces joined Coalition operations, PM Maliki was trying to counter the Iran-leaning Badr Organization's penetration of the police, creating 16 Tribal Support Councils (TSCs) in the province which were allowed a quota of police hires.[xi] In Basra, the birthplace of the TSC concept, the project soon faltered. But the idea has had some staying power: in Dhi Qar and Wasit, TSCs organized around PMF recruitment were formed in late 2017, according to Benedict Robins.[xii]

Years after General Ghanami’s struggle in Diwaniyah, Qasidiyah’s security committee was headed by Sheikh Hussein Budairi of Badr Organization, and the Al Budair tribe.[xiii] After Mosul was liberated, he called for “more rights” for members of the PMF.[xiv]

But like the police which had been penetrated by Badr, the PMF was also witnessing an internal struggle[xv] over hiring and salaries that threatened to split the organization broadly along Iran-aligned and non-Iran aligned lines- a microcosm of previous Iraqi Security Force problems.

In 2008, Budairi assisted Ghanami[xvi] against JAM as a wave of politically motivated assassinations hit the southern provinces while animosity between Moqtada and Badr has simmered ever since.[xvii] In 2016, a Budairi from Badr Organization expressed fear for his safety living in Sadr city due to threats from Sadrists. Now members of the same tribe have been killed by security forces in Diwaniyah,[xviii] while on 26 October a Badr Organization office was burned, killing 12 occupants.[xix]

Having two rival parastatal groups would be serious enough for Qasidiyah. But Sadrist splinter group Liwa Dhu al Fiqar, who sent fighters to Syria and are closely affiliated with Sadr Trend member Aws al Khafaji[xx] (who was detained by Iran-linked PMF) also have a strong support base in Diwaniyah.[xxi]

As protester deaths mount, in particular deaths of popular local youths or activists, it becomes more likely that relations between these organizations, parties and militias will fray. But the extent of violence is hard to foretell. As noted, many young Iraqis no longer place high importance on tribal connections.

An optimum recipe for chaos in Iraq could involve just enough tribal authority to mobilize resistance to, or support for the state, and just enough young armed men who will not follow tribal orders.

An increasingly common dynamic is that threats to tribesmen can provoke a tribal response. Iraqis with strong tribal connections have on occasion leveraged them against groups who oppose them. A former interpreter for the US military in Diwaniya recounted to me how JAM, having worked out his day job, threw flashbang grenades into his house at night on a number of occasions.

Personally knowing a prominent local Sadrist who was loyal to Moqtada al Sadr, the interpreter went to his house and threatened that the intimidation had to stop because if anything happened to him, it would lead to full scale tribal conflict. He claimed the intimidation then stopped, although remarked that a Coalition raid had arrested a number of local JAM members, possibly those intimidating him.

Maysan’s vulnerability

Maysan, home to several militia forces within the PMF, most of whom have roots in the 2003-2011 insurgency or as insurgents against Saddam, could be the worst affected province if Iraq slides once again into chaos.

Echoing Khazali’s remarks about the province, a Badr Organization member tasked with tribal disarmament in 2010 lamented the fact that tribes were giving up “old weapons” and holding onto newer, heavy weapons imported from Iran. Tribes from Maysan, he remarked,

“don't believe in the Iraqi government, the police or the army.”[xxii]

This hasn’t stopped political parties trying to co-opt them; current PM candidate Mohammed Shia al Sudani has strong tribal connections in Maysan, something the State of Law reportedly tried to leverage in the run up to the 2010 national elections.

Maysan’s tribes span a patchwork of political allegiances and in many cases could split apart in the event of conflict, as we saw with tribes in Anbar. For example, Moqtada al Sadr aligned governor Ali Dawai Lazim al Fartousi, from the Fartous tribe, is connected by political affiliation to Moqtada’s Saraya al Salaam (SaS) militia, overseeing SaS parades during the war on IS.[xxiii]

Moqtada loyalist Sheikh Muhammad Fartousi remarked early on in the occupation that there were pronounced divisions within the Sadr Movement. Before such splits revealed themselves, a prominent Moqtada loyalist, Sheik Ahmad Majid al Fartousi, was arrested by the British in 2005.[xxiv]

Potential rivals of the Sadrists, Kataib Sayyid al Shuhada, (whose political party opposed JAM in Basra) have a Kazim Fartousi among their leadership, while the Ministry of Interior’s Rapid Reaction Forces[xxv] were commanded by General Nassir al-Fartousi during the PMF-led battle to secure Baiji and relieve the Golden Division.[xxvi]

General Fartousi took command in 2014, likely installed during a surge of Badr appointments that summer as the organization once again took over the MOI.[xxvii] With the war on Daesh underway, Badr also appointed Karim Ulaiwi Jahoush al Muhammadawi to lead the 22nd Brigade in Maysan, Badrist pushback in a province once dominated by Moqtada loyalists.[xxviii]

Other Badr appointments in the Muhammadawi tribe include Abu Muntadhar al Muhammadawi who was killed in 2016; Ammar al Hakim paid his respects to the family on a visit to the province.[xxix] Notably, one of Hakim's ascociates from Maysan is Hassan Raadi al-Sari, a former resistance fighter against Saddam and a founder of the Movement for Jihad and Development, according to Nicholas Heras.

Dagher Mousawi, mentioned earlier as a key figure in Basra's TSCs (discussed more in part 2) went on to play a key role in the Movement for Jihad and Development, an organization which spawned at least one PMF unit.

Hakim's public tribute to a former Badr member from the Muhammadawi tribe is interesting; the Albu Muhammad, arguably Maysan’s most famous tribe, have been contested by Sadrists and Badr-linked groups. Sheikh Abdul Karim Mahud al Muhammadawi, better known as “Abu Hatem,” or “Prince of the Marshes,” led Marsh Arab insurgents in the 1980s but after 2003, was known as a machiavellian figure who often changed sides.[xxx]

Maysan also has branches of the Beni Saad, tribe of General Abdul Wahab al Saadi, the former commander of Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service, whose unit once fought Sadrist militias, including the Sadr Movement splinter group AAH (Al Saadis have held senior positions in police and local government in the province). When General al Saadi was demoted, members of the tribe protested. But like all tribes, their allegiances are inevitably divided politically.[xxxi]

The Battat tribe’s recent history illustrates such divisions well. As British forces in Maysan began to lose control soon after the invasion, members of the tribe formed what US State Department cables called “a hard line element within JAM that wields influence and leadership in certain circles,”[xxxii] which included Sa'ad Amar al Battat and the now well-known Wathiq al Battat, who would go on to form the Khomeinist Jaish al Mukhtar. Jaish al Mukhtar has had difficult relations with Iraqi authorities, even those close to Iran.[xxxiii]

As with many Iran-backed extremists at the time, Wathiq and his clique likely leveraged tribal connections to smuggle weapons across the Iranian border. Other prominent members of the Battat were aligning with the new political order; Karim Hashem Mohammed al Battat headed the Maysan Tribal Affairs department in 2006,[xxxiv] tasked with uniting the tribes to maintain peace, while Luai Abdul Amir Abbass al Battat would become Basra’s Deputy Governor following the 2008 battle of Basra.[xxxv]

Despite these divisions, the rise of IS had a brief unifying effect. At the onset of the 2014 crisis, one Battat Sheikh remarked how,

“all the tribes in the south are supporting the Iraqi government, and we are all getting along down here now.”

But this sense of unity was not to last due to worsening tribal competition after the economic "double shock" of cratering oil prices and the war on Daesh. In 2018, members of the tribe mobilized to fight the Hamdan tribe in Garmat Ali following the death of one of their members during a dispute, killing five.[xxxvi]

That year, Maj. Gen. Jaafar al Battat became Basra’s police chief, which may have helped ramp up pressure on Wathiq al Battat in the spring of 2019, after he uploaded a video threatening to murder an Iraqi policeman.[xxxvii]

The policeman in question had apparently arrested and insulted a cleric known to Battat on charges of drug smuggling, but Battat’s public reaction drew threats from the policeman’s tribe, and even the Battat tribe who reportedly disowned him.[xxxviii] By early 2019, the Battat tribe were reportedly still well-armed, once again fighting gun battle with members of the rival Hamdan tribe in Qarmat Ali (the fight reportedly lasted 12 hrs.) [xxxix]

In this environment, Iran naturally faces inherent limits. In the bigger picture, Iran has used these tribes and their smuggling networks to support moving rockets and IEDs into Iraq, and now, ballistic missiles. But if Iran is “coming unstuck” as Iran-aligned PMF kill tribesmen and risk blood feuds, it is only part of a wider picture of societal breakdown.

Above: A still from a video showing a tribal show of force in Basra. Date unknown.

An early example of the risk of protest repression spilling into tribal violence occurred in September 2018 when members of the Bani Kaab tribe were filmed declaring their willingness to fight after Makki Yassir al Kaabi was killed by security forces.[xl] But members of the tribe in prominent security and political positions show how diffuse political power is in some tribes.

Akram al Kaabi, leader of AAH offshoot Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba, who infamously warned he would overthrow the Iraqi government if ordered to by Iran, is one of the most well-known figures in Iraq with this tribal name.[xli]

But Badr Organization bloc head Hassan al Kaabi, former Iraqi army 5th Division commander Brig Gen Shakir Hulail Hussein Kaabi [xlii] as well as Federal Police commander Muhsin al Kaabi, who was dismissed from his post in Nineveh in July 2014 (and was appointed by Abadi to briefly work as Muhandis’ deputy) are other high profile figures.[xliii]

The Beni Kaab has clashed with Moqtada al Sadr loyalists in Maysan in the past, when JAM were accused of bombing a business run by a Sheikh from the tribe. It’s almost certain these security appointments were enabled by the struggle against JAM, a legacy that still haunts southern Iraq and Baghdad.

The illusion of winning over tribes

With tensions mounting, the political parties will move to shore up tribal alliances. But if one tribe is given largesse to extend its patronage network, usually through hiring of government workers, police, oil sector workers or through a stake in projects, it has a tendency to feed into violent tribal competition.

Sidelined tribes, with tens of thousands of young, unemployed men and access to arms, will be unforgiving. In 2005, tribes protested a British army operation to arrest the mayor of Hartha, who was a Sadrist. Within a short period, the Garamsha and Shaghanba tribes had blocked the main road to Baghdad, threatening a full scale uprising.[xliv] At the time, one British officer described tribal violence as “all out war.”[xlv]

Thirteen years later, the Iraqi government in Basra quickly faced the wrath of tribes in the summer of 2018. All the while, tribal fighting, sometimes involving heavy weapons, has ebbed and flowed across the south.

The next post will explore the links between tribes and the growth of the PMF, looking at the role of Tribal Support Councils, a short lived experiment which paved the way for the government’s readiness to support parastatal mobilization in 2014.


[i] US State Department cable, via wikileaks:

[ii] US State Department cable, via wikileaks:

[iii] Martin Chulov. Iraq risks breakup as tribes take on Iran’s militias in blood feud. The Guardian . 30 Nov 2019.

[iv] US Tactical Interrogation Report for Qais al Khazali.

[v] US State Department cable, wikileaks:

[vi] AAH website:

[vii] Alistair Bruce twitter status:

[viii] Michael Gordon: The Last Battle. New York Times. 03 August 2008.

[ix] Joint Chiefs of Staff website press release, Oct. 2019.

[x] Gordon, The Last Battle.

[xi] Alissa Rubin. Maliki pushes for election gains despite fears. The New York Times. 26 Jan 2009.

[xii] Benedict Robin. South Iraq security report. Nov. 2017.

[xiii] Clashes between army, fringe cleric imperil stability in Iraq’s Shiite south. The Washington Post. 08 July 2014.

[xiv] Rudaw. Diwaniyah tribes discuss the future of the popular crowd after Mosul victory. 05 Mar. 2017.

[xv] Renad Mansour and Faleh Jabar. The Popular Mobilization and Iraq’s Future. Carnegie Middle East Centre. April 2017.

[xvi] Zaid Sabah. Bombings kill 22 in Iraq’s north. The Washington Post. 16 July 2007.

[xvii] Alexander Zavis and Tina Susman. Iraqi officials killed in blast. The Baltimore Sun. 12 Aug. 2007.

[xviii] Rasha al Aqeedi. Her mother wept for hours. The stories behind Iraq’s deadly protests. The Independent. 27. Oct. 2019.

[xix] Khaled Yacoub Oweis. Iraq’s logic of violence could lead to the extreme. The National. 26 Oct. 2019.

[xx] Aymenn Jawad al Tamimi. Liwa Dhu al Fiqar interview. April 2019.

[xxi] The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Understanding the Organizations Deployed to Syria. Appendix 2.

[xxii] Nizar Latif. Iraq’s tribes keep a firm grip on weapons. The National. 15 Aug. 2010.

[xxiii] Ali Dawai Lazem biography, CWC website.

[xxiv] Richard Norton Taylor and Ewan Mcaskill. Day of violence in Basra exposes myth of trust between British and Iraqi forces. The Guardian.20 Sept. 2005.


[xxvi] Reuters. Islamic State fight requires new tactics: Iraqi commanders. Reuters 23. June. 2015.

[xxvii] Al Sumaria. Brigadier General Nasser Al-Fartousi appointed an order for the Rapid Response Squad https. 12 Dec. 2014. ://

[xxviii] Jessa Rose Dury-Agri, Omer Kassim, and Patrick Martin. Iraqi armed forces and popular mobilization forces: orders of battle. Institute for the Study of War.

[xxix] Ammar al Hakim website press release:


[xxxi] Janan al Jabiri. Everything You Need to Know About the Protests in Iraq. Jacobin magazine. Dec. 2019

[xxxii] US State Department cable, via wikileaks.

[xxxiii] Phillip Smyth. The Syrian jihad and its regional effects. Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 2015.

[xxxiv] Gokhan Bacik. Hybrid Sovereignty in the Arab Middle East. The Cases of Kuwait, Jordan, and Iraq. Palgrave Macmillan. 2008. P.203.

[xxxv] US State Department cable, via Wikileaks.

[xxxvi] Suadad al Salhy. Oil firms’ multimillion-dollar bribery racket bringing death to the streets of Iraq’s Basra. Arab News. 04. April 2018.

[xxxvii] Twitter status, @tomthebasedcat

[xxxviii] Basra security committee: The Battat tribe in the governorate has nothing to do with Wathiq. Nas News. 25 April 2019.

[xxxix] Garda World report. Iraq Business News. 16 March 2019.

[xl] Benedict Robin-D'Cruz . How violent protests in Iraq could escalate. The Washington Post. 11 Sept. 2018.

[xli] The Long War Journal. US designated terrorist of Iraqi militia reportedly in Aleppo. Nov. 2015.

[xlii] Michael Knights. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Iraq’s Bekaa Valley. 16. March 2015.

[xliii] Rudaw. Iraqi parliament questioning commanders over Mosul fall. 14. Dec. 2014.

[xliv] Molly Henessey Fisk. Tribal leaders held in Basra. LA Times. 9 Dec. 2006.

[xlv] Laura Peek. Troops sound pipe of peace for basra tribes. The Times 1 Jan 2005.

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