Sunni Arab tribes in central and north Iraq, long home to violent extremists such as Al-Qaeda, are taking a new approach against unrest: fining and expelling those who aid insurgents.
The punishments, backed by many of Iraq’s biggest Sunni Arab tribes, mark a new level of tribal justice that was not meted out during the height of the country’s sectarian conflict as many local leaders feared retribution if they publicly opposed the insurgents.
“We agreed on a mechanism and a roadmap, to support the Iraqi security forces and the inviolability of Iraqi blood,” said Sheikh Hussein Ali Saleh al-Juburi, head of Hawija district council which hosted a meeting of around 150 tribal leaders last week.
Similar gatherings were held in Samarra and the nearby town of Ishaqi, all north of Baghdad, and the move was backed by the powerful Jubur, Obeid and Albu Hamdan tribes, as well as dozens of others.
Juburi said tribes would not tolerate those who “hide, support or provide space for armed groups to enter our areas and villages.”
“Those who do will be dealt with as terrorists, and will be expelled from our land, and handed over to the judiciary.”
A document signed by tribal leaders at the three meetings in Kirkuk and Salaheddin provinces states that the families of convicted killers must pay victims’ families 100 million Iraqi dinars ($84,000), and notes that those who “assist criminals must be treated like the criminal”.
It goes on to specify that if bombs or explosive materiel are found in anyone’s home, that person will be expelled from the province for five years.
“We cannot accept any support for terrorism and violence, whatever its justifications, especially after the US withdrawal,” Juburi added, referring to the US military’s pullout from Iraq at the end of last year, nearly nine years after invading the country to oust Saddam Hussein.
Sunni Arabs, who dominated all the regimes of Iraq from its modern creation in 1920 until Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003, largely boycotted Iraq’s first post-invasion parliamentary election in 2005.
In the following two years, a violent insurgency against government forces and US troops left tens of thousands dead across Iraq.
Though Al-Qaeda frequently targeted Iraqi security forces, government institutions and Shiite Muslims, other Sunni insurgent groups stated their opposition to the American troop presence in Iraq, which they described as an “occupation”, as justification for violence.
The insurgency was only quelled when tens of thousands of extra American soldiers were sent in to Iraq, and US forces co-opted Sunni tribes which had previously sided with Al-Qaeda.
Violence now remains high by international standards — 150 people were killed in attacks in February alone — but is markedly lower than in years past.
Since the year-end US withdrawal, however, only one relatively minor Sunni insurgent group — Jaish al-Mustafa — has publicly declared they will lay down their arms.
Al-Qaeda’s front organisation, the Islamic State of Iraq, has continued to claim attacks, while other insurgent groups such as Ansar al-Sunna or JRTN, which translates into English as the Army of the Followers of the Naqshbandiya Order, have made no such moves publicly.
The latest moves by Iraq’s Sunni tribes to hand out tribal justice in addition to any punishment imposed by the country’s judiciary, marks a change from relative inaction in past years, when tribal leaders were fearful of assassination at the hands of insurgent groups they opposed.
“In the past, circumstances were not good for us to take this step,” said Talal al-Muttar, chief of the Albu Aswad tribe.
“At that time, we made similar calls, but some tribal leaders said we should drop the subject for the time being. Now, we are taking advantage of a more stable security situation.”
Muttar, who attended the Samarra meeting, continued: “We want to exploit this opportunity to prevent any more bloodshed.”
“We want to move forward,” he said, “We do not want to go back to 2006.”