Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Falluja Youth Look to Mullahs

The erosion of tribal authority by growing Islamist influence may fuel disorder.
By Dhiya Khamat

An abrupt turn from tradition is underway as this restive town’s youth turn from tribal sheikhs to Islamists for social, political and religious guidance.


That shift is especially noteworthy when it comes to attitudes towards the coalition forces, which are seen by many as an army of occupation.


While Falluja’s tribal sheikhs place a high value on resolving disputes and keeping the peace, its Islamists increasingly urge Jihad or holy war against the foreign occupier.


Fallujis say that while Muslim radicals may attack Americans for ideological reasons - as non-Muslim invaders - more tribally-oriented residents will only turn against them for revenge, that is, if a relative has been killed or mistreated.


"The Islamists fight the Americans because they are infidels," said one young townsman, who declined to be named.


“However, if some men of a certain tribe are killed by the Americans, other members of the tribe will consider the [coalition] their enemies, even if the men killed were thieves.”


The growth of Islamist groups has also altered marriage patterns, Fallujis say.


While more tribally-oriented grooms arrange marriages with their brides' fathers, with an eye to maintaining family alliances, Islamists aim to find husbands for their sisters among friends who are considered “good” Muslims.


Traditionalist Aday Ghazi al-Jumaili, a former soldier, recently took a second wife “in order to get more boys” and had a “very big” wedding party.


“My wife was my cousin," Aday continued. "I hadn't seen her since the age of nine until my father arranged the engagement. I followed my father's wish in this matter. He also gave one of my sisters to my brother-in-law for marriage.”


But Raid Muhammed al-Ali, did things in a more Islamist manner. “I did not want to have a big dinner party. I did not wish to anger my God, and I only invited pious friends,” he explained.


“I found [a big party] an extravagance that God prohibited. Also there was no [celebratory] gunfire.


“One of my friends read the Quran in the room, then gave us a lecture about the importance of marriage for Muslims, and also spoke about a woman's duty towards her husband.”


As for desiring sons, Ali says “whatever comes from God is a blessing for me. My two daughters are God's blessings, and there is no difference between boys and girls. I will share the responsibility of raising them with my wife”.


Although certain changes in behaviour were evident even before the war, the process has been accelerated by an occupying force that has diminished the authority of tribal sheikhs.


The sheikhs themselves complain of no longer being perceived as fulfilling one of their traditional functions - interceding with the authorities on their members' behalf.


In the old days, the sheikhs could be relied upon to do so if a follower was charged with an ordinary crime (political dissidence was another matter), and might also be able to secure him a government job.


But these days, the sheikh's word is perceived to carry little weight with the coalition, although the tribal leaders believe that they would do a much better job of maintaining the peace.


“We cooperate with the coalition forces and every government agency, be it the mayor's office or the police,” said Sheikh Thamer Ibrahim.


“Unfortunately, the coalition forces do not cooperate with the people of Falluja,” he said, adding that they “use ‘surprise’ raids and behave in a manner that's not acceptable to the people”.


"They arrested my brother a month ago, and we don't know where he is even now," said Sheikh Thamer.


Meanwhile, Sheikh Hikmat Mohammed Samir complains how he and his family were arrested for questioning about the whereabouts of then-fugitive Saddam Hussein.


“If they had invited me officially I would have come,” Sheikh Hikmat said - an indication of the importance tribal sheikhs place on being treated with respect.


One indication of the breakdown of tribal authority, locals say, was the December 15 storming of the mayor’s office.


Hundreds of demonstrators smashed furniture and raised pictures of Saddam over the building, after rumours spread that the man shown on Iraqi television the previous day was not the ousted leader, but his double.


As resentful as the sheikhs may be about US soldiers' behaviour in the town, however, they place a premium on keeping the peace that makes them oppose such breakdowns of public order.


In the days after the attack, several signed a statement claiming that anyone would be killed who undertook “sabotage” or otherwise carried out any attack on Iraqi police or property.


"We will shed the blood of anyone who carries out sabotage in Falluja," Sheikh Kamal Abdel Baqi told IWPR.


The police, meanwhile, say that they do not want to tangle with the either the tribalists or the Islamists.


“What can we do?” said officer Ahmed Khalaf. "Our patrols are very weak. If I enforce the law on a citizen, his relatives will come after me.”


“We cannot impose order nor can we pursue outlaws because this would lead to a conflict that would result in policemen getting killed,” said another officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.


The town’s disorder is fuelled by Iraq's dire economic straits, but was largely brought about by the coalition's decision to dissolve the army. Prior to the war, many Fallujis worked in Iraq's military and security services.


Policemen say that out-of-work soldiers have since formed bands that live by looting, robbery, and weapons smuggling.


Several coalition convoys and supply trains have been stopped and pillaged near Falluja's outskirts, while the section of the main trunk road passing outside the town is notorious for highway robbery.


But the police are quick to point out that insurgents and outlaws avoid the town itself, not wanting to embroil themselves in any vendetta if a citizen gets caught up in their crossfire.


As a result, Falluja itself remains relatively quiet.


Still, the surrounding countryside continues to be one of the most violent parts of Iraq, and the disorder is down to tribalists and Islamists alike.


“The chaos is reflected both by the tribes who are well-known for vendetta... and the Wahhabi [Islamists] who work against tribalism and want to impose themselves as an authority,” said one police officer who declined to be named.


“It is out of control,” he said. “It is beyond the law.”


Dhiya Khamat Rasan and Naser Kadhem are IWPR trainees.


As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.

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