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

Old Ways Help Calm Frayed Nerves

When things get out of hand, tribal chieftains step in to perform their traditional role as arbitrators.
By Awadh al-Ta'ee

In Baghdad's mixed and crowded neighbourhoods, where Sunni and Shia often have radically different perceptions of the way things are current events, it's easy for disagreements to spill over into violence. The police, often corrupt and complacent, are rarely much help.


The trouble in our neighbourhood started the day Saddam Hussein was captured.


Abd al-Hussein, a retired Shia schoolteacher, ran out into the street to celebrate. "The coward who executed my brothers and other honest men has got the fate he deserves!" he shouted. His son ran alongside, firing a rifle into the air in celebration.


The mother of Samir, one of our Sunni neighbours, didn't care for their display of joy. "You Shia bastards - your relative was executed because he ran away from military service," she yelled.


Family members from both sides gathered, more insults were exchanged, and by the time it was over, three of Abd al-Hussein's sons were hurt - one stabbed in the back with a screwdriver, another hit on the head with a metal pipe, and a third with a head-wound which caused temporary blindness.


The Shia family went to the local police station to complain, and were able to get an arrest order for Samir and his brothers.


But days passed and nothing happened.


Abd al-Hussein claims that other police in the area said he would have to pay a bribe of 15,000 dinars, about 14 US dollars, before he could expect any action.


So, the Shia turned to their tribe, the al-Mahdiya. Their tribal leader, Sheikh Saheb Shehab, ordered Samir to attend an arbitration meeting, and warned him of severe penalties if he did not come.


The meeting, held in Abd al-Hussein's house, did not go well. Sheikh Shehab ruled in the Shias' favour and ordered the Sunnis to pay compensation. But Samir stormed out in protest.


The stage was set for a bloody family feud, but luckily, there was one more arbitration meeting scheduled.


This time the neighbours set up a big bedouin-style tent in the middle of the street – a reminder of the origins of this tribal system.


The al-Mahdiya made sure that members of Samir's tribe, the al-Akaidat, were also present, so that any ruling would be respected.


The sheikhs spoke eloquently about the importance of maintaining neighbourly relations, and the need to make sure that any grievances were addressed.


Abd al-Hussein recounted that Samir and his brothers had always been disrespectful to him, even when he was teaching them in school. The al-Akaidat sheikhs nodded in sympathy.


A reconciliation accord was reached, under which the al-Akaidat agreed to pay 500,000 dinars in damages and medical fees. If the blinded brother's eyes did not heal, they would pay further damages equivalent to half the amount normally paid for a murder, or approximately 2.5 million dinars. Samir apologised to Abd al-Hussein's family, and the agreement was signed.


One of the sheikhs suggested a new policy – in the event of a murder, there should be a three-day grace period in which the family of the killer can contact the victim’s tribe, to prevent the outbreak of a blood feud.


All present agreed to this, and promised to encourage other tribes in the area to adopt it.


In our street, as in the rest of Iraq, there is much that divides us – religion and politics, ethnicity and historical experience. Luckily there are also long-established traditions that keep us from tearing our neighbourhood apart.


Awadh al-Ta'ee is a trainee journalist with IWPR in Baghdad.