The following commentary originally appeared in Musings On Iraq
Baghdad has been setting up tribal Support Councils across southern and central Iraq recently. The first such councils were actually created by the United States to help formalize the Sons of Iraq program in Sunni areas. Beginning in March 2008 however, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began creating his own councils during security operations in Basra and Maysan provinces. Later, he started spreading them throughout southern Iraq, and even just outside of Baghdad. Originally, these were a way to organize local tribes to support the government against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, but they were later used to counter the Sons of Iraq and expand Maliki’s political base.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took up the idea of the tribal Support Councils from the United States during his crackdowns on Sadr in southern Iraq. The first councils were originally set up by the United States in Anbar, Diyala, Ninewa, and Salahaddin to legitimize the Sons of Iraq units, give tribes a say in local governance, and create bottom up reconciliation. In March 2008, when Maliki launched Operation Knight’s Charge in Basra against the Mahdi Army he too reached out to local tribes for help with the crackdown. The Prime Minister offered them 10,000 positions in the security forces in return for their support, something tribes were all to willing to give him since there was high unemployment in the area. By early April, Maliki had gained the support of dozens of local sheikhs, who would form the basis of the first Support Council in the city with 2,500 fighters.
In June, Maliki sent forces to Maysan to again subdue the Sadrists that controlled the province. As in Basra, Baghdad turned to the tribes to counter the influence of the Sadr Trend. By the middle of the month the government announced the formation of 17 tribal councils in Maysan.
By the end of June, Maliki was even trying to create Support Councils in the Baghdad area. In Radwainiyah, just outside of the capitol, the government was courting a local Sunni sheikh to form a Support Council. This time, however, instead of responding to a perceived security threat like the Sadrists, the government was attempting to split the local Sunni tribes from the U.S.-funded Sons of Iraq that were operating in the area. That same month, Maliki met with representatives of the powerful Jabouri tribe about setting up a national council of tribes to support the government. Again, the Jabouri had been instrumental in working with the United States to create tribal Sons of Iraq, and now Baghdad was trying to win them over to their side.
From September to October the government attempted to create Support Councils across the rest of the south, but to the ire of the SIIC, governors, and the provincial councils. In September one was created in Babil. The governor, who was a member of the SIIC, was opposed to the idea because he said it did not include 1200 sheikhs. The SIIC controlled provincial government in Wasit was against a Support Council being created there as well, saying that it was not needed. The provincial council stated that there was already cooperation between the local government and the tribes, so a Support Council would be redundant. The Dawa governor of Karbala and the SIIC governor of Dhi Qar both voiced similar complaints. The Karbala governor claimed that the provincial council was trying to unseat him because he was against the Support Councils there, while the Dhi Qar governor questioned why Baghdad was creating 20 Support Councils in his province, without any coordination with the local government. The head of the security and defense committee in parliament and the SIIC itself have also questioned Maliki’s moves. The security and defense committee chairman said that the councils were unconstitutional. One SIIC member asked whether the tribal councils were a means to create a Dawa militia, while another said it was political maneuvering by Maliki before the provincial elections.
In 2008, the status quo changed in Iraq, and Maliki attempted to benefit from it through the creation of tribal Support Councils. First, Maliki’s main political and military rival, Moqtada al-Sadr had his militia scattered by security operations in Basra, Sadr City, and Maysan. Reaching out to tribes in Basra and Maysan was a way to protect against the Sadrists’ return, and to gain new supporters in areas where Maliki was weak before. The tribal council in Radwainiyah, was a shrewd move to undercut the local Sons of Iraq, which Maliki has never liked, and which he wishes to disband. Finally, the new councils in Babil, Wasit and Dhi Qar are direct challenges to the SIIC that rules those provinces. There is little coordination between the central and provincial governments, so even Dawa officials in those three areas felt that Malii was trying to usurp their power by creating independent tribal councils that answered to him rather than the local authorities. The 2009 provincial elections are the main backdrop for these movies. Dawa has always been the weakest of the three main Shiite parties. It was also the only one that lacked an armed militia. The Support Councils address both those issues by setting up a new Maliki dependent patronage system, and organizing armed tribesmen on his behalf. As 2008 ends, Maliki finds himself in a much stronger military and political situation, and the Support Councils have helped him with that.
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- “Karbala governor says no-confidence vote proposal is political pressure tool,” 10/1/08
- “PM announces formation of 17 tribal councils in Missan,” 6/23/08
- “Sunni, Shiite figures hold reconciliation conference in Diala,” 3/21/08
- “Thi-Qar governor slams govt’s plan of installing support councils,” 10/3/08
- “Tribal chieftain announces opening 20 Supports Councils offices in Thi-Qar,” 10/1/08
- “Wassit clans agree to back security agencies,” 4/6/08
- “Wassit province refuses to establish support councils,” 9/24/08