Rural Society

Iraq Table of Contents

Rural Iraq contains aspects of the largely tribal mode of social organization that prevailed over the centuries and still survived in the 1980s--particularly in the more isolated rural areas, such as the rugged tableland of the northwest and the marshes in the south. The tribal mode probably originated in the unstable social conditions that resulted from the protracted decline of the Abbasid Caliphate and the subsequent cycles of invasion and devastation.

In the absence of a strong central authority and the urban society of a great civilization, society devloped into smaller units under conditions that placed increasing stress on prowess, decisiveness, and mobility. Under these conditions, the tribal shaykhs emerged as a warrior class, and this process facilitated the ascendancy of the fighter-nomad over the cultivator.

The gradual sedentarization that began in the mid-nineteenth century brought with it an erosion of shaykhly power and a disintegration of the tribal system. Under the British Mandate, and the monarchy that was its creation, a reversal took place. Despite the continued decline of the tribe as a viable and organic social entity, the enfeebled power of the shaykhs was restored and enhanced by the British. This was done to develop a local ruling class that could maintain security in the countryside and otherwise head off political challenges to British access to Iraq's mineral and agricultural resources and Britain's paramount role in the Persian Gulf shaykhdoms. Through the specific implementation of land registration, the traditional pattern of communal cultivation and pasturage--with mutual rights and duties between shaykhs and tribesmen--was superseded in some tribal areas by the institution of private property and the expropriation by the shaykhs of tribal lands as private estates. The status of the tribesmen was in many instances drastically reduced to that of sharecroppers and laborers. The additional ascription of judicial and police powers to the shaykh and his retinue left the tribesmen-cum-peasants as virtual serfs, continuously in debt and in servitude to the shaykh turned landlord and master. The social basis for shaykhly power had been transformed from military valor and moral rectitude to an effective possession of wealth as embodied in vast landholdings and a claim to the greater share of the peasants' production.

This was the social dimension of the transformation from a subsistence, pastoral economy to an agricultural economy linked to the world market. It was, of course, an immensely complicated process, and conditions varied in different parts of the country. The main impact was in the southern half--the riverine economy-- more than in the sparsely populated, rain-fed northern area. A more elaborate analysis of this process would have to look specifically at the differences between Kurdish and Arab shaykhs, between political and religious leadership functions, between Sunni and Shia shaykhs, and between nomadic and riverine shaykhs, all within their ecological settings. In general the biggest estates developed in areas restored to cultivation through dam construction and pump irrigation after World War I. The most autocratic examples of shaykhly power were in the rice-growing region near Al Amarah, where the need for organized and supervised labor and the rigorous requirements of rice cultivation generated the most oppressive conditions.

The role of the tribe as the chief politico-military unit was already well eroded by the time the monarchy was overthrown in July 1958. The role of some tribal shaykhs had been abolished by the central government. The tribal system survived longest in the mid-Euphrates area, where many tribesmen had managed to register small plots in their names and had not become mere tenants of the shaykh. In such settings an interesting amalgam occurred of traditional tribal customs and the newer influences represented by the civil servants sent to rural regions by the central government, together with the expanded government educational system. For example, the government engineer responsible for the water distribution system, although technically not a major administrator, in practice became the leading figure in rural areas. He would set forth requirements for the cleaning and maintenance of the canals, and the tribal shaykh would see to it that the necessary manpower was provided. This service in the minds of tribesmen replaced the old customary obligation of military service that they owed the shaykh and was not unduly onerous. It could readily be combined with work on their own grazing or producing lands and benefited the tribe as a whole. The government administrators usually avoided becoming involved in legal disputes that might result from water rights, leaving the disputes to be settled by the shaykh in accordance with traditional tribal practices. Thus, despite occasional tensions in such relationships, the power of the central government gradually expanded into regions where Baghdad's influence had previously been slight or absent.

Despite the erosion of the historic purposes of tribal organization, the prolonged absence of alternative social links has helped to preserve the tribal character of individual and group relations. The complexity of these relations is impressive. Even in the southern, irrigated part of the country there are notable differences between the tribes along the Tigris, subject to Iranian influences, and those of the Euphrates, whose historic links are with the Arab beduin tribes of the desert. Since virtually no ethnographic studies on the Tigris peoples existed in the late 1980s, the following is based chiefly on research in the Euphrates region.

The tribe represents a concentric social system linked to the classical nomadic structure but modified by the sedentary environment and limited territory characteristic of the modern era. The primary unit within the tribe is the named agnatic lineage several generations deep to which each member belongs. This kinship unit shares responsibilities in feuds and war, restricts and controls marriage within itself, and jointly occupies a specified share of tribal land. The requirements of mutual assistance preclude any significant economic differentiation, and authority is shared among the older men. The primary family unit rests within the clan, composed of two or more lineage groups related by descent or adoption. Nevertheless, a clan can switch its allegiance from its ancestral tribal unit to a stronger, ascendant tribe. The clans are units of solidarity in disputes with other clans in the tribe, although there may be intense feuding among the lineage groups within the clan. The clan also represents a shared territorial interest, as the land belonging to the component lineage groups customarily is adjacent.

Several clans united under a single shaykh form a tribe (ashira). This traditionally has been the dominant politico-military unit although, because of unsettled conditions, tribes frequently band together in confederations under a paramount shaykh. The degree of hierarchy and centralization operative in a given tribe seems to correlate with the length of time it has been sedentary: the Bani Isad, for example, which has been settled for several centuries, is much more centralized than the Ash Shabana, which has been sedentary only since the end of the nineteenth century.

In the south, only the small hamlets scattered throughout the cultivated area are inhabited solely by tribesmen. The most widely spread social unit is the village, and most villages have resident tradesmen (ahl as suq--people of the market) and government employees. The lines between these village dwellers and the tribespeople, at least until just before the war, were quite distinct, although the degree varies from place to place. As the provision of education, health, and other social services to the generally impoverished rural areas increases, the number and the social influence of these nontribal people increase. Representatives of the central government take over roles previously filled by the shaykh or his representatives. A government school competes with the religious school. The role of the merchants as middlemen--buyers of the peasants' produce and providers of seeds and implements as well as of food and clothing--has not yet been superseded in most areas by the government-sponsored cooperatives and extension agencies. Increasingly in the 1980s, government employees were of local or at least rural origin, whereas in the 1950s they usually were Baghdadis who had no kinship ties in the region, wore Western clothing, and took their assignments as exile and punishment. In part the administrators provoked the mutual antagonism that flourished between them and the peasants, particularly as Sunni officials were often assigned to Shia villages. The merchants, however, were from the region--if not from the same village--and were usually the sons of merchants.

Despite some commercial developments in rural areas, in the late 1980s the economic base was still agriculture and, to a lesser but increasing extent, animal husbandry. Failure to resolve the technical problem of irrigation drainage contributed to declining rural productivity, however, and accentuated the economic as well as the political role of the central government. The growth of villages into towns and whatever signs of recent prosperity there were should be viewed, therefore, more as the result of greater government presence than as locally developed economic viability. The increased number of government representatives and employees added to the market for local produce and, more important, promoted the diffusion of state revenues into impoverished rural areas through infrastructure and service projects. Much remained to be done to supply utilities to rural inhabitants; just before the war, the government announced a campaign to provide such essentials as electricity and clean water to the villages, most of which still lacked these. The government has followed through on several of these projects--particularly in the south--despite the hardships caused by the war. The regime apparently felt the need to reward the southerners, who had suffered inordinately in the struggle.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress