Order Code RS22626
Updated April 7, 2008
Iraq: Tribal Structure, Social, and
Hussein D. Hassan
Information Research Specialist
Knowledge Services Group
For centuries the social and political organization of many Iraqi Arabs has centered
on the tribe. Socially, tribes were divided into related sub-tribes, which further divided
into clans, and then into extended families. Seventy-five percent of Iraq’s estimated 26
million people are a member of a tribe. They are more strongly bound by these tribal
ties and a strict honor code than by ethnic background or religion. This report describes
the political orientation of several Iraqi Arab tribes, including the Shammar, Dulaym,
and Jibur tribes. This report will be updated as warranted. For further information on
Iraq and U.S. policy, see CRS Report RL31339, Iraq: Post-Saddam Governance and
Security, by Kenneth Katzman.
Iraq is home to approximately 150 tribes that are composed of about 2,000 smaller
clans, with varying sizes and influence. The largest tribe numbers more than one million
people; the smallest a few thousand.1 Seventy-five percent of the total Iraqi population
are members of a tribe or have kinship to one.2 Scholars believe that, despite the
country’s many political divides, including religion, ethnicity, and region, one of the least
understood is the country’s tribalism. Iraq has thousands of tribal groups to which various
people pledge their loyalty, ranging from extended family clans that may number just
several hundred people to broad confederations of clans that claim the loyalty of a million
or more. Some experts argue that concern for family and clan, factionalism, and intense
individualism — that does not easily tolerate interference from central authority — are
among the legacies of tribalism in Iraq.3
Neil MacFarquhar, “Unpredictable force awaits U.S. in Iraq Storied tribes of the Middle East
Devout, armed and nationalistic,” International Herald Tribune, January 7, 2003. p. 2.
“The historical importance of the tribes of Iraq can scarcely be exaggerated. In 1933, a year
after Iraqi independence, it was estimated that there were 100,000 rifles in tribal hands, and
15,000 in the possession of the government. The settled village community with its attachment
to the land — the backbone of social structure throughout most of the Middle East — has been
Many Arab tribes in Iraq are believed to have migrated from the Arabian Peninsula,
moving north in search of water. Some are from the lands that constitute present-day Iraq.
Others pre-date Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, who lived in Arabia in the sixth and
seventh centuries and was himself a member of the Quraysh tribe. Irrespective of their
shared religion of Islam and a general feeling of “Arabness,” Iraqi tribes did not have a
sense of common identity. The livelihood of the tribes came from herding animals, trade,
raiding, and collecting tribute. Because of such diverse tribal structures and origins, it
is common to see some of the major tribes in Iraq having related branches in Syria,
Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, and other Gulf states as well as Turkey. Religious
divisions were not always clear-cut, and often seemed to be a fusion between the different
groups. Some tribes such as Jiburi and Shammar have both Sunni and Shiite members.
The most basic unit of Iraqi tribal structure is called the Khams or extended family.
Khams consist of all male children who share the same great-great grandfather. Of all the
levels of tribal organization, the Khams remains the most vital. Once the Khams structure
is broken, a tribal society is no longer in place. In a family unit, before a woman gets
married, she is a member of her father’s tribe. If a man’s daughter marries outside the
clan or tribe, he no longer has the benefit of her or her sons, who could one day increase
the clan’s strength. This explains why marriages between first cousins in traditional tribal
society are common.
Other levels of the tribal organization consists of the following:
A biet, or “house” is similar to a Khams. It can resemble a single, vast extended
family with hundreds of members. A number of “houses” form a clan, or fakhdh.
A group of clans form an ‘ashira, or tribal organization. For example, in Falluja, the
tribe named for the town (i.e., the al-Fallujiyyin) has 16 clans, according to Iraqi
genealogical charts from the 1980s. Tribes can vary widely in size, ranging from a few
thousand to more than a million members.
A group of tribes forms a confederation, or qabila. Saddam Hussein’s Al-bu Nasir
tribe was part of a federation named after his native town, of Tikrit (al-Tikriti).4
Iraq was under the Ottoman rule until 1918, and the nomadic tribes formed the
majority of Iraq’s population. Some experts argue that the tribal sheikh was at once a
a missing link in Iraq’s social fabric.” Dr. Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq (Westview
Council on Foreign Relations, “Iraq: The Role of Tribes, Council on Foreign Relations,” at
political leader, military general, chief educator, and manager of foreign affairs. These
tribes did not follow a sophisticated religious code. However, because of weak Ottoman
rule throughout the country, Iraq’s loose tribal confederations prevailed, with each tribe
acting as a sort of mobile mini-state. Furthermore, in the absence of a strong central
authority, the tribal framework fulfilled the primary functions of conflict and resource
management. Some of the most important tribal confederations in Iraq include the
Shammar, Dulaym, Jiburi, Albu Nasir, Anizah, Zubayd, and Ubayd.
Around the mid-19th century, the Ottoman Empire increased its control over Iraqi
tribes through settlement policies and land reform measures.5 The result was an erosion
of the sheiks’ traditional source of power and a disintegration of the traditional tribal
system. Following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British
decided to unite the three Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra into one
nation-state called Iraq (a name borrowed from the medieval history of the region),
despite the significant religious, linguistic, ethnic, and tribal divisions running through
Iraqi society. Britain took over in 1918 and restored power to the tribal sheiks, thereby
helping to preserve and reinforce Iraq’s tribal structure. At the same time, the British
colonial state gradually appropriated former tribal functions like control of land, water
distribution, and law enforcement. Nomadic tribes settled in village communities based
on extended families or sub-clans. These communities often retained their tribal names,
but they were linked to the agricultural market, rather than to the subsistence economy.
Tribes continued to lose power under the modernizing monarchy and later under the
Tribal Role During the Ba’ath Period
Initially, when the Ba’ath Party came to power in 1968 with Saddam Hussein as the
second highest leader of the regime, the party viewed the tribal role as outdated and even
banned the use of tribal names.6 The regime enacted and began to implement agrarian
reform measures. At the same time, massive migration from rural areas to major cities
further diminished the remaining tribal units and ties. That, however, changed in the
1980s when Saddam’s regime needed soldiers to fight Iran. The tribes were tapped to
contribute manpower to fight Iran. Saddam also rewarded the villages of loyal tribesmen
by providing roads, electricity, and water systems. He delegated more power and
autonomy to tribes after the Gulf War in 1991when he lost control of large sections of the
country. He reached out to tribal leaders, allocating specific sectors of the country for
them to supervise in exchange for more autonomy over tribal affairs. For instance, Sheikh
Talal, who was one of the strongest tribal leaders and claims to have about 100,000 armed
men all over Iraq, was allotted a 116-kilometer (72-mile) section of highway in southern
Iraq to protect at night.7
Global Security, Military: “Tribal Structures” at [http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/
Neil MacFarquhar, “Unpredictable force awaits U.S. in Iraq Storied tribes of the Middle East
Devout, armed and nationalistic,” International Herald Tribune, January 7, 2003, p. 2.
Neil MacFarquhar, “Tribes pose wild card if U.S. fights Saddam; America feeling out Iraq’s
powerful clans,” The New York Times, January 5, 2003, p. A1.
Major Tribes and U.S. Authorities
As the Ottoman Turks and the British who ruled Iraq did in the past, U.S. authorities
continue to seek the cooperation of the tribes with varying degrees of success. For
instance, in 2004, Iraq persuaded the U.S. authorities to accept the appointment of Sheik
Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, nephew of the paramount chief of the extensive Shammar tribe, as
the country’s interim president. The interim Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) named
Yawar, as the country’s first president of the post-Saddam Hussein era. The UN special
envoy Ibrahim Brahimi, later confirmed his appointment.
As the Iraq war enters its sixth year, the role of the Iraqi Awakening Councils (which
consists largely of Sunni groups financed by the United States to fight Al-Qaeda and other
militants in the country) has become vital for the stability of Anbar province. The
Awakening Councils started in Anbar Province more than a year ago in late 2006, but
became stronger after the surge in spring 2007and now scores of groups have effectively
taken responsibility for law and order in their neighborhoods.8 The province was formerly
one of the most restive areas within the Sunni triangle.
Experts argue that the troop surge and new tactics of holding areas after insurgents
were expelled brought a measure of calm to parts of Baghdad and other areas of Iraq.
They also believe that one reason for the decline in attacks is that many former Sunni
fighters have turned against Al-Qaeda and are helping U.S. forces maintain security. In
reference to the creation of the Awakening Councils and Al-Qaeda mishaps, they assert
in a recent interview with Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic
and International Studies (CSIS) that:
We capitalized on a spontaneous tribal uprising against Al-Qaeda. That allowed us to
create the "Sons of Iraq," a force that now has some 90,000 men, about three times the
size of our surge. Al-Qaeda helped us immeasurably. I think we have to give credit
to our enemy. They did so much damage to themselves in alienating tribal groups and
Sunnis, in driving former insurgents to work with U.S. troops, that oddly enough one
of our strongest allies in making this work was our enemy.9
The following are some of the major confederation and tribal groups followed by a
map (Figure 1) with the location of these tribes and others in Iraq.10
Bruno, Roeber, "Former Insurgents Join the U.S. Effort, but Questions Linger About Their
Future," ABC News, January 9, 2008, at [http://abcnews.go.com/print?id=4109560].
Bill Rodgers, "Iraq War Enters Sixth Year," VOA News, March 17, 2008, at
Mohamad Bazzi, “On Their Terms U.S. soldier reaches out to understand Iraqi Tribal System,”
Newsday, December 21, 2003; and Arab Tribes of the Baghdad Wilayat, issued by the Arab
Bureau, Baghdad, July 1918.
The Shammar claim to be Iraq’s biggest tribal confederation, with more than 1.5
million people. Like other big confederations, it has tended to be unified only when
threatened from the outside, as in wartime. Shammar member tribes include the Toqa
(historically settled in central Iraq) and the Jarba (centered in the north). Shammar tribes
cover vast territories, from south of Baghdad to the Syrian border in the northwest. They
include Sunni and Shia groups and their reach extends from Yemen to the United Arab
The Dulaym belong to a large group of tribes of Zubaydi origin and are connected
the Jannabiyin, Ubayd, and other confederations. They claim to have originally migrated
from Central Arabia. (Arab Tribes of the Baghdad Wilayat, issued by the Arab Bureau,
Baghdad, July 1918.) Many prominent Iraqis carry the last name “Dulaym,” signaling
they belong to this broad tribal confederation. Many Dulaymi tribes and leaders were
among the most important in supporting Hussein during his rule. Dulaym tribes reside
mostly in the western province of al-Anbar, around Ramadi. The Dulaym reportedly
orchestrated a failed coup attempt against Saddam Hussein in July 1992.
The Jibur are one of the largest tribes and are scattered along the rivers as far north
as Mosul and Khabur. (Arab Tribes of the Baghdad Wilayat, issued by the Arab Bureau,
Baghdad, July 1918.) They claim to have come from Khabur. The Jiburi tribe includes
both Sunni and Shia branches. Their relationship with the late Saddam Hussein was more
complex. In the 1980s, Hussein gave money and powerful jobs to Jiburi tribal leaders,
and in exchange, they recruited thousands of men from their tribe to fight against Iran.
But the relationship fell apart after a group of prominent Jiburis reportedly plotted to
assassinate Hussein in 1990. He purged the tribe’s leaders, and Jiburi leaders now
cooperate with U.S. forces, notably in helping rule the northern city of Mosul.
Tikriti-al, the late General Ahmad Hassan Al-Bakr, former president of the republic,
former commander-in-chief of the armed forces, command member of the Ba’ath party
from 1973-1977, and Saddam Hussein came from a section of the Albu Nasir Tribe, the
group of tribes usually called al-Takarita (or the Tikritis.) The Albu Nasir tribe is
believed to have more than 350,000 young men.In July 2003, Abdullah Mahmoud
al-Khattab, leader of Saddam’s section of the tribe, was gunned down in Tikrit, a few
weeks after he publicly disavowed Saddam.
The al-Khaza’il are an important family from Najd. A considerable number of them
are known to have been nomadic. The Khaza’il proper, apart from tribes of different
origin who may still be reckoned in the confederation, are all of one family and named
after their respective ancestors in the sheikhly house. Khaza’il tribe can be found in
Baghdad area. The Khaza’il are divided into Al Shallal and the Al Salaman.
The Anizah confederation is numerically believed to be the largest group of nomad
Arab tribes. They occupied a triangle of Syrian desert, near today’s Iraq-Syria border, to
the east bank of the Euphrates. The hereditary foes of the Anizah are believed to be the
Shammar. According to published reports, the history of nomadic Arabia has been
dominated for the last 150 years by the rivalry between the Anizah and Shammar.
The Banu Hushaim are one of the tribal confederations on the Euphrates. They are
mostly of Shammar origin and are believed to have settled in Iraq for a long time.
Historically, the Banu Hushaim were small independent tribes not connected to one
another but formed for many generations a single political unit.
Al-Aqrah is a group of tribes of Shammar origin. They are known to have been
independent and acknowledge no paramount chief but form a loose confederation. The
Aqrah group consisted of both cultivators and sheep breeders. The al-Agrah group lies
a long the Shatt al Dagharah to about a few miles from Shatt al Hillah.
The al-Zubayd are believed to have migrated from Yemen. They came from the
south probably in the late 17th century, and like all early migrants are very scattered. They
have a wide kinship. The Dulaymi, Jibur, and Ubayd albu Amir are of the Zubaydi stock.
Ubayd, this Sunni Arab tribe migrated into Iraq in the sixth century A.D. and settled
on the river bank of the Tigris, between Mosul and Baghdad.
Figure 1. Tribes and Major Confederations in Iraq