With the military campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (or ISIL) in Iraq over, attention has turned to addressing the grievances and factors that gave rise to the extremist group. These include Sunni marginalization from the political process, sectarian policies that ossified community cleavages and spurred extremist ideology, economic deprivation, and ineffective governance and public service delivery. Steps are already being taken to deal with these matters. Yet if the Iraqi government and its partners are to bring about positive long-term changes that mitigate the factors giving rise to extremism, they must get a handle on a phenomenon that has often been a determining variable in the country’s peace and stability equation: tribes and tribalism.
About 75 percent of Iraq’s population is either a member or close associate of one of the country’s approximately 150 tribes. The tribes, which comprise multiple family-based clans, have wielded considerable influence since modern Iraq’s founding in 1921. In contemporary Iraq, tribes and tribalism are most prominent in Sunni areas — Anbar, Salahadin, Kirkuk, Nineveh — and the southern, mainly Shia province of Basra. Tribal leaders, called sheikhs, settle disputes within their tribes, some of which cut across ethnic and sectarian lines. Tribal networks can help members gain employment, secure government services and protect members from external threats.