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Basra Tribal Feuds Spread Fear, Directly Impact the Economy

Basra Tribal Feuds Spread Fear, Directly Impact the Economy

Saturday, 20 January, 2018 - 08:00
Iraqi soldiers control one of several checkpoints they set up along the main 50 kilometer road between the area of Karmat Ali on the northern outskirts of Basra and the town of al-Dayr on January 13, 2018. HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI / AFP

Daud Salman and his family stayed put in their Iraqi village despite years of regular clashes between tribes, but when a stray bullet wounded his son, it was time to move.

In the north of Basra province, "bullets talk," he told Agence France Presse.

Feuds between the region's half-dozen tribes often flare into pitched battles with assault rifles and machineguns, killing bystanders and driving a never-ending cycle of revenge attacks.

Security forces, fearing reprisals, rarely intervene.

The region near Iraq's southern border with Kuwait has long been the scene of inter-tribal battles. But with security forces deployed to the country's north to battle ISIS, Basra residents caught in the crossfire say they feel abandoned.

"Peaceful families that have no weapons can't live," said Daud, 41.

The clashes have transformed residential areas into battlefields, he said.

It was during yet another gunfight that Daud's son Ali, 15, took a bullet to the shoulder as he stood in front of the family home.

That finally prompted the family to move to Basra city, away from the tribal areas.

Residents of the province's north say security forces are powerless to halt the clashes that erupt over business disputes, questions of honor or even football matches.

In the absence of heavily armed military and federal police forces, "local police are reluctant... to get involved in these battles because there is nothing to protect them," said provincial council member Ghanem Hamid.

Even in situations where they could prevent the violence, police officers -- many of whom hail from the tribes involved -- hesitate to intervene for fear of later reprisals.

Haydar Ali, a 34-year-old engineer, suggested deploying soldiers and policemen from other provinces "who have no social relations or tribal ties that could affect their role".

Residents have called on security forces to confiscate weapons, but regular raids have had little impact on the vast numbers of arms circulating in the province.

Tribes in Basra, the only province of Iraq with access to the sea, obtained a glut of weapons when the army withdrew from Kuwait in 1991 in a hasty retreat.

They further boosted their stockpiles following the US-led invasion in 2003, said Sheikh Abbas al-Fadhli, who advises the provincial governorate on tribal affairs.

The tribal disputes have a direct impact on Basra's economy.

Clashes in the oil-rich region, a base for several foreign companies and oil refineries, have caused many to suspend operations, said General Jamil al-Shomary, an army commander in Basra.

"A tribal fight can close down roads for three or four days," preventing people from reaching work, he said.

"There have even been attacks against oil companies."

Teacher Saadoun Jassim al-Ali, 46, blamed "lawlessness and impunity" that had allowed instigators of clashes to remain at large.

Sheikh Mohammad al-Zidawi, an elder of the Bu Zayd tribe, said "the wide availability of weapons" was to blame.

He is a member of a committee set up to mediate between tribes.

In 2017, "it resolved 176 tribal disputes, including some that had lasted 15 years," he said.

The committee organizes meetings between dignitaries from tribes involved in disputes.

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