"The most important duty of a tribal chief is knowing when to switch sides," one British official with knowledge of the undercover operation told United Press International. "In Najaf, the al-Jaburi tribe understood that Saddam Hussein's time was over. "
Afghanistan was the model for the operation, where a handful of CIA agents spent $70 millions to buy – or perhaps rent – the loyalties of Afghan tribal chiefs in the campaign against the Taliban in the fall of 2001.
"The Iraqi tribes knew instinctively what was going on," the British official noted. "The week that The Washington Post reported that $70 million had been spent on the Afghans, they all knew that figure – and several said openly that Iraq was a much more important country – and would cost a lot more."
There are about 150 major tribes in Iraq, and close to another 2,000 another smaller tribes or clans, some of them little more than extended families of fewer than 1,000 people.
The big traditional tribes such as the al-Jaburi and the Beni Hasan, the Bardosti and Shammari and al-Dulaimi, have been dominant players in the region's tribal mosaic for centuries before the British carved the state of Iraq from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire 80 years ago.
The British also understood the importance of securing the loyalty of the tribal sheikhs. To this day, a prized possession of many tribeswomen, to be worn only at weddings of formal occasions, is a necklace made of British gold sovereigns from the 1920s – relics of another time when Western troops had to navigate the shifting loyalties of the tribes.
Traditionally rural-based, the tribes have managed to survive the process of modernization that turned desert nomads into urban dwellers. Scholars in Kuwait reckon that between a third and a half of the Iraqi population would identify their primary loyalties to their tribes, rather than to the national government in Baghdad.
Ironically, Saddam helped this process. Although his Baathist party in the 1960s and 1970s tried to crush the tribes as alternative power bases, he has more recently worked to win them over by restoring judicial authority to the sheiks and channeling money for public works through them. And despite repeated attempts at land reform, more than half of Iraqi land is "owned" by tribes rather than by individuals.
Three years ago, Saddam's regime tried to transfer land near Basra to some loyalists, and the Beni Hasan tribe rose in outrage. At least 24 Iraqi soldiers were killed, and 14 of the Beni Hasan before Baghdad dropped the plan – largely because other tribal sheikhs warned that they too opposed any tampering with tribal land rights. Last week, the abortive uprising against Saddam's forces inside Basra began when a junior sheikh from the Beni Hasan was shot for being lukewarm in his loyalty.
It was the strain of the Iran-Iraq war, that lasted throughout the 1980s, that forced Saddam to woo the tribes. He needed their political support and their men for his army. When the sheikh of the large al-Jaburi tribe died, and there was a dispute over which clan leader would succeed him, Saddam saw his chance. He backed the son, Machan al-Jaburi – and once installed, the new sheikh delivered 50,000 men to the Iraqi army for the Iran war. The al-Jaburi became favored and powerful, and public money for roads and schools and housing was steered their way, enhancing the sheikh's influence as he delivered jobs and other favors to his people.
But tribal loyalties can shift fast. Once he suspected the al-Jaburi were becoming too strong, he sacked the two al-Jaburi ministers and cut off the flow of funds. In January 1990, the al-Jaburi tried to mount of military coup with their officers. It failed, but the cautious sheikh was in Paris, and was able to continue running tribal affairs from across the border in Syria. The al-Jaburi officers mounted another coup attempt in 1993 – a desperate last-ditch affair, as Saddam steadily purged the al-Jaburi from the military. Then the Baghdad regime patched up relations with a newly installed sheikh. The tribal vendetta continued – three years ago, al-Jaburi officers in the Republican Guard were shot after another coup attempt.
Governments in Baghdad come and go, but the tribes go on forever. Saddam, who has faced revolts from the al-Jaburi, the al-Dumaini, the bani Hajam and the Beni Hasan, knows they cannot be crushed, but only bought, cowed or accommodated. Now the Americans and British are playing at the same game.
"This is not just about toppling Saddam with briefcases full of cash or telling their people it is time to welcome the coalition troops," notes the British official. "The tribes play a long game. For them, the real currency is not just money but privileges and the promise of roles and influence in the post-Saddam government, whatever the United Nations or the Iraqi exile groups may say."