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In Iraq, revenge is more than sweet.

Ancient tribal customs mean that insults and injuries must be avenged to restore honor, according to anthropologists and counterinsurgency experts — and Lt. Gen. Pete Chiarelli.

“You’ve got to understand the culture,” Chiarelli said. “You’re in a culture where revenge is acceptable when you are wronged. The problem is they go after someone wearing this uniform or anyone in the coalition.”

Chiarelli, a longtime proponent of trying to ease alienation between the U.S. and Iraqis so people will deny insurgents sanctuary, is currently taking on a difficult task.

He’s looking for ways to reduce the number of times U.S. soldiers kill or wound Iraqi motorists because the Iraqis drive too close to a convoy or checkpoint, don’t respond to signs and shouts to stop and are perceived as a lethal threat.

He’s convinced that many of the relatives of the killed and wounded have joined the insurgency to regain their honor.

It’s a theory that holds up well. Iraq’s culture, like many in the Middle East that grew from tribal nomadic groups, is known as an “honor culture,” in which real or even perceived wrongs must be dealt with violently or shame may be brought to the entire group.

Although little has been reported about revenge on U.S. soldiers for a wounded or killed relative, much has been written about the honor culture and what Westerners consider one of its most horrible manifestations: honor killings.

Honor killings are committed by men against women in their own families, for bringing dishonor by refusing an arranged marriage, seeking a divorce, committing adultery or being raped.

According to Human Rights Watch, a 2001 United Nations report said that in the past decade an estimated 4,000 women and girls had been victims of “honor killings” in Iraq.

The practice of seeking revenge also extends to some families of those held in U.S. detention centers, the Diyala province justice minister recently told Chiarelli, and added to crime and the insurgency.

“If you bring a great deal of people without acceptable evidence, their relatives will be pushed to retribution,” he said.

But Chiarelli sees a bright spot: another part of the culture that accepts monetary compensation (without having to file a tort) for a killing or injury.

“If you accidentally kill an Iraqi — the culture also offers you the ability to make amends,” Chiarelli said. “If you do that within the required time period, you’re forgiven. If you do that, it’s considered insha’allah,” using the Arabic word for “God’s will.”

Anytime a weapon is discharged by soldiers on a convoy, according to a new order, they are required to stop, not drive on. They’re supposed to give first aid and call an ambulance or medevac if anyone is injured, provide claim forms for damages and complete a report for their headquarters.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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