Trying a ‘tribal solution’ for justice in Iraq
Stars and Stripes March 15, 2008
TAJI, Iraq — At the height of sectarian fighting here in the summer of 2006, Sunni tribesman surrounded a house in an isolated Shiite village being wiped off the map.
According to U.S. commanders, the five men inside held out for three days until, out of food, water and ammunition, they surrendered in exchange for a promise of safe passage out of the area. Taking their women and children and fleeing as hundreds of other Shiites already had, the men made it only a few miles before they were stopped at a Sunni checkpoint.
Ordered out of their vehicle, they were beaten in front of their families and taken away. They were never seen again, commanders say.
Sectarian fighting has since quieted here, but the incident at Shiabat remains an open sore, a blood debt waiting for its day of reckoning, commanders say.
The culprits, officers say, are no real secret. Hilal Mutar, a leader of the Habusi tribe that U.S. commanders describe as “the closest thing to real al-Qaida” left in this rural area northwest of Baghdad, was detained months ago. Army Lt. Col. Bob McAleer says he has enough evidence to take Mutar before the Iraqi court system in connection with the July 2006 disappearances.
Instead, McAleer and his unit, Fires Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, have decided to let the area’s tribes try to sort out their own mess. With the blessing of the Iraqi Ministries of Interior and Defense, tribal leaders from both sides gathered in the village of Bassam on March 6 to hear testimony against Mutar.
The so-called “tribal solution,” which commanders here believe to be the first of its kind since the war began, defers to tribal traditions focused less on outright punishment than on reaching a negotiated settlement aimed at forestalling retaliatory violence. The goal is for Mutar to admit his involvement, McAleer said. If it succeeds, the judgment will carry the weight of a legal verdict in the Iraqi system.
If it doesn’t, McAleer said he has a Plan B.
“It’s basically either admit it or go to court,” he said.
Deliberations by tribal judges are ongoing.
In a statement, Gen. David Petreaus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, hailed the proceedings as a way for Sunni and Shiite tribes to “come to grips with serious allegations of sectarian issues.”
“Our commanders have demonstrated enormous cultural understanding in helping facilitate these efforts and many other similar initiatives that demonstrate how much our leaders ‘get it,’” the statement said.
According to an American summary of the March 6 hearing, Shiite leaders presented “a well-articulated argument with eyewitness accounts,” while Mutar, who claimed that outsiders took the five men and that he does not know what became of them, was “unable to mount an effective defense or find witnesses willing to testify in his defense under oath.”
By the standards of the American justice system, the possible sentence facing Mutar under the tribal system seems absurdly lenient. McAleer and tribal leaders say Mutar would likely be ordered to pay restitution ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 per family.
But a satisfactory “tribal solution” would offer a number of benefits that the court system could not, he said. An admission of guilt would leave a “mark of shame on the Habusi tribe forever,” McAleer said, marginalizing leaders who continue to pursue sectarian divisions. It would also send a message that tribal leaders are serious about resolving sectarian differences.
“The big thing is that the (Sunni) sheiks are getting some of their own guys to admit they’ve done wrong,” McAleer says. “Until both sides get together and have an admission that wrongs were done on both sides, we’re not going to make sustainable progress here.”
McAleer hopes the judgment will also produce more tangible closure for the Beni-Temimi tribe, whose men disappeared on that summer day in 2006.
“I told the judges, the Temimis don’t care about the money,” he said. “They want the bodies.”