From Iraq, with kisses
In 2004, a land dispute led to increasingly tense relationships between the three major tribes of a community in northern Diyala Governorate. Over a decade later, Mohammed’s work as a mediator has brought them closer—to the point where they now greet each other with kisses.
Ethnic, sectarian and tribal divisions are deeply woven into Iraq’s social fabric. In 2014, the war against Daesh added another layer of tension in this predominantly Shia Kurd neighbourhood. When a wave of new families who had fled their homes hit, the area’s residents had already been dealing with tensions for years, and interactions between the neighbourhood’s three Shia tribes were minimal.
In this tense environment lives Mohammed, a public servant in his late 50s. As a Sunni Kurd who doesn’t belong to any of the three tribes, he is perceived by them as a neutral party. Over the years, he has used his impartiality to successfully address various small conflicts in the community, such as disagreements between families. Inspired by these success stories, he decided to address a greater problem: the tensions among the three groups.
“I tried to address this issue the tribal way,’’ Mohammed explains, ‘‘which means that I gathered the tribal leaders for a big meal, with the hope that this alone would ease tensions.”
Despite his best efforts, the tensions among the tribes were too strong for this approach to work.
Through Mercy Corps’ local partner, the Iraqi Center for Negotiation Skills and Conflict Management, Mohammed underwent conflict management training designed to impart new skills and techniques to people, like him, who were already acting as mediators in local conflicts.
Equipped with new knowledge and sharpened negotiation skills, Mohammed decided to once again meet with leaders of each of the three tribes in the hopes of eventually warming relationships between them. “First, I visited tribal leaders separately to hear their stories,’’ he recalls. ‘‘I had learned that as a mediator, it is important to give each party a chance to express their concerns individually.”
Mohammed’s next step was to focus and build on mutual interests or commonalities among the parties. At that time, Ashura, a major Shia Muslim holiday of mourning, was approaching. During this holiday, communities typically get together to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. However, the three tribes hadn’t gathered for this occasion since 2004. Mohammed sought out the help of a strong and respected ally to resolve this issue. He chose an imam from the Shia holy city of Najaf who happened to be in the area for Ashura.
All parties gathered in a neutral location: a mosque. Mohammed facilitated this first discussion with the help of the imam. Although the tribal leaders wanted to talk about Ashura and their separate plans, the imam explained his view of the holiday: ‘‘a time to focus on the bonds that unite,’’ he insisted, ‘‘rather than the smaller issues that divide.’’ The leaders understood that there was an alternative to their actions and finally agreed to put old land disputes aside during Ashura.
In 2016, for the first time in over a decade, the community observed Ashura together. The three tribes marched as a group, together with the imam and Mohammed, to join the larger regional ceremony held at the main mosque in the area.
A year later, as the land dispute was still languishing in court, the tribes were better positioned to deal with conflict. Mohammed remains optimistic: the effects of his mediation continue to have an impact in the community, beyond the Ashura holiday.
“Previously, people from the different tribes greeted each other with only the minimal possible acknowledgement. Now, they greet each other warmly with handshakes and kisses.”
Promoting social cohesion in Iraq
Since the beginning of the war in Iraq, in 2014, more than 3 million people—almost one Iraqi in 10—have been forced to leave their homes, becoming internally displaced persons. In response to this crisis, Canada is providing humanitarian assistance, stabilization support and development and diplomatic assistance to Iraq in line with the Government of Canada’s Middle East engagement Strategy.
An important element of the Middle East Strategy was the Promoting Social Cohesion in Iraq project. Through this initiative, Canada provided $4.5 million to Mercy Corps to relieve tensions between, on one side, families forced to flee their towns and cities and, on the other, the communities where they resettled. Mercy Corps is a global humanitarian organization that empowers people to recover from crises, build better lives and change their communities for the good.
Between April 2015 and August 2017, over 20,000 women, girls, men and boys from Iraq’s Diyala and Sulaymaniyah governorates benefited from more than 100 community projects launched with this funding. To learn more, visit Promoting Social Cohesion in Iraq.
- Date Modified: