The Iraq insurgency: Anatomy of a tribal rebellion
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The Iraq insurgency: Anatomy of a tribal rebellion

The answers to what motivates and sustains the insurgency in Iraq are not readily found in traditional insurgency literature. Much better answers can be found by reexamining something deemed anachronistic in the information age: the dynamics of traditionally networked tribes and clans. This paper provides such a reexamination, and shows that tribal dynamics are particularly evident among insurgents in Fallujah and other parts of the so–called Sunni triangle.


Standard insurgency doctrine: Insufficient for understanding Iraq?
A more appropriate paradigm: The tribe and clan
When tribes and clans fight: Vendetta, raiding, and segmented rebellion
Application to the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle
Future outlook




Standard insurgency doctrine: Insufficient for understanding Iraq?

Standard views of insurgency are based on our interpretation of the classic texts of insurgency warfare and our experiences dealing with wars of national liberation in the late twentieth–century. The basic tenets for this form of warfare are found in the writings of past practitioners such as Mao Tse–tung, Che Guevara, and Carlos Marighella. When we take Mao’s dictum that the guerrilla should be likened to a fish in the sea [1], Che Guevara’s proposition that a small dedicated cadre of fighters can create the conditions for popular revolution [2], and Carlos Marighella’s explanation for how to damage the authorities [3] and try to superimpose all this upon Iraqi culture, we gain only a glimpse into the tactics of the insurgents and little insight into the social dynamics that compel them. Che Guevara’s emphasis on the importance of advanced planning, intelligence networks, inaccessible bases, and popular support remains valid whether applied in Afghanistan or Iraq. But is this enough to know?

In his writings Mao (1937) calls for "clearly defined political goals and firmly established political responsibility." And Marighella’s Minimanual for the Urban Guerilla (1969) spells out the tactics that assist in the "creation of a totally new and revolutionary social and political structure." But in Iraq, a clearly defined political goal is noticeably missing from the numerous insurgent groups actively opposed to the Interim Iraqi Government and its Multi–National Force sponsor.

To be sure, Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s [4] reliance on an elite vanguard to reestablish an imagined "just" society undoubtedly falls into the standard revolutionary warfare genre. Like other political extremists before him, al–Zarqawi seeks to mobilize the masses. And he upholds the Qur’an, the hadith [5], and the practices of the early Muslim community as though they can provide the vision for a modern Muslim society. But while these offer an effective ideology for opposition, they have little to offer in the way of practical guidance for governing a modern state [6]. And what about the beliefs of the remaining 20,000 to 40,000 suspected fighters and sympathizers in Iraq? [7]

So is this insurgency in line with our understanding and experiences with twentieth–century revolutionary warfare? Not really. Carl von Clausewitz warned that statesmen and commanders must determine "the kind of war upon which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature." The time has come to take a renewed look at the pre–modern modes of social organization for conflict and to study the Iraq insurgency in this vein.


A more appropriate paradigm: The tribe and clan

A leading expert on new modes of conflict, Thomas X. Hammes [8] writes in his article on "4th Generation Warfare" (2004) that the future will pose an evolved form of insurgency which exploits all available political, economic, social, and military networks to convince an opponent that his strategic goals are either unattainable or too costly to achieve. He goes on to state that "like its predecessors... [4th Generation Warfare]... will continue to evolve with society as a whole. As we continue to move from a hierarchical–based society to a networked, information based society, our political, economic, social, and technical bases will continue to evolve."

Hammes’ concept reflects the forward–looking insights of a culture transitioning away from hierarchical and industrial times toward a networked and information–based society. But even though it is forward–looking in one sense, Hammes’ concept of a networked society may also help us look backward into the past. Iraq’s social organizing principle embodied in the tribe reflects a pre–modern version of a networked society. While the West is widening and deepening the connections among its various social, political, economic, and military networks, tribal societies need only build on pre–existing social conditions to create efficiency in times of conflict and peaceful co–existence.

Tribes exist in a perpetual state of flux.

The fundamental aspect of tribal identity is extended kinship [9]. The tribe is the largest unit whose associated clan claims a common lineage or descent. But the tribe is more than just a number of descent–based groups, for an individual’s stated membership in a particular genealogical heritage can be partly a political act. Much of tribal genealogy, if it exists at all, is often based on fictive kinship ties. In claiming a particular ancestry, individuals may align themselves with a given political position and strategy which cannot be simply glossed over as kinship. Tribes exist in a perpetual state of flux. Associations and alliances shift and individuals may move across permeable boundaries. In this sense, tribal identity is flexible since it incorporates an invented quality that provides a context for political and social action.

The clan is the second level of organization in Iraq and derives its unity of purpose from its Sheikh, his family lineage, and the territorial proximity of the various sub–clan affiliates of which it is composed. Sub–clans are a composite of patrilineal groups and extended families. These in turn are composed of kinship groups and divided into households. The tribe and clan performs a political and military function, sub–clans and households an economic one. Leadership is traditionally reserved to the outstanding patrilineal lineage of the strongest sub–clan, with the strongest clan providing the leadership of the tribe. In the case of a pan–tribal confederation, the strongest tribe holds the Sheikh of Sheikh position. In a Hobbesian world of perpetual conflict, weaker tribes will seek security through alliances with larger, stronger ones.

In attempting to explain the situation in Iraq, the idea that "4th Generation Warfare" represents an evolved form of insurgency must consider the fact that tribal society already has at its disposal affiliated social, economic, and military networks easily adapted to war–fighting. The ways in which the insurgents are exploiting the tribal network does not represent an evolved form of insurgency but the expression of inherent cultural and social customs.

Here then is a simple model of how tribalism may play out during a rebellion or tribal insurgency: A group of extended families gains control over a sub–clan. The sub–clan exploits existing social, economic, and military networks and widens its dominance through the negotiation of alliances and patronage with other key clans and tribes to win a preeminent position in a new or pre–existing tribal confederation. Once the tribal confederation has amassed enough influence it challenges the state to gain power. Upon seizure of state power, loyal tribes are integrated into the state apparatus to secure the political supremacy of the primary clan and its extended family. The primary clan literally becomes the state by process of wedding related tribal lineages and secondary clans to the state itself. State institutions are strengthened by delegating state power, such as tax collection and enforcement of law and order, to tribal or kin segments at the local level. The delegation of state authority to outlying social centers of authority creates a hierarchical power structure secured by loyal tribes, with chief and allied clans acting as an extension of the state [10]. Saddam Hussein’s state reflected this mixture of traditional and modernizing autocracy in which he and his extended family functioned as patrons dispensing favors to social, economic, and military networks in return for their support [11].

Islam offers a very effective system of symbols for political mobilization. While political domination over a tribal network can be maintained for a time by brute force, true political legitimacy is most effectively achieved when the ruling authority derives its legitimacy from Islam rather than from merely tribal or ideological affirmations, much less Western notions of popular or national sovereignty. In the Arab world, Islam offers the only acceptable political ideology in times of crisis "whether to arouse the people in defense of a regime that is perceived as possessing the necessary legitimacy or against a regime which is perceived as lacking that legitimacy" [12].

Asking whether the Iraqi insurgency is an evolved form of twentieth–century revolutionary warfare is thus not quite the right question. The social dynamic that sustains the on–going fighting in Iraq, especially in the Al Anbar province, is best understood when considered in tribal terms; in particular from the perspective of a traditionally networked society. It is the traditional tribal network that proffers rebels and insurgents a ready–made insurrectionary infrastructure to draw on.



When tribes and clans fight: Vendetta, raiding, and segmented rebellion

The tribal ethos continues to influence all aspects of life in modern Iraqi society. In an environment lacking a strong central authority or an effective police force, the only means to safeguard against attack is by threat of vendetta and blood feud. The rule is simple: There is nothing immoral about killing an individual so long as he is not a kinsman or an ally. An unprotected individual can be killed without fear of reprisal from his kinship group. An individual belonging to a clan or tribe is protected, since his death would incur the enmity of the extended family. To maintain a credible deterrent capability, the tribal sheikh must be prepared to avenge each and every injury. This system ensures a reasonable balance of tribal power since the loss of one member causes the offending tribe to be comparably weakened in turn. In this way, no one group can gain primacy over the other. The downside is that tribes can get caught up in a perpetual blood feud where one vendetta killing provokes a series of reprisals, especially if one tribe feels that a rival’s response is disproportionate to the initial confrontation [13].

The raid and ambush is the time honored tactic of the tribal fighter. It reflects the preferred practice of war rooted in the traditional methods of enforcing authority, obtaining property, and settling vendetta obligations [14]. The raid is characterized by surprise, shock, and rapid withdrawal after a comparatively brief period of action.

One of the most important features of the networked tribal society is called "segmentation." The term refers to the presence of clearly articulated tribal sub–divisions, based on lineage and descent that determine communal solidarities and allegiances. As one of the organizing principles for dealing with inter– and intra–tribal disputes and for fighting outside invaders, segmentation entails an important military function. It is a means through which tribal militias may be rapidly mobilized to confront a common enemy. Segmentation describes the way in which various sub–components of the tribal network coalesce to form higher–level organizations when opposed by other organizations of the same order. This principle applies from the lowest kinship groups to the tribal confederation. The segmentary nature of tribes assists groups that had been antagonistic toward one another or involved in open conflict to join forces when they are confronted by an external menace which threatens them both.

For example, Figure 1 describes how a tribal network may react if threatened. Groups H and I will act together as group D if confronted by group E. Similarly in the case of dispute with C, both D and E will join together to engage collectively as B.

Figure 1: Reaction of a tribal network to a threat.



Application to the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle

The reliance on standard revolutionary warfare doctrine to explain the kind of war we are prosecuting in Iraq ignores the nature of a traditionally networked society. A strict interpretation of existing counterinsurgency doctrine [15] does not address how resistance to an alien presence may be transformed within a networked society into a general rebellion or how tribes mobilize intrinsic social, economic, and military networks for conflict.

Every insurgency has its own unique cultural characteristic. Three basic structural dimensions must be understood when analyzing a given insurrection. The first is to identify the numbers and kinds of people who play key roles in the insurrection and those providing active support. The second is to visualize the complexity of the insurrectionary movement and the groups reflecting its strategies [16], and the third is to identify the unifying factors, those dynamic and powerful physical or moral agents of action and influence [17].

The insurrection in the Sunni Triangle in Iraq is best understood if analyzed from the perspective of a networked society motivated by cultural tribalism and regulated by the behavioral rules discussed above: vendetta, raiding, and segmented rebellion. Beyond these rules, political Islam lends legitimacy to the struggle and acts as the key catalyst in mobilizing the social, economic, and military networks. A more detailed appreciation of tribal culture would likely assist in understanding why terror networks such as al–Qaeda and Abu Musab al–Zarqawi’s terror group Al–Tawhid Wal Jihad are able to operate not only in Iraq but freely throughout the world.

Freedom of action for insurgents is assured as disparate sections of the social network are activated like a contagious disease.

In the case of Fallujah, seven close–knit tribes comprise the inhabitants of the city and the surrounding area [18]. The presence of an invader proved the catalyst to provoke the tribal social network. Unresolved disputes — the result of cultural miscommunication [19] — between the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and local leaders, and local dismay over the continuous skirmishes between coalition and tribal fighters, heightened local tensions to the breaking point. Once the breaking point was reached, a mujahideen shura — a council of holy warriors representing resistance forces, local dignitaries, and tribal sheikhs — was formed to plan and guide the direction of the insurrection. The local grievances demanded the obligatory retaliation or vendetta [20], and this in turn guaranteed a continuous supply of willing tribal fighters from throughout the region. The segmentary nature of tribes facilitated the activation of widely dispersed military networks and unified clans and tribes in a shared religious belief that the Americans were invaders and that every Muslim’s duty was to fight the unbelievers. The mujahideen shura extended its influence through alliances with such political organizations as the Hayea Olama’a al–Muslimeyn [21] and Abu Musab al–Zarqawi’s Salafi [22] Al–Tawhid Wal Jihad terror group. Taking advantage of existing social networks the rebellion soon spread to the areas south of Baghdad where insurgents backed by tribal leaders emerged as the real power in the area. The continuous raiding by tribal fighters and the MNF’s inability to effectively counter the threat encouraged the rebellion to spread to other tribal areas. Observing the success of those fighting against the Interim Iraqi Government and coalition forces, other tribal groups joined the insurrection.

Freedom of action for insurgents is assured as disparate sections of the social network are activated like a contagious disease. The lack of a strong central government promotes the process. The network expands as more and more areas develop their own tribal power centers connected to each other by kinship and tribal alliances. It should come as no surprise that homegrown and foreign insurgents are able to exploit "rat lines" between areas of operation. The social connections already exist and need only be activated as communications and support links in the overall tribal network rally to the cause and organize for conflict.

While many links remain person–to–person, the new information technologies are playing increasing roles. In a very general sense, consider the fact that a number of tribal networks are transnational — they have branches in several nations in the region. An example of this is the Shammar Confederation, which maintains its own This Web site is dedicated to sharing information among its numerous members in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and plays an important part in expressing the contemporary identity of its tribal members. More to the point, there are rebellion–friendly Web sites in Iraq, such as [23], that have proven crucial in getting the word out to those insurgents and supporters who otherwise have little contact with journalists and cannot challenge the information dominance of their opponents. The Internet and other new information technologies are being exploited not only to influence domestic and international political agendas but also to attract more followers and showcase tribal strength. Perhaps tribal actors in Iraq are not yet as adept at this as are the media–savvy al–Qaeda affiliates, but they are learning.

The Internet and other new information technologies are being exploited not only to influence domestic and international political agendas but also to attract more followers and showcase tribal strength.

The dynamic that sustains an insurrectionary movement also gives rise to local countervailing forces. The tribal system ensures a reasonable balance of power. When a strong central government is lacking and unable to project authority, vendetta imparts a credible deterrent capability into the balance of power equation. Such is the case with the response by the Congregation of Southern Tribes after it had been subjected to repeated attacks by kinship and/or allied groups linked to tribes in Fallujah. Tribal leaders from the Bani Lam in the al–Kut and al–Amarah areas warned the tribal leadership west of Baghdad of the consequences of providing aid and refuge to terrorists [24]. They further warned that they could no longer prevent angry kinsmen from exacting revenge and if need be could mobilize a tribal army to overrun Yusifiya, Mahmudiyah, and Fallujah [25]. As of this writing, reports of retaliation attacks by the Bani Lam against the perpetrators in Latifiyah [26] attests to the fact that vendetta remains a time–honored instrument not only to settle disputes when negotiations and mediations have failed but also to maintain a precarious balance of power between tribes. Posting on the Internet has served to broadcast the Bani Lam declaration of its vengeful intent [27].



Future outlook

It is a great challenge to fight a counterinsurgency in a traditionally networked society. It is even harder when the fighting is viewed only in terms of fighting enemy organizations and units without acknowledging the culture that sustains the insurrection. Fighting a counterinsurgency implies defeating the insurgency’s main, regional, and local fighters. It means disrupting the underground and auxiliary support apparatus. It requires finding and arresting its leaders and shadow government cadre. Finally, counterinsurgency forces must dislocate the recruitment and indoctrination processes that mobilize the individuals and resources to overthrow a constituted government. When viewed in strictly organizational terms, "keeping score" — e.g., by counting how many leaders and main fighters are killed; or safe houses destroyed — makes sense. But when the culture itself sustains an insurrectionary movement, keeping score becomes much harder and makes less sense by itself.

The question arises, therefore, whether this insurgency is in line with our understanding and experiences with twentieth–century revolutionary warfare. Can we track the spread of rebellion throughout the central and northwest regions of Iraq by looking only into the physical infrastructure [28] and terror cell organizations? If we view this conflict strictly in terms of infrastructure and terror cell organization, then we should witness a sharp decline in attacks in the short term due to the destruction of the insurgent sanctuary in Fallujah and the related elimination of many of the movement’s cadre and main and local fighters. But if instead we see a sustained effort on the part of insurgents in other parts of the Sunni Triangle, we may be missing the point altogether. While a sustained effort on the part of insurgents in the region could be simply explained away by blaming escaped cadre and local and foreign fighters, it would not explain how the necessary infrastructure can be so easily reestablished across the region in such a short amount of time.

While Western concepts of revolutionary warfare avail coalition forces with tactics, techniques, and procedures to fight a counterinsurgency campaign tactically, these concepts offer nothing in terms of understanding tribal culture and the motivations of tribal elements as well as societal resources at their disposal to sustain the fight. The greatest challenge for implementing what appears to be a three–phased approach — first, neutralizing the insurgents; then creating a viable Iraqi security apparatus, and developing and establishing local administration in pacified areas — is that it is opposed by a fully mobilized, traditionally networked, very tribalized, society.

The future does not bode well for sustaining a peaceful transition to a post–interim government in this part of Iraq. The fight for Fallujah has proven that insurgents have little chance of winning a war over territory. What the rebellion does posses is an unassailable base guarded against direct attack. This unassailable base is the social network itself, merging and diverging as the situation dictates. Dealing with a traditionally networked tribal society may well require a "carrot and stick" approach. But properly presenting the carrot to deserving individuals and wielding the stick to punish the guilty requires a deep understanding of the society and its culture to be effective. A good start would be to figure out how best to engage the tribal system and especially to engage influential clerics and tribal leaders who may assist in shearing critical links that energize the network. End of article


About the author

William S. McCallister is a retired military officer. He has served extensively in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. While on active duty, Mr. McCallister served in numerous special operations assignments specializing in civil–military, psychological, and information operations. Mr. McCallister is currently employed in Iraq as the senior security analyst for FluorAMEC, LLC, and a private construction company supporting the reconstruction effort. Comments may be e–mailed to william [dot] mccallister [at] us [dot] army [dot] mil.



1. According to Mao Tse–tung (1937),

"Many people think it impossible for guerillas to exist for long in the enemy’s rear. Such a belief reveals lack of comprehension of the relationship that should exist between the people and troops. The former may be likened to water the latter to the fish that inhabit it. How may it be said that these two cannot exist together. It is only undisciplined troops who make people their enemies and who, like fish out of its native element cannot live."

2. According to Guevara (1961, p. 1), "It is not necessary to wait until all the conditions for making revolution exist, the insurrection can create them."

3. See Marighella (1969).

4. Abu Musab Zarqawi leads the Islamic terror group Al–Tawhid Wal Jihad (Monotheism/Unity and Holy Struggle). It is active in the Sunni Triangle and has ties to al–Qaeda and the Kurdish Islamist groups Ansar al–Islam and Ansar al–Sunna in northern Iraq. It is seen by U.S. authorities as the biggest obstacle to progress in Iraq and its most dangerous enemy in the country.

5. The hadith refers to the traditions of the Prophet. This includes his habits and the sayings attributed to him. They are not revealed, but very important in establishing the sharia, especially for Sunni Muslims.

6. See Burke (2004), pp. 36–37, 120.

7. Gordon Corera of BBC News estimates the size of the Iraqi resistance between 20,000 and 40,000, while U.S. officials estimate the number of hard–core home–grown insurgents between 8,000 and 12,000 and up to 20,000 if active sympathizers are included. See Gordon Corera, "Zarqawi and Bin Laden: Brothers in arms?" BBC News (28 October 2004), and Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, "Estimates by U.S. See More Rebels With More Funds," New York Times (22 October 2004).

8. Thomas X. Hammes is an active–duty officer and author of The sling and the stone: On war in the 21st century. St. Paul, Minn.: Zenith Press, 2004.

9. In the classical Arab concept derived from the thirteenth century sociologist Ibn Khaldun, the tribe is a self–contained social organization based on lineage and imbued with autonomy, having social, economic, political, military, and cultural functions.

10. Tensions may arise between the ruling lineage and affiliated tribes and clans. If the state is powerful enough, it tends toward direct rule by circumventing or even eliminating select tribal elites. When the ruling lineage is vulnerable to external or internal threats, the state will rule through them indirectly in spite of the threat that the tribal elites could pose to its own authority.

11. See O’Neill, 1990, p. 15.

12. Lewis, 1988, p. 5.

13. Armstrong, 1992, pp. 59–60.

14. The early Muslim community under the leadership of the Prophet Mohammed engaged in subsistence raiding against other tribes and passing caravans while based in Medina. The turning point for the nascent Muslim community came in 623 C.E. as a result of a raid against a Meccan caravan and subsequent Meccan punitive expedition to engage and chastise the Muslims in the vicinity of the Badr well. The Muslims defeated the larger Meccan force, killing dozens and capturing scores of hostages. This action marks the turning point in the rise of the Prophet Mohammed. Emboldened by this victory Mohammed subsequently moved against his enemies in a series of raids, resulting in the neutralization of Jewish tribes and the assassination of key opposition leaders that endangered the Islamic movement.

15. As expressed in FMI 3–07.22, 2004.

16. See O’Neill, 1990.

17. See Strange and Iron, 2004.

18. Fallujah residents are the descendents of seven tribes: the al–Jmailat, Albu Alwan, Albu Muhammad, Albu Kalb, Albu Nimir, and the Zawbaa.

19. The focus of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq has been mainly on ex–Ba’athists, foreign fighters, and radical Islamists in Fallujah, all the while disregarding the tribal aspect of the violence. While this fits Western concepts of revolutionary warfare and avails coalition forces with tactics, techniques, and procedures to fight a counterinsurgency campaign, it offers little in terms of understanding tribal culture, the motivations of many tribal elements to fight, and the societal means at their disposal.

20. On 28 April 2003, a demonstration calling for the U.S. military to leave Fallujah turned violent. According to the U.S. military, the soldiers returned precision fires on gunmen in the crowd who were shooting at them, killing seventeen people, and wounding more than seventy. Within six weeks of the shooting, Fallujah had become a major resistance center against the coalition. On 31 March 2004, four American security contractors were ambushed and killed by insurgents. Townspeople mutilated the bodies of two of the men, dragged them through the streets, suspended them from a bridge, and burned them while the crowd danced and cheered. The resulting coalition military operation to restore order to the volatile city was perceived by residents as a punitive expedition and a disproportionate response to the initial confrontation, resulting in what can only be described in tribal terms as a permanent blood feud.

21. The Hayea Olama’a al–Muslimeyn is a council of Sunni clerics that controls the distribution of patronage, issues specific targeting permissions, and administers an ad hoc court system rendering judgments as to culpability in assisting the occupation. The Hayea Olama’a al–Muslimeyn is assessed as not only influencing the majority of Sunni Imams in the Sunni Triangle but also approximately 75 percent of non–active potential tribal fighters and approximately 15–20 percent of active local fighters. Representatives of the Hayea Olama’a al–Muslimeyn are located in major urban areas north of Baghdad. See Scholl (2004).

22. The term Salafi has come to describe various sects which include the Saudi–based Whahhabis that seek to purify modern Islam and to marginalize classical and much medieval Islamic jurisprudence. Salafis view the first three generations of Muslims, who are the Prophet Mohammed’s Companions, and the two generations after them as the perfect example of how Islam should be lived and practiced. These first three generations are often referred to as the pious generations.

23. This site has been on the Internet since April 2003 and advertises its efforts as supporting the resistance.

24. It is the author’s contention that many deaths of innocent Iraqis resulting from indiscriminate terror attacks are handled through the negotiation of restitution. When a tribe is unable to negotiate directly with the perpetrators, it will hold those providing sanctuary or protection responsible for their actions. The fact that inter–tribal negotiations are on–going has tremendous influence on predicting societal "tipping points" — that is, to determine how long Iraqis are willing to endure the on–going insurgency and its cost in human suffering.

25. Yusifiya and Mahmudiyah are located in the north Babil province. The north Babil province is the location of a number of Salafi tribes supporting the insurrection in Fallujah. See Shia tribal leaders threaten pro-insurgency tribes, by Marek in Iraqi–American War on Sun October 31, 2004 at 01:41:41 PM PDT at

26. Latifiyah is located approximately 25 kilometers south of Baghdad and is home to a number of Sunni insurgents. The city has also been identified as a possible area of operation for members of Abu Musab al–Zarqawi’s Al–Tawhid Wal Jihad terror group.

27. See "Iraq’s Tribes Issue an Ultimatum to Al–Fallujah," posted 4 July 2004, at

28. The term physical infrastructure refers to safe houses, administration and training, rest, weapon and ammunition storage areas.



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Editorial history

Paper received 20 February 2005; revised 3 March 2005; accepted 5 March 2005.

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The Iraq insurgency: Anatomy of a tribal rebellion by William S. McCallister
First Monday, Volume 10, Number 3 - 7 March 2005

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