BAGHDAD—At the meeting of the Saidiyah neighborhood council, created to foster reconciliation in the area devastated by months of sectarian bloodshed, council member Hussein al-Qaesi blurted out:

“The people arrested in the killing of my brother and the shooting of Abu Marwan [another council member]. I want the Iraqi and American security forces to reveal their real names and tribes. That way we can do a traditional settlement with their tribes.”

For the uninitiated—American officers who attended the meeting—al-Qaesi clarified:

“A traditional settlement is usually the life of the son or the brother,” he said. “We understand that there will be a trial, too, but we need to solve this. This is a tribal community and we have to work on a tribal basis, too.”

Abu Marwan, whose formal name is Walid Khaled al-Bari, was shot in the face, stomach and right foot, and al-Qaesi’s brother was killed last week by two assailants in al-Bari’s real estate office. American troops arrested the assailants and three other people in a house in Saidiyah, where they also found vests fitted with explosives, the kind that suicide bombers use, and some ordnance.

Now the victims’ friends and relatives wanted revenge. An eye for an eye in the land of Hammurabi.

This was not the first time al-Qaesi and other members of the council have brought up tribal justice. In a private meeting earlier this week, they asked Captain Andrew Betson, whose Alpha Company of the 4-64 armor battalion of the Fourth Brigade, Third Infantry Division operates in Saidiyah, to extradite the prisoners, or at least let the council members “interrogate them” for 24 hours. Betson, who has transferred the detainees to U.S. military intelligence, said at the time that he could do neither.

Betson is taking the threat of tribal justice seriously. He said he will protect the tribal identity of the detainees from the council members, although if the names did become public, he said, “I hope their tribes just do a lot of talk and eat lamb together and it’s forgotten.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “He’s talking about killing sons and brothers.”

How do retaliatory killings figure into the concept of reconciliation, I asked Lieutenant Colonel Johnnie Johnson, the 4-64 commander, after the meeting was over. If every family whose member was killed during sectarian bloodshed that peaked in Iraq last year kills a family member from the killer’s tribe, peace will never come.

“We don’t condone that kind of stuff,” said Johnson. “We’re trying to work against it.”

But at the same time, he acknowledged that there is little American troops can do to put an end to tribal justice.

“They’ve been doing it that way for how many years? Thousands?” he said after the meeting was over. “I’m not sure we can change them, or that it’s our job to change them. The rule of law is what we strive to facilitate: the court system, the justice system. Someone tries to get revenge like that and gets caught—the rule of law applies to them.”

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Anna Badkhen

Anna Badkhen has covered wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Chechnya and Kashmir. She has reported extensively from Iraq since 2003. Her reporting has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The National, FRONTLINE/World, Truthdig, and Salon. Her book, "A War Reporter's Pantry," will be published in January 2011 by Free Press/Simon&Schuster. She lives in Massachusetts.