The Political Dance in Iraq's South

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 19, 2009

BAGHDAD -- The 340-mile road from Baghdad to Basra can be austere. Flat desert gives way to dunes swept by man and nature, then oases of grudgingly resilient date palms. Clumps of silt border dredged canals, each one like a child's notion of a sand castle. Huts of mud and brick crumble along a rusted railroad, more artifact than instrument.

But a paradox, as complicated as the landscape is monotonous, hangs over the people of southern Iraq, wearied as they are by tyranny, war and corruption.

They are realizing that democracy, at least as it coalesces here, has its limits.

Iraq's provincial elections this month promise to redefine the constellation of power in a country in transition, contested by thousands of candidates on hundreds of lists, some represented by a single person. But six years of war, often pivoting on the pragmatic choices of U.S. soldiers and diplomats, have empowered sometimes unlikely forces -- Sunni tribes, former insurgents and religious Shiite parties -- in ways that will indelibly shape the kind of political system the United States leaves behind.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the south, the soul of Iraq's Shiite majority.

Power and patronage -- the kind of favoritism that guarantees jobs in the police and army and delivers largess to pilgrims and tribes -- give a decisive edge to Shiite Islamic parties in the balloting set for Jan. 31, cementing power they have enjoyed in the region since they inherited Saddam Hussein's rule in 2003, with American and British help. They seem certain to retain that power, even as a river of discontent as long as the Euphrates flows through the south, which is rife with complaints that no one -- not the religious parties, and certainly not the weak secular forces or technocrats on the outside looking in -- offers the representation that many people seek.

"I don't have any more faith in the religious parties," said Abu Moneim Tamimi, a manual laborer in the port city of Basra. "They haven't presented us anything we can grasp."

He concedes, though, that those Islamic parties seem assured of dominating southern Iraq for years to come, deciding issues crucial to the country's future: the power of the government in Baghdad, the independence of the provinces, the influence of Iran and the question of whether the south, blessed by natural resources and plagued by factional conflict, can realize its ambition.

"There's no competition," boasted Khalid al-Jashani, the candidate of a religious party, as he sat in an office piled with campaign posters. "Here, we have no competition."

Najaf: Path to Power

Abdul Hussein Abtan is the leading candidate on Jashani's list, a nominal coalition whose real power is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite political party that runs four of the south's nine provinces. A slight man with a trimmed beard and checkered past -- in addition to serving as deputy governor, he ran the Badr Organization here, the Supreme Council's former militia -- he predicts that his list will win at least a plurality in every southern province.

"I am confident," he said. "It's true, I'm confident."

Abtan paused in a moment of modesty, false or otherwise. "God willing," he added.

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