"Is southern Iraq only hell with flies?"

| Tue Oct. 25, 2005 7:55 PM EDT

The British Prospect this month has an interesting article by a former deputy governor of two southern Shiite provinces in Iraq, Rory Stewart. Here's his description of the new Iraq—and for context, these are the most stable bits of the country:

Despite their intolerance and violent methods, the new politicians are often young technocrats with a confident and articulate programme of anti-corruption and economic development. Their religious beliefs can be an important moderating influence in Shia society. So too are wider mechanisms of social control, confidence and moral concern. Thousands of Shia have been killed by Sunni terrorists in Iraq but the Shia community has generally refused to retaliate. Restraint has been shown not only by Sistani but also by political leaders at a district level. The leaders I met on my last visit had stopped complaining that they were the victims of a Zionist plot and seemed realistic, tolerant and humorous about progress. They had begun to find the capacity to co-operate with each other and lay the foundations for government and security.

The new order in southern Iraq is, in short, hard to define. It is an improvement on the political exclusion and sadistic inhumanity of Saddam and has a great deal to teach the Sunni areas about prosperity, security and politics. But it is also reactionary, violent, intolerant towards women and religious minorities and uncooperative with the coalition. The new leaders have dark histories and dubious allies; they enforce a narrow social code and ignore the rural areas.

Southern Iraq is a democracy but we should not assume that this or any of the other terms which we deploy frequently about Iraq—insurgency, civil society, civil war, police force or even political party— mean what they do in Britain. There have been elections, but the government is not responsive to or respectful of human rights. In many ways it resembles Iran, but it is not governed by clerics. Its militias are not infiltrators, they are an integral element of the elected parties. The new government is oppressive, but has a popular mandate; it is supported by illegal militias, but it has improved security.It's a good piece all around, not much of a screed either way. From all accounts, meanwhile, the southern provinces are strongly anti-occupation (see also this poll)—they're grateful that the U.S. toppled Saddam's regime, but not much else—and would happily prefer to see American troops leave if not for concerns that the occupation is the only thing deterring a full-blown civil war in Iraq.