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.
The Supreme Council's biggest rival is a coalition built around Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Dawa party. Each has struggled to build its own identity. In the campaign, Dawa has tried to reach out to tribes, secular groups and onetime foes loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric who has fought the Americans, other Shiite factions and the Iraqi army. In so doing, Dawa has fashioned itself as political Islam's equivalent of a social democratic party, forgoing ideology for pragmatism and stressing nationalism over religion. In every conversation, Dawa officials emphasize the party's founding in Najaf in 1957, in contrast to the Supreme Council's creation abroad, in Iran in 1982.
Though the Supreme Council has matured, it still exudes the air of the clandestine organization it was in exile. While Sadr's men are often confident in a street-savvy way, and Dawa's are sometimes cerebral, even aloof, the Supreme Council's officials tend to look at any question with squinting suspicion. They still push an unabashedly Shiite message, even as Iraq haltingly recovers from sectarian war.
"With you, with you," the Supreme Council's posters declare, a play on an invocation uttered upon entering the shrines in Karbala, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites: "With you, with you, not with your enemy."
"You can't make voters cast ballots solely on the question of loyalty anymore," said Fayed al-Shammari, a candidate and leader of the Dawa party in Najaf.
Dawa officials overstate the ideological differences with their rivals. Both parties remain grounded in religion. But questions of power do separate them, especially the role of the central government, which increasingly bears the stamp of Dawa's Maliki.
The Supreme Council has long sought a federal region comprising the south's nine provinces, with autonomy akin to that achieved in the north by Iraq's Kurdish minority. The party argues that a powerful south would guard the Shiite community -- a majority in Iraq but long disenfranchised -- from the whims of a dictatorial regime in Baghdad. The Supreme Council has its own interests in mind, too: It is politically most powerful in the south. More authority for the provinces would preserve the party's own influence.
The Dawa party has resisted calls for federalism, calling it a de facto partition of Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines -- Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab and Kurd. Dawa says it does not oppose redrawing administrative lines, such as a gathering of three provinces around Basra. But it opposes any move to take power from Baghdad, a stand that has garnered it support from Sunnis and Shiites who are more nationalist than religious.
The governor of Basra, loyal to another Islamist party known as Fadhila, found a lack of enthusiasm even for his idea of an autonomous district for Basra. The Supreme Council itself has retreated from forcefully advocating the issue, at least during the campaign.
"We need to give more time to Iraqis to understand the positives of federalism before presenting it," said Ahmed Fatlawi, a Supreme Council candidate in Najaf.
That leaves the issue of Maliki himself, whose attempt to parlay his persona as a man of law and order into success for his Dawa party has emerged as a crucial question.
U.S. officials say polling shows support growing for Maliki in the south since he deployed the army last year against Shiite militias and gangs in Baghdad and Basra.
But in interviews, people often draw a distinction between Maliki and the Dawa party, making for an irony: Maliki's success has made him more of a national figure, less partisan in a way, frustrating the party's attempt to translate his popularity into its success. Since 2005, Dawa has controlled just one southern province, Karbala.
"We ourselves don't have any problem with Maliki," the Supreme Council's Jashani said, a little disingenuously. "But Maliki's not going to come and rule us in Najaf."
Maliki's remoteness from the race -- he spends most of his time in Baghdad -- offers a window, Jashani said, for the Supreme Council. In its Najaf office, meetings take place round-the-clock. The party runs dozens of newspapers and magazines, two national satellite TV channels and local channels in each southern province. It boasts five women's organizations, three student groups and more than 1,000 political offices across the south.
Its candidates carry around a 20-page stack of results from their most recent polling, conducted every 15 days. They insist it shows that 90 percent of seats in the south will go to the religious parties, even though turnout will be lower than in the last election.
Of those seats, they say, they are guaranteed to win four provinces outright -- Najaf, Babil, Qadisiyah and Dhi Qar -- and emerge as the single biggest bloc in the others.
"You'll remember this survey when you see the results," Fatlawi said.
Perhaps the only person in the south as confident as the Supreme Council is Mohammed Thaban al-Shibl: a generous host, occasional politician and, as leader of a tribe that he says comprises 70,000 families, a sought-after man.
"The majority of the parties are reaching out to us," he declared.
Shibl is old-school Iraq. He represents tribes that the British cultivated after World War I, that Hussein lavished with patronage, that Maliki has courted and that most parties deem a new and decisive factor in the elections.
For Shibl, as haughty as he is convincing, that is the way it should be. The tribes, often bridging the sectarian divide, reflect Iraq in their traditions, identity and history. Shibl said their leaders, the sheiks, have power "to break bones and mend them."
Shibl holds court at a half-century-old guesthouse in Hira, in the countryside beyond Najaf. It is built of reeds harvested from Iraq's marshes and bound into arches that he boasts are stronger than iron. Sitting against pillows piled on red carpets, he receives guests each day, many arriving opportunely for a sumptuous lunch, for which his clan regularly slaughters two sheep and dozens of chickens.
Since the campaign started, the Supreme Council has yet to visit his guesthouse. The party is the exception. In the past few weeks, a string of visitors -- Shammari from the Dawa party and his lieutenants, members of other lists, Sadr's representatives, independents -- have paid their respects, sitting near a fire built of mulberry branches.
"They keep calling me day after day," he complained.
A current of resentment runs through tribes such as Shibl's. They are often fiercely nationalist, casting a wary eye at religious parties that have muscled into their former preserve of patronage. Still bitter over the war with Iran in the 1980s, when many lost sons, the tribes are suspicious, too, of Iran's influence, in both the religious parties and the Shiite clerical establishment in Najaf, where Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, born in Iran, commands the greatest authority.
Sadr has enjoyed support among the tribes because of his Iraqi-born cleric father, Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999. More recently, Maliki has made headway by establishing tribal support councils that curry favor among the tribes -- including a $10,000-a-month stipend. Maliki's foes have cried foul, accusing him of reverting to Hussein's tactics in a grab for power.
Shibl says Maliki has won his support, at least for now.
But he added, turning more ambitious: "We're telling the religious parties, 'You've been in the government for a while. It's time to step aside and let us enter the picture.' "
Nasiriyah: reading the Street
The entrance of the Sadr office in Nasiriyah, which is led by a cleric, Fayyad al-Atwani, is emblazoned with a religious motto. "By God, you will not erase our memory," it declares.
Unlike elections in 2005, when Sadr's clerics joined the Supreme Council, Dawa and other parties in a Shiite coalition, the movement has declared a boycott this time, at least formally, even though it still controls the turbulent province of Maysan. It has chosen to support two lists of independents and technocrats, one called Integrity and Construction, the other the Trend of Free Independents.
"There is frustration in society over the failure of the parties to achieve a single ambition of the people," Atwani said. "It has begun to represent a danger to the faith."
The reticence of Sadr's clerics can be read many ways.
The movement remains powerful, but by most accounts, its influence has waned since Maliki dispatched the army against it in Basra and in its Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City. Some Sadrists have joined Ibrahim al-Jafari, a former prime minister who has long cultivated them. The movement's breathtakingly bloody role in sectarian reprisals left it with almost no support among Sunnis it once courted. In battles starting in 2004, it has lost thousands of its fighters, many buried in graves that spill across a cemetery in Najaf, adorned with plastic flowers, perfume and incense.
But since the fall of Hussein, Sadr's lieutenants have proved their skill at reading sentiments. As a popular movement, playing to the dispossessed, their survival rests on gauging the street. They remain confident that their supporters there will make them a potential partner in any coalition, be it with tribes or Maliki, who according to Salah al-Obaidi, a Sadr spokesman, reached out to them as recently as September.
Like Sadr, Sistani has disavowed any role in these elections, unlike in 2005, when his endorsement, carrying the force of law for devout Shiites, guaranteed both turnout and the success of the now-defunct Shiite coalition. Speaking in metaphors, Sistani's interlocutors draw an example of a hospital. In 2005, it was built, requiring his help. But care is now in the hands of doctors, and no one needs Sistani himself to perform surgery.
Sadr's men, a rougher lot, are more literal.
"People will go to the polls for revenge against this or that party," Obaidi insisted.
Basra: a flow of complaints
When Abu Ali Tamimi, a voter in Basra, talks about the religious parties, he often utters the word "masalih." It means interests, the parties working only for themselves.
"Look at Basra! Look!" Tamimi shouted, as he stood with Abu Moneim Tamimi and other cousins on a street in Iraq's southernmost city and once one of its most picturesque.
He pointed to food scraps, candy wrappers, cans, bottles and bags washed up against the curb, suffused with flies. The stench of sewage drifted down the road, where graffiti scrawled on a wall declared, "It is absolutely forbidden to throw trash here."
"Basra is rich, but look at the street. Does that look rich?" he asked, as his cousins nodded. "I'm speaking honestly. The street tells its own story."
Their complaints poured forth. Municipal water was fit only for washing hands, "and even then, they're not clean," one cousin said. Electricity lasted no more than three hours at a time. Sewage gathered in puddles.
Every party but the Supreme Council acknowledges the frustration in places such as Basra, and nearly all of them have overhauled their electoral lists, bringing in new candidates. Jokes abound about the Supreme Council's symbol, the candle -- that it will have to serve as a source of light in a country without electricity.
Heard often is the idea that people will simply not vote.
Independents and secular forces bemoan their lack of resources and organization. Only Ayad Allawi, another former prime minister, seems poised to win a share of the vote. Others bitterly trade gossip about the patronage employed by the Islamic parties -- the jobs they secure in the police and army for their followers, the cars they give tribal leaders, even the influence they command in the commissions overseeing the elections.
On the street corner, Tamimi and his cousins acknowledged the parties were probably here to stay.
"We'd like to vote for someone who doesn't have to put blast walls around his house," Tamimi said. Only independent candidates don't, he added -- technocrats and secular candidates, whom he termed intellectuals. Those people should rule, he insisted.
Jaafar Abdullah, a cousin, shook his head, dismissing what he deemed naivete.
"But the independents don't have their own gangs behind them that can kill."