Iraq's South Rises Again

Iraq’s industrial heartland lies in its southern marshes. Can it survive regional and internal threats, and lead the country forward?

With some exceptions, most Iraq news these days is tucked away in the middle of your daily paper. The postscript to these stories may add that the situation has gone from bad to worse since the U.S. withdrawal. Remember “the surge,” anyone?

Maliki has managed to co opt the few and isolate the many, while north to south Sunnis and Shias protest over any number of issues. If the protesters were united that might be positive but mostly they are not, and Al Qaeda is thriving. The news seems so grim that Americans might just want to move on and forget it altogether.

Indirectly, Iraq still looms large in the news, as it struggles to escape the Syrian conflict and push forward its energy boom, it may well be the most strategically important country in the Middle East, as Gen. James Jones recently remarked. The EU are waking up to this, but it has taken a ferocious alliance of Syrian and Iraqi Al Qaeda fighters to spur the United States into action.

The reasons for this belated interest are many, from Maliki’s autocratic posturing to Obama’s disinterest with “Bush’s war.” As Obama left a once ambitious State Department mission to flounder in the U.S. embassy, who in Washington really cared? Enjoying a lull in violence and a surge in nationalism, Iraq had sent the United States packing, while Obama felt that the mission was as good as accomplished. Pacific pivots and the Afghan surge beckoned.

Crucially, recent news has consistently portrayed Iraq as falling to pieces “like a cheap suit,”as General Anthony Zinni famously predicted. The violence is all too real of course, but the bigger picture is far more nuanced, even as the gargantuan U.S. embassy continues to shrink in staff numbers. Perversely, just as the Office for Security Cooperation-Iraq looked set to wind down, 2013 saw Kerry back in Baghdad and joking with Maliki.

Talk of revitalising a once tired looking Strategic Framework Agreement has become reality, and there is good reason. Maliki’s credibility is reeling from the increased violence, while Amb. Zebari was at pains to sell Iraq’s plight on a recent trip to Washington. This time, renewed relations seem mutually desired, a very different picture from two years ago. Quiet diplomacy on issues such as Iraq’s Chapter 7 obligations, oil revenue sharing and the Syrian war has been gaining momentum.

This is important, because 200 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq’s four “marsh governorates” still enjoy an impressive swelling of foreign investment that has proven largely resilient to Al Qaeda led violence further north. Is the stability of the southern governorates Iraq’s last hope? Quite possibly, and this is where the West will have to tread carefully. Events in Syria could already have repercussions as far south as Basra, where a local MP Jawad al Bazuni recently remarked how “the U.S. was supporting Al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq.”

While nonsensical, this is not an uncommon view among Iraq’s Shia, and calls into question America’s ability to strategically communicate its support for the Iraqi people. Meanwhile, many Sunnis feel abandoned by the United States, left to the mercy of both Al Qaeda and an autocrat in Baghdad. These views won’t change easily. But revitalised U.S.-Iraqi security cooperation aims to refine Iraqi counterterror capability and stem the terror attacks that are radicalizing young Shias.