As if Iraq didn’t have enough to worry about, now come reports of its once-secured southern regions rumbling with unrest.  From Reuters:

Worsening clashes among tribes and a political void is threatening security at oil installations in Iraq’s main southern oil producing region, officials and security sources said.

Iraq has concentrated security forces in the north and west of the OPEC oil producer in the biggest campaign since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to retake territory lost to the Sunni extremist group Islamic State in 2014.

Iraq has long faced a tough geopolitical challenge, holding together a geopolitically artificial geographic core while being pulled apart by forces anchored to its north, south, and east.  Left entirely alone, power in Mesopotamia pools to cities with the best access to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and hence to the Persian Gulf.  But Mesopotamia has not been alone since the rise of the Hittites in Anatolia and the Medes in Persia around the first millennium BCE.   Top that off with the coming of Islam from Arabia and power in Mesopotamia is pulled in three directions.

Its western Anbar province gravitates towards Sunni Arabia; its northern Kurdish provinces slides towards Kurdish Anatolia; its southern Shi’a Arabs pull towards Shi’a Iran.  This makes governing Iraq an exceptionally difficult job.

Emblematic of this is Baghdad itself, a new city by Mesopotamian standards.  Like America’s Washington D.C., it was constructed as a political solution to intractable geopolitical problems.  When built in the 8th century, Baghdad was meant to anchor a power base for the overextended Abbasid caliphate, which by then stretched from North Africa to Central Asia.  There were a litany of other places to choose from – Mecca in Arabia, Damascus in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt, or even nearby Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia.  But to start over in Baghdad was to steer clear of the corrupting influences of vested elites elsewhere.  Alas, it did not save the Abbasid caliphate, who under relentless assault, stagnation, and corruption, shriveled and fell away until it was nothing more than a symbol.

Modern Iraq has the same pulls and challenges as the Abbasids.  Yet extra-regional forces like Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have long conspired to keep Iraq together, in spite of the nearby geopolitical gravity that might pull it apart.  Under that influence, increasingly ambitious Iraqi elites have sought to build a new powerbase in Mesopotamia.

Pulled in three directions.

Saddam hoped to overcome divisions between Sunni and Shi’a Arab by using Ba’athism’s secular pan-Arabism, only to founder during the Gulf War and be forced to rely ever more on his increasingly religious Sunnis as a sectarian base.  The Americans foolishly believed a democracy would quickly build a new enlightened Iraqi core, only to discover that tribal and sectarian score settling was accomplished by bullets and not ballots.  Now, in the post-occupation era, the government of Haider al-Abadi is crawling towards a new Iraqi nationalism.

The new Iraq: the oil spot of democracy

In 2005-06, the counterinsurgency talk in Iraq shifted to the “oil spot” strategy – posting small groups of troops throughout insecure cities, then allowing security to “spread” like oil slick across the country.

It didn’t work.  Leaving regions to the insurgents backfired, allowing al-Qaeda in Iraq bases to launch their spectacular sectarian civil war of 2006-07.

Now Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is being forced to try the same thing politically, governing “spots” of Iraq democratically and professionally while allowing swathes of other regions to fall under different factions. That’s what’s happening in southern Iraq: while the professional troops are north defeating the existential threat of the Islamic State, the militias and their accompanying not-very-democratic political parties are taking advantage to grab power.

After the Americans withdrew in 2011, the Iraqi government under Nouri al-Maliki was on shaky but seemingly stabilizing ground.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been mostly defeated; Iranian influence was content to manipulate the country’s fledgling democracy rather than overthrow it; Sunni Arabs concluded that political participation was their best bet for security; and even the Kurds decided that at least nominal cooperation with Baghdad was better than dashing for independence.  A delicate balance of a small cadre of Iraqi democrats swam in a sea of stilled tribes, sects, and ethnicities.  Nouri al-Maliki was not much of a democrat; for him, the Shi’a demography was destiny, and he sought to hollow out the state with his own supporters.  Yet even he did not dare risk a full overthrow of the government the Americans had installed.

This equilibrium lasted until the summer of 2014.  After the defeat at Mosul in June 2014, the Iraqi armed forces nearly dissolved, and with it went al-Maliki’s authority.  In the vacuum emerged the Kurds as a clearly independent military force in the north, while Shi’a militias became the backbone of what remained of the Baghdad-led state.  That was not enough to guarantee the state, and so the Iraqis had to beg for the return of their former occupiers to return to the battlefield.  But the Americans demanded Maliki’s head, he who had undermined Iraqi democracy so thoroughly.

Reluctantly, al-Maliki stepped aside and allowed Abadi to take power.  Abadi was one of those few true democrats, which pleased the Americans.  He was largely non-sectarian, which pleased the Sunni tribes joining the crusade against IS.  But he was also nominally Shi’a, which stilled the Shi’a groups.  Only the Kurds lacked a box to tick with him, tellingly for the future.

To restore the state’s authority, Abadi was forced to call upon the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), militias who mostly formed during the American occupation, to stiffen the line and give the army the manpower it needed to push the Islamic State back.  While it took the Americans just days to take Mosul in 2003 from a larger and better organized Iraqi army, the Iraqi government, fighting on its own turf, had to slog up the Tigris for nearly two years.

But the strategy ended the existential threat of IS: the last pockets of the caliphate are being swept away and shoved into the desert.  The victory at Mosul restored confidence in the Baghdad-led government to govern its Arabs.  Abadi has largely observed procedure and protocol of democracy, which combined with military success has stiffened the democratic tradition in Iraq.

If the oil spot of democracy used to be only in the Green Zone of Baghdad, today it follows those professional troops who are finishing off IS.  That is, as far as Iraq goes, progress.

Yet the reliance on PMUs bodes poorly for the future.  The PMUs come with sectarian and political baggage and few of them espouse democracy. Many hope for some kind of theocracy to emerge.  Key among them is Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric whose militia fought running battles with the U.S. in 2004.  A political powerbroker in his own right, Sadr’s commitment to democracy seems to go only as far as it serves his interests.

Moqtada al-Sadr, not wholly convinced by Iraqi democracy.

Moreover, the unrest in the Shi’a south is proof enough that the oil spot of democracy hasn’t spread far.  Abadi’s slow burn approach to democracy is reasonable: only after repeated elections, with multiple peaceful transfers of power, will Iraqi democracy be on a strong enough footing to allow it to displace the country’s other geopolitical poles in its sects and ethnicities.  Yet democracy is hard to build and easy to kill; the upcoming Kurdish referendum could spur an emergency and pit Iraqi Arab vs. Iraqi Kurd.  Having finally gotten IS under control, it seems unlikely Baghdad will let Kurdistan go quietly.

Yet once the democratic tradition is established, it’s also equally difficult to displace: even Lebanon, with its dysfunction, abhors the notion of removing its democratic institutions.  Abadi is right to cling to democracy as the only thing that can establish an Iraqi core that will survive the 21st century.  He’ll need luck, determination, and most importantly, a good successor if the strategy is to work.