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NEAR AMARA, Iraq (Reuters) - On the eve of an election set to chart Iraq's future, this impoverished corner of the country remains firmly rooted in the past, a den of feuding tribes British forces have struggled to comprehend.
Shi'ite Muslim candidates are expected to win strong support from the voters of Maysan in Thursday's poll, but whatever the outcome it's unlikely quickly to improve life in Iraq's poorest province, where tribal loyalties trump party politics.
"The Ottoman empire never sorted out Maysan province," said Lieutenant Colonel Ben Edwards, commander of a British garrison responsible for Amara and other towns and cities in Maysan.
"We (the British empire) didn't when we were here in the 1920s. The government before Saddam didn't and neither did Saddam Hussein."
As an example of the murky world of Maysan, a region near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where the ancient marshlands were notorious under Saddam as a hideout for thieves and vagabonds, just look at events two weeks ago.
A local tribal leader, who was a candidate on an election list headed by Iraq's first post-Saddam prime minister, Iyad Allawi, was shot dead in his car in the village of Kumayt.
The al-Daraji clan to which the tribal leader belonged were enraged, and threatened to disrupt the election.
While it's possible the Daraji clan member was killed for political reasons -- he was running on a secular slate that is challenging the more popular Islamist Shi'ite Muslim alliance -- no one in the village would say it outright.
But tribal violence threatened to overshadow the poll.
Eventually, however, after intervention from the local police chief and after British forces sent a lieutenant and 19 men to restore the peace, a deal was struck to avoid disruption to the election.
While murky, the episode is indicative of the complexities of Iraq's political and social landscape, complexities that have only deepened in the nearly three years since U.S. and British troops invaded to overthrow Saddam.
While leaders in Baghdad talk about relations with the United States, the need to build up security forces and to invest in the moribund economy, the citizens of Maysan, many of them descendants of the Marsh Arabs, have other issues at hand.
At the same time, they are a voting bloc, and political parties are intent on winning the support of the predominantly Shi'ite Muslim region, however poorly informed voters may be.
On the streets of the province's towns, posters advertising the 555 -- the number designating the Islamist Shi'ite alliance that won the last election in January -- are everywhere.
Most include the face of Moqtada al-Sadr, an aggressive Shi'ite cleric in his early 30s and a staunch nationalist who has been an outspoken critic of foreign troops. Sadr's followers led two anti-American rebellions last year.
It's no surprise that Sadr is popular in Maysan. His nationalist, firebrand style is popular among poor, urban Shi'ites and increasingly among rural ones, too.
British troops are wary of Sadr and his militia, which they suspect of being behind several roadside bombs that have killed a dozen British troops in recent months. They see a rise in Sadr support in Maysan as a potential security threat.
So as a counterbalance, the British look to tribal sheikhs, whose influence goes deep into society, hoping that they can draw off some of Sadr's support. That in turn opens the way for a return of tribal feuding.
"When this is over," said British commander Edwards, "I'm afraid this will still be a place where people resolve their differences through violence."
(Additional reporting by Mussab al-Khairalla in Baghdad)
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