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Sadr reins in Shiite militiamen, sends mixed signals

Battles continued to rage Sunday between the radical cleric's Mahdi Army and Iraqi and US forces.

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The government, for its part, said it will press on with its operation in Basra, which it has been insisting is against "outlaws and criminals" and not the Sadrist movement. Maliki has said he was "shocked" at the reaction of Sadr's partisans, who have dubbed him a "new dictator" and called for his ouster. While the Minister of Defense Abdul-Qader al-Obaidi said there was a "miscalculation" regarding the nature of the fight.

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Intensifying Shiite rivalry

Since the US invasion in 2003, Basra, home to Iraq's largest oil fields, has become mired in a web of criminality, smuggling, and cronyism. Iraq's rival Shiite parties are all vying for power in the city, and neighboring Iran continues to grow in power there.

Sadr and his militia – the group that fought British forces the most until their retreat from the city center in September – appear to feel their perceived sacrifice has earned them the right to be a mover and shaker.

And indeed during a visit to Basra last summer, most officials and residents agreed they were the most formidable power there with streets and squares renamed after so-called martyrs of the Mahdi Army attesting to this.

The Sadrists' rise in Basra certainly does not sit well with Hakim's Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the party's armed wing, the Badr Organization. ISCI has been working hard both in the halls of power in Baghdad and at the grass-roots level in the provinces to rally support for a nine-province Shiite region in the south with Basra being its economic backbone.

In his interview with Al Jazeera Saturday, Sadr said he was against federalism until the decision was debated after US forces left Iraq. He also implied that ISCI was seeking to foment trouble to delay provincial elections, which are tentatively scheduled for October.

"There are parties in the government that will try their best to prevent elections because this is contrary to their interest and this is why they started trouble in the south," Sadr said.

There have indeed been bitter clashes between government forces, mainly beholden to Badr, and the Mahdi Army in the southern cities of Diwaniyah and Karbala last fall that have tipped the scale there in Badr's favor.

Jalaleddin al-Saghir, a member of parliament and top ISCI official, denies his party is attempting to weaken Sadr's influence ahead of elections. Instead, he claims, the government operation in Basra was aimed at apprehending some 200 wanted criminals and not intended as an assault on the Mahdi Army.

He confirmed that his party "would not compromise" on its federalist project, but said this would be accomplished purely according to the Constitution and political process. He says, however, that no elections will take place in October because no election law will be passed before this summer.

"But the Sadrists, with their reaction to this operation, have made a huge mistake," he says.

The Iranian connection

The US accuses Iran of funding, training, and equipping an elite faction of the Mahdi Army known as the special groups it says are responsible for some of the deadliest attacks against US troops in Iraq. One of the main gateways for Iranian activities is Basra, according to the US military.

"There is no question [that] the government of Iran has significant influence in Basra and in southeastern Iraq in general," says Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner.