The fragile truce between fighters loyal to the militant Shiite preacher Moqtada al-Sadr and US forces decisively broke down Thursday with fierce fighting throughout the day in the key Shiite shrine city of Najaf.
Much of the country's Shiite south veered closer to a full-fledged uprising like the one Sadr's men engaged in last April when they briefly held at least six southern cities and engaged in battles that left about 300 insurgents and dozens of US forces dead.
The April fighting followed an aborted attempt to arrest Sadr, and Thursday the Mahdi Army prepared for battles in Sadr City, Basra, and Amara, saying they expected another US effort to arrest him to be imminent.
The new bloodshed comes after a week of rising tension in which a key Sadr aide was arrested and the US military, with the full backing of the interim government, seemed to be moving toward seeking to disarm or crush Sadr's organization. Prime Minister Ayad Allawi appears to back the latest US effort to go after Sadr, who has rebuffed efforts to convince him to disarm and back the interim regime.
"We have taken the necessary decisions to confront these challenges regardless of the price,'' interim Interior Minister Falah Naguib told a press conference Thursday afternoon. "The situation is under control and we are ready for any challenge."
While the US has the firepower to defeat Sadr's men on the field of battle, as of midafternoon Thursday, few Iraqi forces or US marines were seen on the streets of the city, where shops were shuttered and most residents feared the bloodshed would worsen. The cost of victory could prove intolerably high in Najaf, home to the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam.
During Sadr's bloody uprising in April throughout the Shiite south, the US made the tactical decision to avoid an all-out assault on Najaf, particularly because damage to the shrine could drive millions of Iraqi Shiites to Sadr's side. That decision also left Sadr's men in charge of the city.
Now, US commanders and their Iraqi allies are mulling the costs of that decision, and Mahdi Army members say it appears the Americans are committed to driving them from the city. Security in the area is under the control of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which took command of the area on July 31.
"Let anti-Iraqi forces understand the clear message that precise, lethal firepower will be brought to bear upon them when they choose to stand and fight,'' the 11th MEU said in a statement on the latest hostilities. While Sadr's men see themselves as patriots fighting an occupation, the US and the interim government now often refer to insurgents as "anti-Iraqi forces."
There were conflicting accounts as to what started this latest round of fighting. The Marines said they were asked to intervene at about 3 a.m. Thursday, after a Mahdi Army assault with mortars, RPG's, and small arms on the main police station in the center of the city, something that Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi confirmed in an interview with Al Jazeera. He warned the Mahdi Army to leave the city immediately.
The Mahdi Army seized more than a dozen Najaf police officers this week, at least partially in response to the arrest of Sheikh Mithal al-Hasnawi by US marines in the neighboring city of Karbala. But Sadr's men have denied claims they started the fighting.
In Basra Thursday, at least two member of Sadr's militia were killed in a clash with British troops, AP reported.
T o be sure, Sadr is far from the only security challenge in Iraq, with insurgent activity remaining intense throughout the country. Events in Najaf followed fighting in the northern city of Mosul Wednesday between Sunni militants and Iraqi police that left 22 dead - eight of them insurgents - and dozens injured. Also Thursday, a suicide bomber working in concert with masked gunmen killed nine people outside a police station in Mahawil, about 50 miles south of Baghdad.
As of late Thursday afternoon in Najaf, small units of Sadr's militia moved about the city. A Monitor reporter witnessed them setting up firing positions for mortars inside the city, which drew return fire from US tanks and helicopters. In fighting near the city's cemetery, small-arms fire downed a helicopter transporting a wounded marine, the US military said, adding that no one was killed in the incident. So far, at least nine people have died, most Mahdi Army members but also at least two civilians.
Mahdi Army members said a minaret at the Shrine of Ali was damaged by US fire in Thursday's fighting. If true, this could inflame a broader uprising similar to the violence in April when Mahdi Army members briefly seized control of at least six towns in the south.
Overall, anger appears to be rising in some parts of the city. At the Hakim Hospital, the head of security asked the Monitor reporter to leave, saying he couldn't guarantee his security.
There are also signs of moves against Sadr elsewhere. On Wednesday night, US and Iraqi forces encircled Sadr City, according to Mahdi Army members, and many of the group's top commanders went into hiding, fearing arrest.
Tension has been steadily rising since a confrontation between Sadr's men and marines Tuesday. Marines accidentally strayed into the neighborhood near Sadr's Najaf home, which had been treated as a no-go zone by the previous US unit in the area. The 11th MEU said it was an honest mistake and denied Mahdi Army claims that they were seeking to arrest Sadr.
"Many leaders in al-Sadr's movement have been arrested by the occupation forces,'' Sadr spokesman Sheikh Abdel al-Darraji said in an Al Jazeera interview Tuesday. "So we say that there is US provocation, and this will explode the situation if the US leaders and US Army do not put an end to such incidents, which could backfire on them."
While Sadr appears to completely control Sadr City, the slum that was renamed in honor of Sadr's father, his position seems much more tenuous in Najaf, where many residents and merchants resent fighting that has cut deeply into religious tourism. Najaf resident Moqdad al-Taraji, speaking after a Mahdi Army member drifts away, says: "Three-quarters of the people in this neighborhood are against them. I think the Iraqi Army is doing a good job."