The final stages for an assault on Moqtada al-Sadr's militia in the holy city of Najaf are now in place.
Thursday, tanks sealed off all approaches to Najaf's Old City, while 2,000 US marines and 1,800 Iraqi forces closed in. US forces stormed Mr. Sadr's home, but he wasn't there. It's just a matter of time, US military officials say, before the radical cleric and his militia are expelled from one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, the Shrine of Imam Ali.
For Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, this is a crucial test of the strength of his government, barely a month and a half old, and a first chance to extend government authority over a key part of Iraq, most of which remains under the control of armed militias and insurgents.
"The attack in Najaf is a strategic one, with limited US costs, against Sadr's ragtag militia that doesn't enjoy local support," says Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "Sadr is a symptom of a security vacuum in Iraq. The US military does not have enough forces on the ground to take control of the country. Even if you defeat Sadr, that still leaves a majority of the population living under the control of militias and insurgents."
What's at stake is not just the control of Najaf, but perhaps Iraq's territorial integrity. Key territories in Iraq are controlled by armed groups opposed to central government control from Baghdad. Kurdish militias in the north are vying for control of the crucial oil field town of Kirkuk; Sunni insurgents, many of them loyal to Saddam Hussein, control much of the center and the Northwest, including the transit link to Jordan. And now, as Shiite militias in the south and Baghdad turn to armed confrontation,
Prime Minister Allawi, a Shiite, has chosen to exert power where it seems most likely the government will prevail. In Shiite Najaf, a religious tourist and university city where many residents support the interim government, defeating Sadr would be a small but significant step toward preserving the Iraqi nation-state.
In an Aug. 10 speech, Allawi promised Iraqis to "teach these criminal outlaws the lesson they deserve."
"Your government has decided to hit back with an iron fist all these desperate criminals that are attempting to hinder the bright future of the people of Iraq," he said.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari echoed the tough language Thursday in a press conference with reporters. "This is one of the first security challenges that face our new government. We need to be decisive, we need to be strong, we need to impose the rule of law and order throughout the country," he told reporters.
As fighting in Najaf seemed to approach a climax, there were other battles raging across the southern portions of Iraq as well, claiming 165 lives over 24 hours. In the southern city of Kut Wednesday, wire services reported that Iraqi and coalition forces battled militants loyal to Sadr who attacked police stations, the city hall, and Iraqi National Guard barracks. In what was the fiercest battle there in months, 72 people were reported killed and more than 100 wounded. Many, if not most, of these casualties are civilians, something that could turn sentiment against the Iraqi government and its US backers.
On Tuesday, the deputy governors of Basra, Dhiqar, and Maysun announced their intention to secede from Iraqi central government control, mimicking similar autonomy arrangements enjoyed by Kurdish militias, and the Sunni triangle insurgents in the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Samarra.
But it is Najaf that has become the main focus of the Iraqi government, and of US forces. Tanks have sealed off the old city, and Iraqi police have arrested hundreds of men attempting to join the estimated 1,000 followers of Sadr, who are planning a last stand around the shrine and in a nearby cemetery known as the Valley of Peace.
Deferring to requests by the Iraqi government, the US Marines appeared to be preparing Iraqi troops for a siege of - or final assault on - the shrine itself to avoid inflaming Shiite feelings about US troop presence inside the shrine.
While some experts say that religious passions will be inflamed if Sadr is killed and if the shrine comes under military attack, others say that the larger problem is that Allawi has inherited a government whose major decisions continue to be made by US military commanders, and without sufficient resources to extend its own authority, legitimacy, and control.
"Since the end of the occupation, US forces have in significant measure withdrawn to barracks and reduced their tempo of operations," says Tarak Barkawi, a strategic expert at the Center for International Studies at the University of Cambridge.
"This is good in the sense of reducing their highly unpopular visibility; it is bad in that the lid is off of the insurgents or local militias, and poorly prepared Iraqi forces are left holding the ring. When they can't do so, they must call on US forces, producing further casualties and further unpopularity. This strikes me as a downward spiral."
Meanwhile in the crucial oil-port city of Basra, where 90 percent of the country's oil flows out to global markets, Sadr's Mahdi Army controls the center of the city. They took the city after British troops stopped patrolling and retreated into their bases following heavy fighting on Tuesday. The fighting left one British soldier dead and many injured. Since then the Mahdi Army have taken over the streets. The Iraqi police still there are working hand-in-hand with the rebels.
Thursday, outside the Mahdi Army's main political office in the center of Basra, groups of bearded militiamen casually wandered the streets carrying machine guns and RPGs while in the building's forecourt two policemen sat calmly smoking atop a police car.
Inside the Mahdi Army's main political office, Sadr's leading commander in the south, Sheikh Saad al-Basri, reveled in the success of a public demonstration in support of Sadr Thursday morning, which drew thousands into Basra's streets.
"We made this demonstration to show that we are not only interested in fighting but that we would prefer to settle our differences peacefully," says Mr. Basri, who is now in de facto control of Iraq's second largest city.
Playing up to a group of Iraqi journalists and a visiting Iranian television crew, Basri also denied that his militants were responsible for the recent disruption to Iraq's vital oil exports from Basra, which have cut oil exports by around half.
"Some people who sympathize with us made those threats against the pipelines," says Basri. "However we condemn those who would attack Iraq's oil."
Yet despite these statesman-like assurances, Al Basri leaves no doubt that he and his men are more than ready to fight if necessary.
"If peaceful demonstrations do not work we will take the path of Jihad in defense of our country," he says, a steady stream of heavily armed guerrillas file in and out of his office to signal their respect and loyalty by tenderly kissing his hand.
• James Brandon contributed to this report from Basra.