The southern port city where most of Iraq's oil exports flow, Basra has been sliding toward lawlessness for more than a year, residents and local officials say, seemingly without much notice from Iraqi and US forces.
With their attention focused on a raging Sunni Arab-led insurgency fighting an ideological war, murder and corruption in the largely Shiite city appeared a low priority. But in the past month, rival Shiite militias seeking power and control over oil smuggling have put the city on the verge of open warfare.
Now, Basra is the only city in Iraq under emergency rule, evidence of how far the city has careened off course. Locals say death squads openly patrol the streets and a police official reached by phone reports that at least 400 assassinations in the past two months.
Residents describe a political climate that is a cross between Al Capone's Chicago and Medici Florence. Politicians, corrupt policemen, and gangs are all vying with one another to determine who will come out on top. Some Shiite politicians there - as well as US and British officers - also allege that some of the groups are being provided money and arms by Iran, whose border is just 10 miles away.
While death squads have been trolling the city for over a year, the pace of the killing has picked up, and the target lists appear to have expanded, residents say.
"It made more sense when it started out. They were killing Baathists and officers from Saddam's army,'' says Ghazi, a long-haul trucker who makes regular trips to Basra, and asked that his full named not be used. "Now they kill Shiites, Sunnis, tribal leaders, doctors, engineers - just about anyone who opposes them politically."
The Shiite militias that Ghazi is referring to include the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, militias loyal to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Fadillah parties, and local tribes involved in protection rackets and smuggling, according to US officials and Basra residents.
The violence in Iraq's vital port city - which could threaten oil exports and with it most of the government's revenue - led Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to declare a state of emergency in Basra Wednesday.
"Security is first, security is second, security is third,'' Mr. Maliki said in a meeting with Basra leaders that was broadcast live. Security forces "should not be subjected to harassment or pressure from political forces. These things are absolutely impermissible. The security officer, the soldier, and the policeman must not be afraid or confused because of political interference."
His last comment drew applause from his audience, who are well aware that loyalists of political party militias are seeded through Basra's police force, as they have been in many other parts of the country.
Basra's governor, Mohammed al-Waili from the Fadillah Party, has been feuding for months with elements of his own police force. He's also been fighting with representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is the country's most revered religious leader, and SCIRI, his principle rival in the city.
After Hassan al-Jarrah, the sheikh of the Garamsha tribe that locals allege dominates a variety of criminal enterprises in the city, was gunned down by men in police uniform on May 15, his followers blamed Mr. Waili. They immediately sought their revenge. Dozens of them attacked a police station just outside town, and killed 10 officers.
Alarming for Iraq's stability, have been threats by some of the Fadillah Party's followers to damage Iraq's southern oil fields or cut off exports, which currently bring in about $70 million a day.
The party, a junior member of the Shiite Alliance that won Iraq's national elections and is led by SCIRI and Maliki's Dawa Party, had lobbied hard for control of the oil ministry, arguing that it deserved the position because of its strength in the oil-rich south.
But Fadillah was denied the post when the cabinet was named two weeks ago, and announced it was going into opposition, though the party still controls Basra's provincial council.
"It's a complete mess - there's a lot of money flowing through here and they think they deserve some it,'' says an official at the government's Southern Oil Company. "They are making threats, but I don't know if they have the ability to carry through."
This official also alleges that a lot of the city's government contracts are being steered to tribes that backed Waili for the governorship, and that other tribes that haven't been getting the business have been taking up arms.
He and other residents say the police force, too, is split, with some officers loyal to the governor, and others to the Mahdi Army or SCIRI. Dozens of police have been killed on Basra's streets in recent months - and in some cases, family members say other police officers carried out the killings.
"My cousin was killed because he opposed the way the police are being politicized and used by politicians,'' says a Basra resident, who says his cousin, police officer Munir Ali Cheloo, was murdered on Feb. 17. "We think it was Fadillah supporters but we can't prove it."
The Mahdi Army, for its part, though it feuds with its rivals, has mostly been focused on the British forces stationed in the city. British commanders allege that the militia has been planting roadside bombs targeting their patrols. When a British helicopter crashed in the city early last month, Mr. Sadr supporters gathered around the wreckage to chant out their glee and attacked British rescue teams moving to the scene.
For now, Prime Minister Maliki is vowing to restore order to the city, but the game plan to this point isn't clear, and the scope of the problem is vast, as he acknowledged.
"Since the security situation in this city is troubled it means [the] security services have so far been incompetent,'' he said Wednesday. "What do these assassinations and killings mean? What do these kidnappings mean? What is happening in this town, which has made immense sacrifices throughout history?"