US policymakers and senior Iraqi politicians alike agree that the most important precondition for ending the country's sectarian war is to defang the Sunni and Shiite militias.
But doing so means taking on Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, one of the country's largest and most powerful militias. Already, efforts to rein in Mr. Sadr's army have met fierce resistance and contributed to the rise in violence throughout the country this month.
Fighting in the past week indicates that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to disarm militias could be leading Iraq toward an intersectarian war between the Shiites in the government and the Shiites in the street.
Last week's battles in Amarah, capital of the southern Maysan Province, are emblematic of a widening Iraqi conflict to one where factions from the same sect vie for power.
Trouble there began with the assassination of Qassim al-Tamimi, a senior police officer in the city. He was part of the Badr Brigade, a militia loyal to the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) whose members have taken a larger role recently in the police forces there. Local SCIRI officials blamed the Mahdi Army and arrested five Sadrists.
That touched off a massive show of strength by the Sadr supporters, who overran police stations. Fighting followed leaving at least 30 dead. Though the city is now under government control, residents say it remains tense.
"It seems that the Americans and the Maliki government are more afraid of loyal Iraqis like us then they are of the terrorists who are undermining the country," says a Shiite cleric in Amarah who asked that his name not be used but is loyal to Sadr. "It looks like the government is working for American interests, and doesn't want to allow a strong Shiite government to emerge."
The cleric, in a phone interview, denied the movement has been involved in any assassinations and says its role is to protect citizens. "Who is going to stand between the terrorists and the people? The police have failed again and again. That's why we're here."
After the fighting, Maliki reached out to Sadr, sending his Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani to meet with the cleric in the religious city of Najaf. US officials were frustrated last week when Maliki ordered the release of five Sadr supporters, one a senior cleric, who the US had alleged were involved in sectarian death squads in Baghdad. Maliki said the release was to help find a political solution to Iraq's problems.
America's alliance with Maliki has been coming under strain on the basis of their different views of Sadr's movement. Senior US commanders in Baghdad consider Sadr one of the greatest threats to security and allege that he has been developing ties with Iran, though that's something officials in Sadr's movement deny.
The Mahdi Army has been among the most obstinate of militias, and the logic of Iraq's conflict for its combatants is that if all militias won't disarm, then no militias will disarm.
In 2004, then-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi thought he had agreement to disarm most of the country's militias in exchange for pledges of economic assistance to integrate them into the economy. But Sadr balked.
"Sadr wouldn't make the pledge. So the whole thing fell apart," says Wayne White of the Middle East Institute. "Well, at least technically, because we know it probably wouldn't have worked anyway."
Now, "what you're witnessing is the Iraqi political process, the election was an interesting exercise in propaganda and making people feel good, but this is the actual process," says Pat Lang, former head of the Middle East desk at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency.
Sadr, whose movement was founded by his father, a revered ayatollah who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein's regime, has die-hard loyalists across the center and south of the country. His power is grounded in the support of poor Shiites, who were treated as second class citizens under Mr. Hussein's regime.
Meanwhile, US officials sought to play-down a candid assessment of the security situation made by a senior US State Department official in an Arabic interview Saturday with Al Jazeera. Alberto Fernandez, director of public diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said the US had shown "arrogance" and "stupidity" in Iraq.
"Nothing I said ... broke new ground," the diplomat told CNN Sunday.
Mr. Fernandez referred to a speech made by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in March in Blackburn, England, in which she said: "I am quite certain there are going to be dissertations written about the mistakes of the Bush administration."
President Bush reviewed Iraq strategy with top war commanders and national security advisers on Friday and Saturday, but indicated little inclination for major changes to an increasingly divisive policy.