The Shiite-on-Shiite struggle for Iraq's economically important south has taken a violent turn.
Qadisiyah Province's governor was killed by a roadside bomb over the weekend, clashes in Basra Province killed at least three, and tensions are rising in Najaf as figures close to the senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have been targeted in a wave of assassinations.
"We are going to witness an escalation of this conflict ... the Shiites were never united, the question now is who's going to represent the Shiites," says Mustafa al-Ani, an analyst with the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.
The widening split among Shiites parallels the national Iraqi political fissures. On Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for meetings to begin Monday with the country's main political leaders to fix the national political paralysis.
Adnan al-Dulaimi, leader of the largest Sunni block in Parliament that withdrew from Maliki's government, told the Associated Press that Sunnis were being exposed to a "genocide campaign by the militias and death squads that are directed, armed, and supported by Iran." Mr. Dulaimi, leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front, asked for Arab countries to intervene to protect Sunnis.
As political infighting deepens nationwide, the US military fight against insurgents rages. On Saturday, five Americans were killed south of Baghdad, four in one roadside bombings. Those deaths raise the number of US military personnel killed in Iraq to at least 3,690 since March 2003.
On Saturday outside Diwaniyah, the provincial capital of Qadisiyah, Gov. Khalil Jalil and provincial police chief Maj. Gen. Khalid Hassan were killed, along with a driver and bodyguard, when their car was hit by a roadside bomb. They were returning from the funeral of a tribal leader in a neighboring town. As of press time Sunday, no one had claimed responsibility for the attack.
Anger over the killings met the governor's funeral cortege as it made its way through the city. Most Shiites refer to the mostly agricultural province by its old name, Diwaniyah; Qadisiyah was the name given to it by Saddam Hussein's regime.
During Mr. Hussein's rule, Mr. Jalil was one of the top operatives in the Badr Brigade, an antiregime paramilitary unit based in Iran. Although the Badr Brigade has since changed its name to Badr Organization and insists it is a political party, it is still widely believed to be the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), a leading Shiite religious party headed by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.
Like SIIC, many of Badr's top leaders now occupy high-ranking positions in the Iraqi government and across the predominantly Shiite mid-Euphrates and southern provinces.
Badr issued a statement Saturday calling Jalil "a holy fighter" and accusing "remnants of the Saddamist regime" of the crime. SIIC pointed the finger at the "gangs of aggression, dishonor and organized crime," in what may be a veiled reference to rogue elements of the Mahdi Army militia of rival Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Diwaniyah was the scene of fierce clashes in April between the US Army and Iraqi forces loyal to Badr and elements of the Mahdi Army. Mr. Sadr's office was attacked several times.
Adel al-Yassiri, an aide to Mr. Sadr in Najaf, denied any hand in the assassination of the governor and police chief and blamed the "enemies of Iraq who want to sow discord between Shiites ... the Saddamists and [US] occupation forces." He nonetheless said that Sadr has no control over those pretending to be with Sadr's movement. "Anybody can wear black, carry a poster of the sayed [Sadr], and pretend to be with the movement."
The US military has continuously charged that offshoots of the Mahdi Army, known as "Special Groups," receive explosives and training from neighboring Iran to kill US soldiers in Iraq.
Najaf, considered the equivalent of the Vatican for Shiites, is also on edge. At least four senior aides to Grand Ayatollah Sistani have either been shot or stabbed to death in the province since early July. The latest killing took place Thursday when Sistani aide Fadel al-Aqel was gunned down in the city.
Najaf government spokesman Ahmed al-Duaibel said the city was on alert but denied that the killings were politically motivated, instead he blames "terror or personal vendettas." Najaf's governor belongs to SIIC, the powerful party that enjoys close ties with Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq's most revered cleric.
All of this takes place at a time when SIIC has stepped up its controversial campaign to unify the nine provinces south of Baghdad into "the South of Baghdad Region" as part of an ambitious federalist project.
An example of the messy and complex struggles in the south took place recently in Qurnah, north of Basra, when gunmen from the Maliki tribal confederation battled members of the Fraijat tribe. The clashes, which lasted two days and left at least three people dead, according to security sources in Basra, erupted Friday when the son of tribal chieftain Sheikh Sabah al-Maliki was murdered.
Witnesses said that SIIC's offices in the Qurnah area and those of the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Maliki, who hails from the same tribe, were torched in the fighting.
A Basra-based university professor, who did not wish to be identified for security reasons, says Sheikh Sabah was tainted by his close relationship with Saddam Hussein.
As for the role of Iran, Dubai-based Mr. Ani says that although Tehran, which enjoys a very strong relationship with Badr and SIIC, would benefit from a region under their control, it knows this is not achievable in the short term. As a result, it's hedging its bets by backing several horses, Ani says. "Iran supports all groups, from small to large. They want to play on the divisions of Shiites and want to control all the strings."